Aid workers in Libya ponder future role in oil-rich country
Seattle Pacific University graduates Anna Knutzen and Stephen Allen joined a Mercy Corps effort to help civilians in Libya caught up in the fighting there. Now, they and other Mercy Corps staffers are refocusing on helping resolve conflicts and supporting nonprofit groups that watchdog the new government, advocate for women and tackle other social issues in the new Libya.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Through the turbulent months of the Libyan revolution, Anna Knutzen and her husband, Stephen Allen, joined in a Mercy Corps effort to help civilians caught up in the fighting.
From an office based in the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi, the young couple — both 2005 graduates from Seattle Pacific University — organized the distribution of blankets, diapers, hygiene kits, kitchen utensils and other aid.
Then, in August, Moammar Gadhafi was toppled, and the rebels morphed into a fledgling government backed by formidable oil resources. Under Gadhafi's rule, that petroleum money had helped boost most of the 6.6 million Libyans into the middle class while immigrant laborers took on menial jobs such as dishwashing or janitorial work.
So for the two 28-year-old aid workers, a question quickly emerged: In a nation endowed with so much oil wealth, what kind of role should Mercy Corps play in the postwar era?
"It's a well-developed, albeit oddly developed country," said Knutzen, who returned to the Pacific Northwest with her husband for a late-December break. "Seventy-five percent of Libyans are on the government payroll, and a fair number still had salaries coming even during the revolution."
Knutzen and Allen arrived in Libya in late May and went to work at Mercy Corps' office in Benghazi. By December, the Portland-based aid organization's operation there had grown to a 30-person staff with an annual budget of just over $1 million.
Knutzen and her husband plan to return to Libya with an agenda focused on helping resolve conflicts that continue to fracture this desert nation. Mercy Corps also will support nonprofit groups that can help provide watchdog oversight of the government bureaucracy, advocate for women and take on other issues in the new Libya.
Collectively, this work is known as building "civil society." In recent years it has become an integral part of the aid work undertaken by Mercy Corps and many other international organizations in the Middle East and North Africa. These efforts have taken on added importance in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings that reflected pent-up societal tensions.
"In the Arab world, our focus will be on building support for civil society, for sure," said Craig Redmond, a senior vice president for Mercy Corps programs. "I would say hopefully in five to 10 years from now, they wouldn't need our inputs."
In Iraq, Mercy Corps has operated a program for five years that teaches local leaders a range of conflict-resolution skills and supports their efforts back in their communities. One of the senior Iraqi staff members, visiting Benghazi in July, helped develop a plan for a similar program in Libya.
The town of Tawergha, for example, was a Gadhafi stronghold, and the entire population since has been rousted from its homes by angry backers of the revolution. Mercy Corps hopes to support a mediation effort to help find some common ground and perhaps allow people to return.
"We would bring together leaders identified by the communities for a series of intensive workshops where these negotiation skills are discussed," said Allen. "In Iraq, this approach was quite successful, and we hope to do this nationwide in Libya."
All this is a big change from the days of the Gadhafi regime's one-party rule, when the government placed severe restrictions on all independent groups. Demonstrations were banned, and a 2009 law required anyone wishing to hold a meeting or seminar to obtain a 30-day approval from a government committee, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Human Rights Watch also has been critical of the National Transitional Council that now holds power, and has called for the revocation of Gadhafi-era laws that allow critics of the government to be prosecuted.
But the new Libyan government has declared a right to free speech and offered grant money to help fund new nonprofit organizations.
Now, the question is whether such groups will carve out new roles as independent organizations.
In Benghazi, Mercy Corps opened a resource center that serves as a kind of incubator for nonprofits, offering Internet stations, work space, a library and other resources for activists.
Many of the new nonprofits are composed of younger Libyans whose protests help spark the uprising, and whose fighting helped bring down the Gadhafi regime. They now are looking for new ways of being involved in remaking the nation.
"There is just such a hunger for partnerships, where people are asking questions after such a long time of being insulated from outside organizations," Knutzen said. "So for Mercy Corps, I think it's a great opportunity."
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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