Mercy Corps projects help Iraqis build a civil society
By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter
AL KUT, Iraq Since Pacific Northwest-based Mercy Corps opened an office here in April, the aid group has launched emergency relief and more than $9 million in school reconstruction, irrigation, road work, sewage treatment, health clinics, women's centers and social-service projects.
In the months ahead, the 200-person staff a mix of Iraqis and international recruits will undertake $5 million more in development work in three southern provinces.
All of the projects bankrolled through the U.S. Agency For International Development are selected through a grass-roots organizing process, which is intended to help build a civil society.
Under the auspices of this Community Action Program, Mercy Corps has held meetings across the three southern provinces to hear what people think are the most-urgent needs.
The staff also encourages locals to volunteer their time to build and operate the new facilities, as well as donate land or other assets.
The process can seem chaotic as people pack meeting halls to debate and at times argue and yell about what should be done.
And Mercy Corps' insistence that women have a say in decision-making can push the boundaries of cultural norms in a conservative Muslim society.
"You take these 14-year-old Shiite Muslim girls and get them thinking about citizenship, and this is really important if you are going to get people ready for electoral governance," said Margaret Larson, a Mercy Corps spokeswoman based in Seattle.
While the lion's share of U.S. aid is being spent on big-dollar construction projects, during the first nine months of last year the Community Action Program garnered $70 million in funding for five nonprofit groups.
For the next two years, that funding will be cut to $50 million in a U.S. aid package that totals more than $18 billion.
"The administration clearly wants to build a lot of 'bricks-and-mortar projects,' things that you can point to," said Nancy Lindborg, a Mercy Corps staffer in Washington, D.C.
"But it's hard to build democracy without really engaging people in the decision-making."
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company
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