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Aaron Williams speaks on public sector consultation on local governance in Iraq

Aaron Williams speaks on public sector consultation on local governance in Iraq

"I want to talk to you about what I saw on my most recent trip to Iraq. I was there for about a month. I just returned September 12th from Iraq, and I visited 10 cities while I was there and had a chance to really see on the ground the role that the Iraqis have taken in providing leadership in this transformation. And then, secondly, the other theme I wanted to touch on today is the role that USAID and this program, how AID is making a difference in terms of the transformation that's taking place in Iraq. Well, the first thing, of course, I wanted to start out with is just to give you an idea of what our specific objective is. This is the objective that AIDS is the focus on when we were awarded this contract. And, obviously, we're talking about strengthening the local government and civil society organizations. I want to make sure that they're able to respond to the broad range of issues in governance at the local level. Service delivery is obviously very important, and also is crucial to make sure that there is room for Iraqi citizens to participate in the local administration." President Obama named RPCV Aaron Williams the Director of the Peace Corps on July 14, 2009.

Aaron Williams speaks on public sector consultation on local governance in Iraq

Transcript: Local Governance Consultation

Iraq Sectoral Conferences - Third Series

September 30, 2003

Thank you, Dana. It's good to be here with you today to talk about this exciting and important, challenging program that we're involved in in Iraq working on behalf of USAID and the CPA, and, of course, the people of Iraq.

Today I wanted to use this opportunity to talk to you about two aspects of the work that we've been involved in in Iraq, but, more importantly, and talk to you about what we have seen on the ground in Iraq in terms of the role that the Iraqi people are taking in coming to grips with this new challenging democratic transformation.

First of all, I want to talk to you about what I saw on my most recent trip to Iraq. I was there for about a month. I just returned September 12th from Iraq, and I visited 10 cities while I was there and had a chance to really see on the ground the role that the Iraqis have taken in providing leadership in this transformation.

And then, secondly, the other theme I wanted to touch on today is the role that USAID and this program, how AID is making a difference in terms of the transformation that's taking place in Iraq. Well, the first thing, of course, I wanted to start out with is just to give you an idea of what our specific objective is. This is the objective that AIDS is the focus on when we were awarded this contract. And, obviously, we're talking about strengthening the local government and civil society organizations. I want to make sure that they're able to respond to the broad range of issues in governance at the local level. Service delivery is obviously very important, and also is crucial to make sure that there is room for Iraqi citizens to participate in the local administration.

When you talk about our program with USAID, it's very important to structure the results, framework, or how we looked at it and the objectives. And we have a chart here that talks about our expected results. This graphic talks about the four objective areas: the restoration of basic services in terms of the local government; effective and efficient local administration services; making sure that local governance is seen to be transparent and it offers a room for participation by citizens and citizen groups; and, of course, to try to strengthen and develop effective civil society organizations so they can play a role in the debate regarding democracy in Iraq.

In terms of my perspective for Iraq, it was very interesting. This is my second trip that I've taken into Iraq. My first trip was when we started our contract. I have a company my colleague runs, Johnson, who will be speaking to you a little bit later on during the Q and A session. And what I saw this time in Iraq was dramatically different from what we saw when we first went out to Iraq in April. And I guess the major difference, as I would characterize it, is the fact that everywhere you go--Iraqis in local government, Iraqis working in civil society organizations and associations and nurses, lawyers, doctors, teachers--they're coming together to demonstrate what's important to them in reshaping their lives now that they have this opportunity to create a new democratic country.

So, for example, we see in Iraqis helping to create and use new representative institutions to control their own lives. We see Iraqis stepping forward to manage the services in their municipalities, setting priorities, determining how resources should be allocated. We see Iraqis nongovernmental groups coming together to make sure that the people who are providing these services, the local governance, the interim councils that are now managing the towns and cities of Iraq, that they understand what local citizens believe to be important.

If you look at this one by one--I wanted to walk through these three different aspects of what we see in terms of the Iraqi response to this incredible opportunity that's been presented to them--we see city councils and neighborhood councils in Baghdad and other cities and towns around Iraq. They're really taking on the tough, tough issues. I think one of the interesting stories that Iran told me about was the fact that at one point down in Baghdad the former city police commissioner of New York City was there with the new head of the police department in Baghdad. And so they made a presentation about what they were going to do in terms of more effective and responsive policing in Baghdad. After they made their presentation, people stood up in the audience there in Baghdad, and they provided their views and some criticism in terms of what they saw in policing. And we thought that was just an incredible demonstration of the new democracy in Iraq. How many--when do you think was the last time that someone could stand up in front of the chief of police of Baghdad and actually express their opinion in an open and free manner?

So you see more and more of that on lots of wide-ranging issues taking place in Iraq. I spent about a week and a half in Kirkuk in the north and spent a lot of time working with the local council there and talking to the various committees that form part of that council, and in each and every case, whether we're talking about displaced persons or talking about agricultural production, water--restoring water services, sewage, garbage, all of those things people came to the forefront and demonstrated that they were interested, were prepared to take a leadership role, and wanted to put in a role in how this whole thing was being governed.

One of the things I also noticed in Kirkuk, and also something that we've seen in the Mosul area, is that many, many civil society groups are stepping forward to offer their views on how to deal with the ethnic and religious issues that come up. As you probably know, those of you that have been following and know something about Iraq, Kirkuk, is one of the most diverse from an ethnic standpoint in Iraq. You've got Kurds, Arabs, Syrians, and Turkomans, and it's important for all aspects of that society to come together to try to deal with the issues that they face. And we see more and more signs of that.

Another very interesting example I think of how these neighborhood councils have come together in Baghdad, you might remember about three or four months ago, I think, there was an incident where, apparently, a U.S. military helicopter, the backwash of the helicopter as it was flying over Sauder City in Baghdad, they knocked down a religious flag in a Shiite area. And this, of course, created a lot of tension, people were very angry. There was a need to figure out a way to diffuse this, and so both military officials, the people in the community, they turned to the neighborhood councils that had been established as part of this local governance work in Iraq. And these, the people, members of the neighborhood council stepped forward, they spoke to the military authorities, talked to the people on the ground, they talked to the community leaders, and they were able to diffuse the situation and work out a reasonable situation so that people went back to their homes. There was no further demonstrations. It really arrived at a peaceful solution, as we see in many different countries where democracy works. So we think we see tangible signs of things really changing in Iraq.

What about in terms of actually providing services to the Iraqi people? If you look at what's going on in some of the cities, for example Bosra. In Bosra, there's been a significant amount of repair done in terms of water systems, electrical systems, and restoration of sewage operations. In each and every case, our people, our teams on the ground in Basra, would tell us that these are the priorities that were established by the Iraqi leaders of both the heads of the municipal departments and also the local groups that were concerned about services in their communities, Iraqis taking command in charge of this.

In Najaf, we had groups came to us both municipal department heads and also local community organizations that we really need to repair the fire department and the fire stations in Najaf. As you can imagine, with the temperatures being what they are in Iraq and the chances for fires to destroy major parts of the city, let alone a major city like Najaf, which is an important city in terms of the Shia religion, it was important to take steps to do that. And again this is Iraqis setting the tone.

In Kirkuk, I had a number of discussions with local council there, the governor and his various committees, and the military authorities, the CPA authorities, and civil society organizations looking for ways to rehab the municipal building so they could have a decent place to come together and see how governance actually takes place. We're going to be restoring--well, actually, building a city council auditorium for the first time in Kirkuk that's going to encourage a broad citizen participation in that effort.

Another example in terms of service in Kirkuk, because of the high levels of unemployment, it was felt by the various participants in Kirkuk society, both government and on the civil side, there was a need to create a job center. And so the people told us what they needed. We were able to provide resources to support that, but again it was the Iraqis taking the lead to determine how a new employment service center could help them identify potential workers and channel this into a way that could be manageable and also tying into any future initiatives that would happen in Iraq in terms of national job creation.

In Al Hillah-Babel region, historically, whenever the rains come, there is flooding, especially in the poorer areas. And no one had ever come to grips with how to deal with this. Obviously, under Saddam's regime, this being a Shia region, there was no interest in doing anything about it. So most of the poorer neighborhoods during the rainy season suffer from this tremendous flooding.

We heard about this from the fellow who was in charge of the sewer and the water system in that part of the city, and he said with some really simple basic repairs, it wouldn't cost a lot of money, we could change this and change the lives for thousands of people in this area. And so we took a look at it, we worked with him, and now we're in the process of trying to make a difference in terms of saving people from this ongoing flooding that occurs during the rainy season in the Hillah-Babel region.

So these are just some examples of the things that we've seen on the ground where Iraqis are stepping forward, technically, in identifying their priorities and trying to look for resources and ways to make a difference in their lives.

The other thing that's important, kind of the third aspect of the third leg of the stool, if you will, in terms of governances, of course, civil society. In the case of civil society we have reached out and we have found ways to work with organizations that had been excluded in the past. For example, we're working with the Association of Disabled Veterans in Basra trying to come up with a--we're trying to develop a community center where they can come together for therapy, for treatment, for recreation, and social activities. They sought us out, initially, and said we're a group that you might not have heard about. We're not a typical NGO or CSO, but we believe that we have needs that need to be attended to. And the veterans that we're talking about, by the way, are primarily veterans of wars against Iran, the Iraq-Iranian wars.

In Kirkuk, we have come in contact with the Organization for a Civil Society, which is trying to develop ways of strengthening civil society organizations throughout Iraq starting out in the north, and it's another interesting situation where local organizations in the society in Iraq, they're trying to figure out, how can we grow? How can we design projects? How can we reach out to donor organizations? How can we interact with different parts of our society? And again, we're providing--we'll have a dialogue with these organizations as they move forward.

I think the thing that strikes me the most about this as you look at working with these various groups is the fact that there's innovative leadership, they haven't had the experience or the ability to reach out before and work with various groups across ethnic lines in Iraq because of the oppression of Saddam's regime. But now they have this opportunity, and they're looking for ways to work with various groups that are available in Iraq now providing those kinds of resources.

One of the interesting things we've seen in Baghdad, for example, is the Kurdish groups in Baghdad, of course, have been greatly oppressed, but now there's a Kurdish women's group that we're working with that has asked us to help them develop a primary health clinic in a Kurdish area in Baghdad.

In Mosul, the nurses are organizing themselves. They want to have a professional modern nursing association that can look to improving the prospective that one has of the nursing profession, but also providing in-service training and giving them representation in the new democratic Iraq. Wherever you go, you'll see signs more and more of this. And I guess the other thing that's noteworthy in terms of what I saw when I was in Iraq on my last visit is the fact that women's groups are very much in the forefront in many different parts of Iraq in raising their voices and wanting to be heard and participating in the dialogue regarding civil society and local governance.

Hopefully, I've given you a couple of ideas of some of the things that we see happening in terms of what the Iraqis are doing to seize the moment and to move forward and embrace this opening for democracy in Iraq. The other side of the coin, of course, is what, exactly is USAID and the local government project doing to support this--this opening that the Iraqis have and the fact that Iraqis are assuming leadership and developing different types of activities.

We'd like to think that the local governance project is really two sides of the same coin. First of all, we're looking at government and strengthening government processes, transparency, open government, at the same time encouraging those institutions and systems that can enable citizens to elect, select their political leadership and hold them accountable. And we think those things are coming together under this project.

Let me first of all tell you a little bit about the characteristics, as we view the local government program. Right now we are deployed in 16 of the 18 governorates; we have approximately 120 international staff deployed in country, and I use the term "international staff" because we have a very diverse work force. We have people from the United States, from Europe, from the Middle East. We have a number of Iraqi Americans. We have people who have expertise in governance in many different parts of the world, all who are very eager and highly motivated to try to take advantage of this historic undertaking in Iraq.

We also have, approximately, at this point in time 265 Iraqi employees, most in professional positions, and we are rapidly hiring more and more Iraqis every day. It's important for us, of course, to incorporate as many of the local citizens in the work that we do. There's a tremendously talented work force in Iraq that we've been able to tap. I was really struck by the talent and the enthusiasm of the Iraqi staff that I found in the 10 cities that I visited. They are really in the forefront of moving forward and supporting the efforts of this project.

The other thing that I wanted to mention is that about 30 percent of our international staff have hands-on experience. They have managed cities; they have been city administrators; they have been department heads of various municipal departments managing utilities. One very good example is when I went to Kirkuk about three or four weeks ago, traveling with me was a new staff member. He's a Kurdish American. He hadn't been to Kirkuk in 23 years. He never thought he'd ever have a chance to go back and work in his hometown. He's--he runs the Public Services Department in Mesa, California. He has 23 years--20-something years of experience working in city management. He arrived there, the local council, the military authorities, the CPA officials were delighted to have a person of his experience, of his stature, or his perception, someone who speaks the four languages available to work in Kirkuk. So he's off to a tremendous start, and we're very lucky that we were able to recruit a person of that stature, with that level of excitement and that level of understanding about that part of Iraq to work in Iraq.

In terms of the project activities, we look at the project in, basically, four aspects. And again, this relates back to the strategic framework that we talked about earlier on in that first graphic that I showed you. First of all, we are working with Iraqis to identify priorities and provide technical and financial resources for the restorations of basic services. I sat down with the Kirkuk council, I met with the public works committee, and they told me of their 10 top priorities, the things you would expect--electricity, water, garbage collection, things that they believe need to be improved in Kirkuk, things that had been neglected under Saddam's regime for many, many years. And they had very interesting ideas as to how to go about doing that. And so we were very able, very quickly able to work with the military authorities, with CPA, with OT, as a matter of fact, in a couple of different instances to provide resources to support those ideas in terms of restoring those basic services in that city.

In terms of forming neighborhood councils under our LPG Activity II, we found it quite fertile ground, actually. I think back to when Ron first went to Baghdad back in April--or I guess in early May--to work with the authorities there to set up the first neighborhood councils, and now that work which Ron started out working with one of our really outstanding professionals, Dr. Amal Rassam, a distinguished Iraqi American, has led, has resulted in 88 neighborhood councils being set up now in the Baghdad area, that's also led to representatives being selected for the district councils and members of the district councils have now ended up being in the Baghdad City Council.

The work that they did there was extraordinary. It started out with a mile and run (ph) going out and identifying the natural leaders in those 88 neighborhoods, asking them what they thought were the key ideas that needed to be considered in terms of organizing the neighborhoods, what were the key issues, what things concerned them, asking them to bring more and more people together to these town meetings, if you would, these neighborhood meetings, and ending up with a very productive dialogue that led to the formation of these neighborhood councils, and the neighborhood councils are now the focal point for interacting with the various authorities and the advisory councils that govern Baghdad. It's a major step forward, the first time that Baghdad has been organized that way, and a tremendous amount of work has been done by our team working with USAID, the CPA, and the military authorities.

We've also had a chance to work with people on Fritz's team in Baghdad working very closely with OTI, and I know Fritz is going to talk about some of those examples later on.

About two weeks ago--about a week ago, there was a very interesting conference held in Hillah, in the central part of Hillah near Babylon. We were looking for ways to bring together the department heads and the municipal leaders in about, oh, I guess about five or six different provinces, governorates. We had about 75 people. We brought them together to talk about forming or carrying out a workshop that would provide them for the first time ever in Iraq with the opportunity to learn about modern budgeting and financial planning in a municipal setting in a governorate setting. The first time in Iraq's history that many people came together to talk about, how can we put together a modern budget? How can we create the basis for governance in the New Iraq? It was very successful. It's been highly praised by the CPA, Ambassador Bremer has been fully briefed on this, and because of that, they are now poised to, with the blueprint for participating in the budgeting process in the future as we move forward in that overall effort in Iraq. It's really quite an event, and we receive a lot of very, very positive publicity in the Iraqi newspapers and Iraqi radio, television. et cetera.

So I think we have seen a number of different incidents where we've been able to move forward and support this new assertiveness on the part of the Iraqi leadership and Iraqi civil society leaders to make a difference in Iraq.

The last element of this beyond just working with government officials and working with the advisory councils, et cetera, is, of course, civil society. I wanted to close out with that point, because civil society is the essence of having responsive government. You have to have citizens who are engaged, who are aware, who understand what needs to be done in their societies. And we've been very successful in working with as number of civil society organizations. I've mentioned a few of them in my remarks earlier, but I think that we've seen in the case of conflict resolution in the case of women's rights, women's issues, and in the case of looking at how can democracy work more effectively. We've had great success in working with the CPA, with Iraqis, with the military authorities, and other donor organizations to make a difference. Just one example that strikes me as that, about a week ago we had a conference in Karbala.

We brought together a number of women's organizations to talk about democracy in that part of Iraq, and democracy in the greater Iraq, also. And they had, as you can imagine, they had a number of major concerns about women's role in the New Iraq. They were concerned about education, they're concerned about just local governments in general, and the roles that their organizations, as a strong civil society organization, can play in making a difference in Iraq. All of that came together in a conference. The conference is going to lead to follow-up work. We will continue to work with the groups that came to the conference, and we're looking for more opportunities to do that.

It's been a very, very exciting, challenging, and satisfying adventure for us, those of us who work on the local government projects in Iraq. Ron has been out there twice now. I've been there twice, and Ron's probably on his way back in another month or so. We try to keep our hand in the game, so to speak so we know what's going on in the ground, and it's made a big difference in terms of how we've been able to interact with Iraqis on the street as a look of ways to change the new democratic face of Iraq.

Thank you. The last slide, by the way, is where we are deployed now in Iraq.

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