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Rebuilding Iraq needs no interference from politically meddlesome NGOs

By Don D'Cruz - posted Monday, 28 April 2003

French statesman Georges Clemenceau once said "war was too important to be left to the generals".

In a similar vein, development aid in Iraq is too important to be left to the foreign aid non-government organisations.The most pressing short-term task is to get basic infrastructure systems, including electricity, water, hospitals and police system, running again. Aside from the Iraqis, this is best done by organisations that build and run such systems - commercial private contractors. Foreign aid NGOs have little to contribute.

Iraq also has little need for Western aid workers. It is no East Timor. It has a large indigenous pool of skilled people on which to draw. An influx of well-paid aid workers will only breed resentment when there are many Iraqis capable of performing such duties.
The long-term task is to help the Iraqis establish an open, democratic, constitutional, federal political system based on the rule of law and religious tolerance as part of the global capitalist system. In short, we need to help them develop a political system similar to ours.


This won't be easy, given that the Middle East is a region of dictators, with only one real democracy (Israel). Perversely, this is the country in that part of the world that Australian foreign aid NGOs dislike the most. For example, the so-called regional fact-finding report and public education campaign of Union Aid Abroad-Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad, the ACTU's overseas aid organisation, are little more than Israel bashing.

Foreign aid NGOs have little to offer and a great capacity to do harm.

When Prime Minister John Howard recently met Megawati Sukarnoputri, he was keen for assurances that Indonesia did not regard Australia as anti-Islamic over its stance in Iraq. The Indonesian President's primary concern, however, lay with the actions of Australian aid NGOs and their active support for separatist movements in Indonesia.

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is a case in point. Its annual report states that although acting as an Australian-funded aid NGO in Indonesia, the West Bank and Gaza, it "campaigns in support of independence in West Papua [and] Palestine".

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is not alone. Oxfam Community Aid Abroad has a history of playing politics while acting as a foreign aid agency. Years ago it was given a choice by the Indonesian government to choose between delivering aid and political activism. It chose the latter. As a result, it was persona non grata in Indonesia for the best part of a decade. What this reveals is that OCAA regards political activism as its core function, not delivering aid.

OCAA's political activities have not been confined to Indonesia. OCAA has had links with a long list of insurgent groups, including the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.


Foreign aid NGOs have come to be preferred deliverers of aid on the claims that they are cost-effective, have links with "civil society" and are effective in mobilising money and people. All these claims are at best questionable, particularly in Iraq.

Arguments about cost-efficiency are irrelevant when foreign aid NGOs contracted by government go out and become involved in politics, contrary to the wishes and interests of the Australian Government.

The sector's near unanimous condemnation of the recent liberation of Iraq illustrates its lack of links with Iraqi civil society and reveals that its understanding of the aspirations of the Iraqi people is weak and distorted.

Money is not a long-term problem for Iraq. It would be one of the richest countries if not for Saddam Hussein. All that needs to be done is to get the oil flowing with the assistance of private contractors and to ensure that the payments are used to help rebuild Iraq rather than repay Hussein's debts to his Russian and French arm suppliers. It does not need the foreign aid NGOs' money.

Post-Hussein Iraq will be a fragile and volatile political environment. It does not need Western political activists pushing Western activist agendas and getting involved in Iraqi politics.

If the behaviour of foreign aid NGOs in Indonesia is any guide, it is not in Australia's or Iraq's national interest to have them involved in rebuilding Iraq.

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About the Author

Don D'Cruz's area of expertise is researching non-government organisations. His particular areas of interest are their governance, finances, organisational structure and strategy and tactics.

Other articles by this Author

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Institute of Public Affairs
Oxfam Community Aid Abroad
Oxfam Community Aid Abroad responds
War in Iraq Policy Brief
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