Learning to be citizens

March 14, 2004

THERE IS A SMALL program in Iraq that has shown the potential to do a lot of good. A group of nonprofit agencies is using $70 million in U.S. aid money to organize local communities to decide for themselves what sort of small-scale reconstruction work they want done - and then they do it. The program is a modest but promising step toward building a civil society in a country that has never had one. The Bush administration wants to choke it off.

That $70 million - for what's officially called the Community Action Program - comes out of nearly $2 billion that the U.S. Agency for International Development is spending this year in Iraq, and that's out of $18 billion in total reconstruction aid, most of which is funneled through the Pentagon.

It's next to nothing compared with what the heavy hitters get: One company, Bechtel, has garnered more than $1.2 billion in aid money. The amount Halliburton has been accused of overcharging for gasoline is only a few million dollars less than the Community Action Program's funding.

But this is an administration that simply doesn't like nongovernmental organizations. The current plan is to cut next year's allotment for the community program to $45 million. One of the participating groups, Catholic Relief Services, of Baltimore, says that will make the program so small that it won't be worth continuing.

Catholic Relief is in a partnership with the Save the Children Foundation to run the program in the southernmost sector of Iraq - one of the quietest, in terms of unrest. This was a region that was ruthlessly neglected by Saddam Hussein's regime, and the newly organized community groups have been enthusiastic about the chance to refurbish schools or repair broken water systems. The local people have to contribute up to 25 percent of the cost of each project.

Anna Schowengerdt, the emergency coordinator for the Catholic Relief program, says the whole idea is that these groups would not eventually transform into governing councils but would form a nucleus of civic organizations outside local government. "That country needs PTAs," she exclaims.

This is the way to transform Iraqi society - so that it will someday be safe for American troops to leave. Yet the Bush administration is much more comfortable with big, Bechtel-style bricks-and-mortar projects than it is with community organizing. Nongovernment groups are seen as unreliable. In Iraq, they've been told to consider themselves agents of the U.S. government - which has a certain logic to it, since the government foots the bill, but which leaves them far more vulnerable to attack by those resisting the American occupation.

Halliburton has shown that the for-profit private sector leaves much to be desired. Rather than cutting off the Community Action Program, the Bush administration should expand it - and show that it cares about helping Iraqis build a better society for themselves. Wouldn't that be an inspiring legacy?

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