Q&A: How USAID is responding to Iraq's violent crackdown

A makeshift memorial with personal belongings of those who were killed during anti-government at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo by: REUTERS / Khalid al-Mousily

ERBIL, Iraq — Hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in Iraq since October to demand better government services, decry corruption, and push for a new political system. While Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation, the primary response has been a brutal crackdown, with an estimated 460 people killed, and more than 17,000 wounded.

In the past year, the U.S. Agency for International Development has withdrawn a large portion of its staff from Iraq, despite continuing to manage more than $1 billion of programming in the country.

This week, USAID hosted a conference in the northern city of Erbil — located within the Kurdish region of Iraq — focused on driving private investment back to places devastated by the Islamic State. USAID has invested roughly $400 million in the Nineveh region of Iraq, agency officials said at the conference, in part to support the Trump administration’s high priority of supporting religious minorities in the country.

“The only way to really get it [Iraq] back and get it moving is through the private sector.”

— Dana Mansuri, Iraq mission director, USAID

Devex spoke to Dana Mansuri, USAID Iraq mission director, at the conference, about how the agency’s strategy in Iraq is evolving in areas liberated from ISIS — and what role USAID can play in a country where protesting government corruption can be deadly.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How much of a focus is the private sector in comparison to the humanitarian and stabilization assistance USAID is providing to Iraq?

It's evolving. The very first assistance that went in, obviously, was the humanitarian assistance, after the defeat of — well, it wasn't really the defeat of ISIS, we know that.

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The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is part of USAID, came in and started providing humanitarian assistance. As areas were liberated, we wanted to follow that with stabilization programming, because services need to be restored. So we funded that through the United Nations’ Funding Facility for Stabilization ... and multiple donors put money into that, although we're the largest donor.

Stabilization has been going on for the last two, three years, and now it's starting to wind up. We're hoping there will be a little bit of a follow on because there's still work to be done.

We just put $100 million into Anbar [Province], which has not been as safe an area to work, but now it seems to be calming down and opening up. So as the U.N. goes in and [the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives] goes in, we're hoping that we'll be looking at investors for that area as well. The south is another very problematic area where we're trying to figure out how we can work safely. We've had programming in the past, but right now things are pretty dicey.

So in addition to the stabilization [and] humanitarian [funding], we have this part of the programing that is basically about governance. It's fighting corruption. It's building institutions. It's been the third piece of our programs, but it's been smaller.

Now that humanitarian assistance will be starting to wind up over the next year and things move more into just stabilization, we'll be able to grow our programing in private sector investment and continue what we're doing on institution-building with the ministry of finance, both in the [Kurdistan Regional Government] and in Baghdad — trying to help there be, for example, open and transparent bidding for small businesses to bid on government contracts.

We put in a whole system to standardize the bid documents to make it easy, and it's online. Everyone can see who's bidding and how it's being handled, so it's much more transparent. And the government is running more and more of its large contracts through that process. So it's really exciting.

So this is a bit of a moment then, when you're seeing the opportunity to wind down the humanitarian piece, and scale up some of the more private sector focused development work.

Yes, and that's where the money is. USAID — we're a drop in the bucket compared to the needs in this country, and the only way to really get it back and get it moving is through the private sector.

How do you make that pivot at a time when the population is deeply incensed with their government for not doing a lot of the things that are fundamentally necessary to do in order to see that kind of private sector growth?

It's been coming. And I think that while we make two steps forward in headway in some areas like the government contracting, there is a massive bureaucracy that needs to be dealt with. The government needs to — actually they have everything they need.

We've told them what you need to do to open the private sector to make all of these reforms. They need the political will and they need the stability now to be able to do it. I don't think we should stop. I think our ambassador would completely agree. We keep moving forward while they try to figure it out.

I'm hoping that out of these protests will come a better commitment from the government, however it winds up, to make the fundamental changes that they need to make. Some of that is happening now because of this pressure — changes to the electoral law and so on. We need to push them to make it more than just cosmetic.

“Iraq is key to this region and the stability of this region. I don't see how we could not want it to be a stable, sovereign country that is successful.”

And how can USAID push them? What do you consider the agency's role to be in this equation?

These are actually things that we have been working with them on for the past year or so. We have embedded advisers that are experts — some are Iraqi, some are from other countries — that actually sit in the prime minister's economic reform unit and sit in the Ministry of Finance …

They listen. They want to make the changes, but they have an entire bureaucracy and a lot of politics that go on, and corruption as well. But the baby steps are helping, and I'm optimistic that it can happen if they start listening to the protesters. They have the means. They know what needs to be done. They’ve just got to figure it out, and they have to push back and say "no" to those influencers or corrupt officials that don't want to make the change.

This would seem like a bit of a delicate situation for USAID to find itself in, because on one hand you're working with the government to improve itself, to be more accountable, but on the other hand, it's a government that is violently cracking down on the protesters that you're talking about. How do you continue to push for change within the system without being associated with the problem?

It is a problem, and the ambassador, and the embassy, and everyone in our government delivers that message every single day to not crackdown on the protesters. We're very worried about it, and we're watching it closely. At the levels that we're working at, these are the people that actually do the work, not necessarily at the political level.

We're with the institution that's going to be there regardless, so that's where we have to make the changes — building the institution up — but the rest of it is going to be on the people in the government to figure it out.

What has been the message that you've received from the Trump administration about where their priorities lie for Iraq, considering that President Trump appears very skeptical of open-ended commitments to other countries?

Iraq is key to this region and the stability of this region. I don't see how we could not want it to be a stable, sovereign country that is successful.

When you see how much disruption there has been throughout the area — if it goes, it's just going to continue to propagate. I admit that the actions and the policy don't always meet up, and that has been a point of frustration, I think, for everyone. But what it is, I think, is a fear of taking risk because of what has happened in the past in places like Benghazi. So the administration is extremely cautious.

They don't want to see any more Americans killed or terrible things happening, but at the same time they know we need to be here and we need to be out and about in order to do the business. So it's a constant tug of war with them. Yes, you want us to do this. You're giving me the money to do this. Give me the people, and let me get out and do it. And they have to get over that fear.

I understand USAID’s footprint in the country has been reduced.

Everyone's footprint was reduced ... They were very concerned about possible instability. Now we have these protests going on … I think that if we get through this moment with the protests over the next couple of months, there'll be an appetite to start letting more people come back. It's already loosened up a little bit. I have more people now than I did three months ago.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.