April 03, 2009

You Never Thank Me

One of the greatest virtues is the ability to feel genuine gratitude and the reverse is one of the most pernicious faults.   Of course, gratitude and generosity are complicated human emotions, intimately tied up with status, responsibility, guilt … in short almost everything.  

New York Av Presbyterian Church in Washington DC on March 3, 2009 

There are valid reasons not be grateful.  Generosity is often a status seeking activity.   The giver is asserting his dominance over the receiver and often trying to influence his behavior.    That is why generosity on a large scale is tricky.   Those too often on the recipient side, may come to resent and even hate their benefactors.    I read that this is even true for other primates; lower status group members are alternatively obsequious and demanding. 

Tree with lots of burls in Franklin Square in Washington DC on March 4, 2009Constantly being the one-way object of generosity is shameful if not put into the proper context of reciprocity.  In order not to be shamed, the recipient needs to believe that he will be returning some form of compensation now or in the future or that he is entitled to the largess through a legitimate social relationship.   Good families are like that and so are good friends.    Parent/child relationships are very uneven, but there is significant reciprocity and expectations of continued relationships.  

Friendships can break up when one becomes unwilling or unable to reciprocate. For example, drinking buddies usually do not keep careful score about who buys the beer, but they will notice if one of the group always keeps his hands in his pockets when his turn comes.  In long-established relationships, friends will cut each other considerable slack, but eventually the non-buyer will begin to be the object of some ridicule and will probably drift away.  Of course, if he owns a pickup truck and helps everybody move it might be a different story. Reciprocity need not be exact and it need not be immediate, but the expectation is there.  It goes the way too.  Everybody loves the big spender – at first.  But soon real friends drop away, replaced by free-loaders. 

This generosity thing is harder than it seems.

Old fashioned walk signs are becoming less common.

Generosity in the expectation of behavior is one of the hardest to understand, since both sides are often confused by the expectations.   Let’s leave aside the obvious mating rituals and take an example where the donor thinks he is being altruistic.  If I give money to a drunk, I might expect that he will try to become sober.   If I give to a mother, I expect she will help her kids and generally when I help anybody out, I expect that they will show their gratitude by helping someone else in the future, a kind of pay it forward scenario.   In all those cases, I feel perfectly justified in my expectations, but my experience in all those situations tells me that I may be the only one in the transaction who feels that way.  The recipients think you are trying to run their lives and that you think you are better than they are … and they are right.  You are implicitly telling them that you know better.   

In these cases, the recipients bear a bigger share of the blame.  They should feel grateful and at least attempt to live up to the good expectations.  But the donors need to be flexible too.  The fact that the recipients have not yet taken the needed action up till now says something.

The best “charity” is the kind that makes the recipient a valued member of society and allows him to pull his own weight.   That is the charity of mutual respect.   But it is hard to do.  In the short run, it seems insensitive and even in the long run you may not get credit for your generosity, which is what many people really want.  But it works.

I admit that I don’t always do this. There are a few bums around some places I go who I just kind of like. I don’t expect them ever to improve.  I give them money. I suppose there is a bit of reciprocity, since we sometimes talk a few minutes and they tell me their stories. I don’t usually believe most of the details, but we share the face-saving myth and we are all happier.   But this sort of generosity is not really very generous. You need reciprocity.

I had that experience on a larger scale in Iraq.    We were shoveling money out the door in terms of projects and generosity.  There was some justification for that at first, but the first thing I did when I got to the job was to make us stingier.   Projects w/o local commitment were misused and not sustainable and people are not committed to anything unless they have put something of their own into it.   What about the poor?  If they don’t have money, they have time.  They can give something.  There has to be a contribution.  At first we got complaints when we demanded reciprocity; some thought we were not being generous, but shortly after that we got respect.  We also got better quality projects and happier people working on those projects, so that we were able to respect the recipients, i.e. they earned respect.  It became much more a shared enterprise.    

Shared enterprise is a characteristic of reciprocity relationships that is usually lacking with straight up charity.  It means that we have taken enough interest in each other’s aspirations to do the due diligence required to engage in a mutually beneficial relationship and that we trust each other to honor committments. This is a whole lot better than just cutting a check.

I think these things are true. Nobody really values anything that comes w/o significant effort; nobody can really respect anybody else until he respects himself and only a person who respects himself can feel grateful to others.  Thoughlessly giving money is morally lazy and thoughtlessly taking it is a moral hazard.  A fair business relationship may well be more generous than freely giving away money.

It is sometimes better to receive than to give if doing that helps build the bonds of reciprocity and respect.  Then everybody can feel genuine gratitude for what they receive and what they give.

November 18, 2008

Infrastructure in Iraq

As the introduction says, I am a career Foreign Service Officer who recently returned from a year in Iraq leading a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) embedded with the Marine Regimental Combat Team in Western Iraq. 

John Matel on railroad tracks in Akashat

PRTs are an old idea made new.   My assignment was to help rebuild Western Iraq, a task much bigger than me.  I had a team of seventeen (17) experts to help.   I also had the cooperation of the Marines and other U.S. military stationed in Iraq and most importantly I could ride on the energy, talent and hard work of the Iraqi people in Anbar.   I think we were successful.   I feel a little like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, however.   I arrived in Anbar at the inflection point when the war-fighting stage was largely over and the rebuilding was beginning.  The people of Anbar, with the help of the Marines and my team members, made great strides during that year and I was privileged and proud to work among them.

Let me tell you a little about how I would like to handle this talk.  I propose to lay out general principles and then fill in some examples. This won’t take very long.  After that, I would like to address your specific questions and concerns.  

A disclaimer.  I am not an engineer.  Leading a team called a provincial reconstruction team implies building and engineering.  This is not the case.  I cannot talk re specifications, materials or building methods. 

What I can tell you is what I saw in Iraq with my own eyes.  What I have seen may indeed make more sense to you when I describe it than it does to me.  Your training gives you insights I don’t have. My eyes and your expertise may create synergy.

Our PRT was tasked with helping rebuild – or in many case just build – infrastructure in Iraq.  Infrastructure is broader than roads and buildings.  You know that.  Infrastructure includes all those things that make a prosperous modern society possible.   

Roads, Bridges etc.

We start with the obvious things like roads, bridges and railroads.   W/o these things prosperity is not possible.  Then we move to factories mines and office buildings.  In Iraq, they had significant agricultural infrastructure in the form of irrigation and water projects.  All these things are clearly classified as infrastructure and can be built almost anywhere.  But there is more. 

Farm in Iraq


One of the hardest tasks in any developing country is the infrastructure of institutions.  We Americans often forget this because we have had a functioning country with rule of law, more or less predictable political system and functioning government bureaucracies for hundreds of years.  Iraq was lacking all those things.  W/o institutions, you can build all the physical infrastructure you want and still not create a modern prosperous society.

Societal Strength

Which comes first, a strong civil society or civil society institutions?   I don’t think you can really determine cause and effect.  They strengthen and support each other or pull each other down.   A key ingredient is trust.  Most of our transitions are based on trust, even those we think of as determined by law.   A prosaic example is when you go into a restaurant.   Your waiter trusts you pay for your meal and leave an appropriate tip.  You trust him not to tack on unreasonable charges and supply decent service and food.  Imagine if each transaction required you to check references and proactively defend your interests.  Trust in Iraq had been sorely tested and ripped apart by Saddam Hussein, his capriciousness and his wars.   The level of trust is still low and a society with a low level of trust is a weak society.   You cannot build a strong society directly.  It takes time.

Below - Iraq geography is like the moon with more gravity.

Iraqi road with Marines


We often take environmental services for granted.  It is like good health.  You don’t miss it until it is gone.   In the U.S. we suffered through the dust bowl years when we abused our environment beyond its capacity.   There are other examples, but the dust bowl is appropriate because that is what Iraq suffers.  Dust storms are part of the natural arid environment, but the fantastic dust storms I saw are the result of long term human degradation.  We started to help rebuild this infrastructure.   

soccer field in Iraq 

Human Capital

The most important part of infrastructure is human capital.   These are the technical skills, work habits, managerial capacity, entrepreneurial dexterity and even the good health of the people themselves. 

Human capital is harder to build and more important than physical capital.   My father was in the Army Air Corps during World War II.  They bombed German cities to rubble. When I went to Germany as a student, he asked me if they had rebuilt.  It seemed to me like a silly question, but it wasn’t.   Many countries that were underdeveloped twenty years ago are still underdeveloped today. Germany was completely devastated in 1945, yet ten years later the western half at least was among the world’s most prosperous countries.  People build and run things.  That simple fact is often overlooked by those who think they can just buy or give prosperity.

Or think of the more pop example. In the old television show MacGyver, the lead character would go into a situation with almost no tools.  He would make what he needed out of simple kitchen ingredients or thing he found lying around.   This is the power of human intelligence in real (Germany) and fictional examples. 

Iraq suffered mightily from the destruction of its human capital.  Millions of its best and brightest citizens fled the country during the decades of Saddam’s tyranny.  Many more never acquired the skills of a modern society because of the mismanagement and underinvestment in the education system and lack of opportunities.  Iraq during the dictatorship went from being one of the most skilled and literate countries in the region to being one of the worst.   Finally, the recent war and unstable conditions made refugees of millions, many have still not returned.   This is the longest term and most difficult problem that must be addressed.  Money can buy the beginning of a solution, but only time can bring it to fruition.

Let me give you some specific examples of each of the categories.   I want this part to be conversational.  Please feel free to ask questions as I talk.   A text of what I just said is available at my webpage at 

September 17, 2008

Phosphate & Fossils

Road into quarry 

We visited the Akashat phosphate quarry.  There are actually two separate quarries, one and five kilometers from the loading plant respectively.  We observed no productive activity, but there were fresh vehicle tracks, so some work had been done not long ago.


I am not an expert on fossils, but I did notice the Paleozoic brachiopods in the rocks.  They looked like the Ordovician fossils I used to collect when I was a kid.  I wouldn't bet on the dating, but there was a big extinction event that wiped out most of the species in the seas at the time, including most types of brachiopods.  They call tit the Cambrian-Ordovician extinction event and it took place around 488 million years ago.  It was one of five big extinction events.   The biggest was the Permian which killed (I just looked it up) 97% of all marine species and 70% of the terrestrial ones.  Gee, and there were no humans around to blame.

(BTW – further research indicates that I didn’t have any idea what I was looking at.    These deposits are from the Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic Era.   I don't really know.

This is the clearest (believe it or not) I could find. 

Events Surrounding the Rutba Uplift in Western Iraq

 Saad Zair Jassim1

(1) GETECH, Leeds University, Leeds, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom

 The Rutba Uplift refers to a broad region covering W Iraq, NE Jordan and NE Syria and represents an Early Triassic inversion of a very pronounced Paleozoic basin in which the full Paleozoic sequence might be present. The shape of the uplift fluctuated between elonagted N-S and NE-SW high throughout the Triassic and Jurassic and ENE-WSW oriented high throughout the Cretaceous. Against the popular belief, the Rutba uplift is neither related to Mardin nor to Hail uplifts in Turkey and Saudi arabia respectively.

A combination of repeated tectonic uplift and eustatic changes in sea level charcterized the uplift from Late Triassic to Cenomanian. Tweleve transgressive-regressive cycles within the above time frame can be distinguished and correlated with basinwise sedimentary cycles.During Campanian-Maastrichtian to M Eocene, the uplift was influenced by N-S and E-W tectonism which was associated with upwelling and phosphorite deposition due to disturbance in the basin resulting from Late Cretaceous obduction along the Zagros suture. The uplift was finally abandoned by the sea from the Late Eocene and remained tilted towards the NE till the present.

Due to low Mesozoic and Tertiary sedimentary cover, only Paleozoic petroleum systems can be expected as proven by drilling in W Iraq, SE Syria and NE Jordan.)


Phosphate layers

Anyway, this shows how phosphates are deposited.  They accumulated in sedimentary rocks at the bottoms of ancient oceans and appear in the rocks in horizontal layers.  In this particular quarry the phosphates are located between limestone layers.  The limestone is a waste product; they call it overburden.  It other types of mining, they call it slag. 


Phosphate crumbles in your hands and you can break it off by hand.  When the phosphate plant was working at capacity, it had some big shovels and lots of trucks.  They also used explosives to knock down whole cliffs.  The big shovels and trucks are not working and they are currently not allowed to use explosives.  

Big shovel; small men

Those are some of the reasons why the quarry is producing only 5% of theoretical capacity, which is 3.4 million tons/year.  There is a lot of phosphate in the quarry.  The director told us that it would produce phosphate for at least fifty years at the theoretical capacity.  This quarry, however, has NEVER produced at theoretical capacity.  In its best years, in the middle 1980s, it produced 2.4 million tons.  Since the 1990s, it has not even come close to that.

Big shovel

Above - The behemoth sits powerless.  It has not worked for years and now is just a menace to travel on the road.

This is enough for the time being, since the phosphate plant in Al Qaim is not working at capacity.  But there is a great and growing demand for fertilizer.  The Akashat quarry has easy to reach deposits.  I expect there will be a lot of activity here a short time from now.

September 03, 2008

Infrastructure in Iraq

More on Infrastructure in Iraq at this Link. 

I got an invitation to speak to the American Society of Civil Engineers at a meeting in Arlington, VA on November 18 about infrastructure in Iraq.  They still wanted me to speak even after learning that I was not an engineer.  I think it will be interesting for me and I hope for them.   There is a general misconception that Iraq is being rebuilt from war damage from the CF invasion in 2003.  The problem is older and deeper.

Kid swimming in Euphrates

Above is a kid swimming in the Euphrates.  Notice the old and picturesque bridge ruins in the background.  I don't know when that bridge fell down, but it was not recently.  Below is a recently built bridge. Notice the narrowness and temporary nature.  We were afraid out MRAP would fall through. The bluish tint is because I took the picture through the MRAP window.  We did not fall through.

bridge in Baghdadi

If damage from the 2003 war was our problem, the place would be much farther along.  Modern weapons are very accurate and there was nothing like the damage people imagine from seeing photos from WWII.  In fact, the most serious damage to Iraq's infrastructure came from mismanagement and sanctions, especially during the 1990s. 

This damage is less spectacular but more pernicious and a lot harder to address, not least because we are talking about the need to build and repair human, as well as physical, capital.  You can build a new plant in a couple of months.  It takes many years to "build" a manager to direct the business or an engineer to run the equipment.  And it may take a generation to create the maintenance culture that keeps it working.

The organizer asked me to write a brief intro & bio for their newsletter.  This is the unedited version that I submitted.  I expect they will change and improve it for their publication.   I will also do a bit more research for the actual presentation.

Reconstruction in Western Iraq

The U.S. is helping Iraq recover from years of conflict, sanctions, isolation and mismanagement.  The most obvious recent damage to Iraqi facilities comes from the Iraq war and the vicious insurgency that followed.  The rot had set in before that, however.  Iraq’s infrastructure was badly compromised by years of sanctions, socialist planning and lack of maintenance. Western Iraq has most of what it needs to move forward, but much of it just doesn’t work right.   Foreign contractors and firms built virtually all the infrastructure in Western Iraq, most of it before the mid-1980s.  Many of these contractors were from communist Eastern Europe, and we all know the level of quality during there at that time.  Add to that decades of neglect and you get an idea of the challenge. 

The last twenty years were lost decades.  Human and physical capital was neglected. Little was built or properly maintained and few people were adequately trained.  We often find that the only people with the skill to keep the machines and facilities running even at the today’s inadequate levels are already at or approaching retirement age with few competent successors in the pipeline.  The best thing for Iraq would be for competitive international firms to invest, bringing modern management methods and cultures of quality and maintenance, training Iraqis in quality control and maintenance methods.  Some of this is beginning to happen.  Coalition forces and various USG sponsored programs are also training a new generation and the Iraqi authorities are beginning to step up.  Rebuilding is happening.  Nevertheless, we face a gap. 

The oil bonanza means Iraq can buy materials and skills to upgrade its infrastructure.  The risk is that, as in the past, the central authorities might buy these things without internalizing the methods to produce and maintain them.   All things considered, Iraq is a rich country and I believe the Iraqi people will soon reap significant benefits form their country’s wealth, but progress will not be easy or uniform.

John Matel is a career Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State.  He recently returned from a year-long tour of duty in Iraq, where he served as leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Team for Western Al Anbar Province, embedded with the 5th Marine Combat Regiment at Al Asad, Iraq.  Beyond the State Department, Mr. Matel owns and manages a small commercial forest operation in Brunswick County Virginia.

 Kid swimming in Iraq

Above - same kid in the river, closer view.

August 20, 2008

ePRT & Friends & Cetera

Iraqi kid, a little bored 

I like the idea of leverage.  Our ePRT is small, but we can do a lot by working with partners.  More and more we are using our money and expertise as "pump priming*" that gets other efforts going and funds flowing.   The ePRT money is reckoned in the thousands.   Our partners spend more money, but sometimes our involvement helps lead the way.

The biggest USG player in Western Anbar is the military with its CERP (commanders emergency response program).  In the last year, we have also seen I-CERP, which is the same program but using money allocated by the Iraqi government.   CERP is used mostly for reconstruction after war damage.  Since there is less of this left to be done and as our forces come home, there will be less and less CERP needed or available. 

AID funds some effective programs in Western Anbar.  The Community Stabilization Program (CSP) is a $544 million program designed to enhance economic and social stability in Iraq.  CSP has offices in Al Qaim, Hadithah and Hit.  In each place, they employ around eighty Iraqis to do various hometown projects.  Our other big programs are the Community Action Program (CAP), which  promotes grassroots democracy and better local governance and the Local Governance Program (LGP) trains local officials in the essential skills of governance and the delivery of municipal services.  All these programs put Iraqis out front.  I like the idea that our programs have an Iraqi face, but I also worry a little about that same thing.  I think that we Americans are often too willing -almost eager - to hide our good work.  I am willing to share credit;  I know we have to get Iraqis in the lead and I understand that we have to avoid the heavy hand, but sometimes I think we hide so well that nobody knows we are doing these things at all.  The guys at CSP et al assure me that the right people know where the resources are coming from; I am not so sure and people forget.

Sometimes I would just like to stamp the Great Seal of the United States into some of the concrete we pay to spread - have it set in stone.  Maybe I will make that happen, at least in a few places.   Memory fades; stone endures.

Some USG funded programs happen almost completely outside my purview, i.e. I am aware of them, but we rarely interact.  The one I like the best is Tijara, which gives microfinance loans to small Iraqi businesses.  Small loans were very successful in Eastern Europe (the Polish-American Enterprise Fund actually turned a profit while doing good) and a guy in Bangladesh won the Nobel Prize for his work there.  Small loans work in development.  Small loans are usually better than grants because they have the idea of pay-back, reciprocity.   People work harder when they work for themselves and make their own decisions.   The repayment rate for these loans is excellent.

The thing I like most about the small loan programs is the money goes to PRIVATE business.  One of the biggest faults of most government programs, ours included, is that they tend to fund government and non-profit projects.  

Most of the wealth of a modern society is created by the private sector.   That is why so much foreign aid actually causes more harm than good.  It puffs up the bureaucratic sector at the expense of the entrepreneurs.  In the most pernicious case, it merely creates a exploitive kleptocracy, living off foreign largess and playing the PC victim games.    I have been very careful here, but I suppose my record is mixed.  The nature of government programs creates certain constraints.  The loan program, in contrast,  has a natural check on its own behavior.  The guys taking the loans have to pay them back.  That means they must be in a useful or profitable.

Inma is the USAID funded agricultural program.  We are trying to get them to help with a green zone in Anah.  Beyond that, we have little interaction. 

The Iraqis themselves have begun to step up and the activity of the Iraqi authorities is growing rapidly.  In the last year, the Iraqis have outspent us 5.5:1 and their spending is rising as ours falls.  This is a good and natural outcome.   The Iraqis have piles of money from surging oil revenues and there are plenty of useful places to spend it around here.  What is really surprising and appalling is the poverty and the terrible state of the infrastructure.   Iraq was one of the richest oil producers for generations. With all that money pouring in over fifty years, they managed to build less and more poorly than a place like Jordan, which has no such resource.   I expect the new government to do better than the Baathists.  Geography and climate dictate that Anbar will never be a really nice place, but it could and should be better developed.  And Iraq should take its rightful place as the keystone of the Middle East.

Below - you can grow grass in Iraq, but I have never seen a lawn so green.

Green grass in Iraq

* BTW - I recently read the mindset list  re what college kids have experienced (or not).  This year's freshmen college students, for example, have never lived under a president who was not named Bush or Clinton.   Anyway, I am more conscious of the outdated nature of some of my phrases and analogies.  Priming the pump is a historical phrase and few of us have ever actually done it.   It means putting some water onto a dry water pump which helps create the suction to draw water from the well.  FDR used the phrase.  Yes, that was before my time too, but not so far back that I didn't know the phrase.

June 29, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Pipe to Link

Below are solar street lights in Rutbah, a CF project.  They work okay, but are not, IMO, aesthetically pleasing.

solar street lights in Rutbah Iraq paid for by US forces 

The Regional Engineer of Rutbah is a modern man with little patience for religious extremists or excessive tribalism.   He hates what Saddam Hussein did to his country.  He told me that in some towns essentially no new schools were built between the end of the 1970s and the liberation, despite big population growth.  As an engineer, he decries the general lack of maintenance.  Instead of building infrastructure, Saddam bought expensive weapons systems from the Soviets, French & Chinese (the U.S. supplied only 0.47% of Saddam's stuff). The fruits of big buying spree litter the deserts around here, MiGs that never fired a shot in anger, tanks that never went anywhere.  They decided it was better to abandon them than to fight a real enemy.

It was worst during the sanctions.  When Saddam had less money, he spent what he had on palaces, but enough of the past.

Rutbah's future depends on water.  As I mentioned earlier, water is in short supply in the region.  There have been some grandiose plans occasionally touted to pipe water over the desert from the Euphrates.   It is a long way to pump water and it is all up hill.  Beyond that, the Euphrates has been running lower because of dams in Syria and Turkey.   In The long pipeline solution is proposed by people who do not understand geography, hydrology, gravity or politics.   Besides those things, it is okay.

Below - They have more success with sunflowers than I did.

Sunflowers in Rutbah

Fortunately, according to the engineer, the solution to Rutbah's water woes lies only eighteen kilometers away in Al Dhabaa wadi.  He says that twelve wells already exist and that hydrologists have mapped out the groundwater.  There is more than enough for a city twice the size of Rutbah.  Eighteen kilometers is only around 11 miles.  Why, I asked, were people complaining about water when water was so easy to get?

Some of it goes back again to the lost decades of the Saddam tyranny.  There are no reliable pipes to bring from the wells across those eighteen kilometers to thirsty Rutbah and much of Rutbah just doesn't have access to water pipes period.   They were never built.  Our friends says that Rutbah had good zoning laws, but they were enforced sporadically so that there are some pretty big buildings sitting on some pretty dry land.  Well, it is not completely dry.  There are no sewage lines either, but what is soaking into the ground is not something anybody wants to drink.  Retrofitting whole neighborhoods is extremely costly and time consuming.   It may be years and it may be forever before these things are done.  Given the ramshackle quality of these buildings, it is probably a better idea to start again from the ground up, but people already occupying these places are less enthusiastic about this sort of solution. 

The other reason for the water shortage involved the great bane of Western Iraq - fuel.  In this, perhaps the world's greatest repository of liquid hydrocarbons, fuel for pumps and/or electricity to run them is inconsistent.   When the pump goes on and off, it begins to lose siphoning pressure.  After a while it is sucking up air or mud.  Steady and predicable is what is needed.   I don't know that much about pumps.  It doesn't seem to me that should be such a problem, but the engineer tells me that indeed it is and he seems to know about these things.

In any case, on the one hand, Rutbah's water problem is solvable and solvable soon in the general case of water for the city.  On the other hand, it may be solvable never in the specific situation of some construction that went on w/o the benefit of zoning.   Life is tough all over, tougher for some.  It is mostly a matter of organization and choices.  Most of the choices are simple; some are not easy.  

Osprey in Rutbah Iraq

Above is our ride home.  Ospreys are good for longer trips. It is still a thrill to ride, but the joy wears off when you hit some turbulence, which always seems to happen on the way to and from Rutbah.

June 28, 2008


I don’t know why anybody likes soccer.   It is about as exciting, IMO, as watching grass grow.  But Iraqis like the game a lot and we get some significant public relations mileage out of building and/or rebuilding soccer fields.

soccer field in Rutbah

The soccer field is in back of the kids.  In Iraq, you don’t even get to watch the grass grow on the soccer fields.  All they do is smooth out that dirt and put in a kind of a sub base.  We are going to fix this soccer field up.  The local kids are excited about it.  When we got out of our cars, they all came running over.

The kids in Rutbah are a little less spoiled than some others.   They were friendly w/o expecting too much candy.  It is funny because kids are similar all over the place.  We asked them if they got to use the field very often.  They said it depended on whether bigger kids came along to run them off.  I remember exactly the same experience.  We used to play football in Humboldt Park.  We got to use the flat, good places to play until some bigger kids came and ran us off.  On the other hand, we would run off any groups who were smaller than ours.

Now that I think about it, the big kids never actually had to run us off and we never actually had to run off any littler kids.  You would see the group coming and make a general estimate of their total mass.   If their total mass was greater than ours, we would pick up our ball and run away.   Kind of an interesting system.  Prepares you well for adult life.

In any case, we have done soccer fields before and will do this one in Rutbah.  I told my guys that I want to see it done before I leave and that I want a few drought tolerant trees nearby, so that people can sit in the shade and not only have to watch soccer.  The kids will  be happy.

May 20, 2008

A Time to Gather Stones Together

Stones in Haditha 

Above is preliminary to stone construction along the road in Haditha

When John McCain came recently to Haditha, he went to IRD/CSP.  It was a good choice, since this is a clear example of the success of the “diplomatic surge”.  CSP means community stabilization program.  USIAD fund the program, so it is vaguely falls under our ePRT through our USAID rep, but it operates autonomously and presents Iraqi faces to the Iraqi public.

CSP employs seventy-four Iraqis and has deployed more than two million dollars in well targeted programs to help develop free-market democracy in the Haditha region.  The Iraqis bring with them local contacts and expertise.  They know where to deploy resources and how to get the best deal that will produce the most results. The highest profile programs involve cleaning up and enhancing the Haditha market street, so to some degree CSP contributed to the vibrant business atmosphere I witnessed yesterday and wrote about below.

Below is a classroom being fixed up in the vocational school. Almost good to go.

classroom haditha Iraq

The centerpiece of the CSP effort is a vocational school they are refurbishing on a hilltop just outside the downtown.  The school will train young Iraqis in practical arts such as masonry, electrical design & repair, carpentry and construction.  There will be full three year courses and shorter two month workshops.  The three year program will have 2100 students, with an intake of just over 700 each year.  The short workshops are more flexible and can be expanded to meet demand.   The plan is for the three-year students to be real professionals, help train others and form the nucleus of a skilled trades community.  The curriculum has been developed in cooperation with the Iraqi labor ministry, which we believe will take up the funding for the program after the U.S. money runs out.

Below is the new vocational school

Vocational school Haditha Iraq

Although Haditha suffers from high unemployment, the building and rebuilding boom is creating a demand for skilled workers that is straining supply.  A similar CSP program in Al Qaim has graduated hundreds of short-course students in the last few months who have been quickly hired by local firms.  We anticipate nearly zero unemployment among graduates in Haditha.  To some extent, skilled workers create their own demand and their higher productivity helps create wealth that creates demand for more workers.  It is a very positive cycle.   The CSP vocational school certainly won’t solve all Haditha’s employment problems, but it is an excellent start.

The Iraqi leader of CSP is a visionary.  He is looking toward the future not only in CSP programs but also sees a brighter future for the area immediately around CSP and the technical school.   It is very dusty in the neighborhood.  This is Iraq and there will be dust, but the local effects can be mitigated by trees and other plants.  CSP is already bringing in soil literally to provide the basis of the future plantation.  Dennis, our agricultural advisor, gave some advice on the types and disposition of trees and plants.  I would like to see what this place looks like in a couple of years. 

Below is the future front garden.  There is a similar area out back.  The dirt piles are the soil that will sustain the greenery.  They are also digging a well.  Water is found at 37 meters.

dirt piles in Iraq 

I like the fact that this an operation run for Iraqis by Iraqis.  It has been very helpful in producing tangible and appropriate results.  My only concern is that the U.S. does not get enough credit.  This is not like an individual charitable giving, where you might want to do good anonymously.  Sometimes it is important to know who is funding the good work.  The U.S. is a very generous country.   The U.S. gives more foreign aid than any other country in the world.   When you include both public and private giving, the proportion is even higher.  Yet much of the world thinks we do not do enough.  One reason is that much of our investment is made in these effective but largely hidden programs. 

Ronald Reagan once said that you can accomplish almost anything if you do not worry about who gets the credit.  He was right.  Often trying to take credit, even when justified, makes result less effective.  It is a difficult balance to strike and I am not sure how to balance the needs to accomplish goals with the legitimate desire to improve the U.S. reputation.  For now, the CSP staff and all the recipients know what we have done for them and are grateful to the U.S.  But we have done good in many other places many times before.  People remember, but unfortunately when something resides only in living memory it only lives a short time.

May 19, 2008

Vibrant Prosperity Returns to Iraq

Marc and kids 

Above is one of my teammates with a couple of friends. 

Today was very encouraging.  We came into Haditha from the south and walked up the market street that we call Boardwalk past workshops and retail outlets.  People were very friendly and open, more so than I have felt ever before but they were not telling us only what we wanted to hear.

Road to Haditha

Just as we got out of the MRAP and started to walk up the street, I guy ran up to ask re rental arrears on a building he owned.  He said that the Marines had occupied his building and but had yet to pay all the rent owed or fix the place up when they left.    One of the Marines with us knew who to talk to and said he could help with the problem.  The guy was happy that we listened to his problem and were working to fix it.  These are the kinds of interactions that are surprising locals and winning respect.

We stopped at a storefront where a bunch of strong looking guys were standing.  They were partners in a construction firm.  They told us that business was good, but they could use some loans to grow their business and enable them to bid on bigger jobs.  Unfortunately, the small loan program was too small.  They said they needed around $50,000.00 to really get to be big players.  They complained that many contractors do not do good jobs but continue to get contracts anyway.  This concerned us because we depend on local contractors.  The men assured us that things were better when Americans were doing the contracting, but we still do need to be careful. 

Rugs in Haditha Iraq

Down the street was a rug and furniture shop.  Sam Said bought a small rug showing the tower of Babel.   You can see it on the picture.  The owner told us that business was basically good, but that he still did not have total confidence in the Iraqi police.  Shop owners still needed to keep the wherewithal to defend themselves, he said.   I asked where the rugs came from.  He said from Turkey or Iran.  There are local rug factories, but they are not in operation.  Our PRT hopes to get a couple up and running.   There is obviously a market.

John Matel in Iraqi restaurant

Up the street, the shops started to get better and more stocked with goods.  I have wanted to go to an ordinary Iraqi restaurant for some time.  Finally I had an opportunity.  Marc Humphries, who is our liaison officer in Haditha, told me that he heard that a particular kabob restaurant was good so we stopped in.  There were a few guys waiting for their food.  They told us that they were workers at Haditha dam.  If you look at my picture with them below, you see that my hairstyle and general appearance fits with the natives.

We got ten sets of kabobs and bread.  That Iraqi flat bread is great. 

kabob cookers in Iraq

Farther up the street we stopped in a grocery store.  I had been there a few months ago and the owners remembered my visit.  The shop had greatly improved in terms of goods on the shelves and general appearance.  The owners insisted on giving us some Mountain Dew and told us about business.  Business was generally good, but they had a big problem with the nearest bridge over the Euphrates.  In order to regulate the weight of vehicles, city authorities had set up a bar.  The grocery store owners said that their suppliers have small trucks that they pile high with goods.  The height of the vehicle is not necessarily related to the weight, but their tall loads cannot get through on the bridge.  I have seen how they load these trucks and I understand his position.  I am sure they would not pass American road standards, but it is the standard in this part of the world.  We are on the same side on this issue, BTW, since our MRAPs with their machine gun turrets, are also too tall to get through.

Haditha grocery store

Our final stop on the market street was a dress shop.   It looked like a nice quality shop anywhere in the world.  The owner told me that most of his products come from Syria or Turkey.  They had some nice things on display.  I wanted to buy something for Chrissy & Mariza and I found some things I thought were nice.  When we got to the price, he wanted to give it to me free because we were guests in his country and he was grateful for what we had done.  Of course, I couldn’t let him do that and I paid the full price.  Now that I think about it, maybe that was his clever negotiating ploy.  He got me to pay full price and thank him for it.

Dressshop in Haditha