Would the violent turmoil that exists in present-day Iraq be less – or even absent – had the nation undertaken decentralized reconstruction in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003? Or adopted federalism (a formalized decentralized system) in the three years following, before the upsurge in Sunni-Shia intercommunal violence?
Does there exist a viable alternative to ISIS – notorious murderers also battling for hearts and minds and possess considerable financial resources as well as a commitment to the implementation of social and economic programs?.
As unachievable as it may seem at the present time, decentralization of power to sub-provincial levels, as close to the people as possible, appears the only viable way for Iraqis to feel more in control of their lives and to have even a remote chance of experiencing the person-to-person, Sunni-to-Shia interaction that could build localized processes of acknowledgement of each other, of shared development and of peace.
It has become urgent to provide despairing young people new opportunities, through sustainable projects where they can build a better future and develop a sense of belonging to their communities instead of joining violent extremist groups such as ISIS out of desperation to find salvation. In addition, the local self-reliance (or ability to implement community decisions) that decentralization promotes is suggested to increase the defense capabilities of a given country by making military attack on population centers more difficult.
Governments – Iraq’s being an example – may be reluctant to decentralize out of a concern that this process could promote secessionist movements and become a cause of conflict. However, more often it is precisely the resulting lack of empowerment in decision-making at the local and provincial level that heightens political resistance, tension, sectarian conflict, and violence.
While decentralization may cause national politicians and bureaucrats to feel depoliticized and less influential, the central level nevertheless remains vital in its areas of responsibility, which encompass macroeconomic policy, foreign policy, national judiciary, and security as well as development targets that encourage inter-regional balance and performance.
Ongoing implementation of such centralization could also help avoid – or at least counter effectively – the pitfalls of poorly implemented decentralization such as reduced social protection and greater social and geographic stratification. Federalist decentralization entails the sharing of policy-making and management power between central government and regionally autonomous levels.
National governments ought to consider decentralizing for development in a positive light, as a short- and long-term strategy both for meeting the real needs of the people while at the same time advancing social integration, national unity, and the development of grassroots political empowerment – all necessary conditions for political stability.
A form of legitimate autonomy within an overall context of national sovereignty (similar to Morocco’s proposed solution for the Western Sahara) could have the effect building Shia-Sunni trust toward productive partnerships for human development that can crowd out violence. More than ever this kind of administrative arrangement appears to be the most viable means of achieving long-term stability in Iraq.
Conventionally, there are four general pathways for nations to decentralize – devolution, deconcentration, delegation, and privatization. Let us take as an example Morocco’s model, which synergistically combines the first three of those organizational approaches that have been applied elsewhere around the globe.
First, the Moroccan plan involves devolution – building necessary capabilities of sub-national government – in the manner of Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Brazil.
Second, the Kingdom’s Roadmap incorporates deconcentration – collaborative work by sub-national government, civil and community groups for development, with ongoing central-level support (financial and technical, for example) – as applied in India and Sri Lanka.
Third, the participatory method (delegation) as applied in Tanzania, where, as Morocco’s King Mohammed VI describes it, “citizens are the engine for and ultimate objective of all initiatives.” The monarch has underscored his nation’s contribution to the decentralization project, namely “the necessary public funds.”
Combining these three decentralization pathways creates a social public system where national and sub-national multi-sectoral actors partner to support community-driven development. This system would, in theory, serve to create an environment that is highly conducive to the advancement of sustainable development.
Training and participatory development projects are essentially the bricks and mortar of a decentralized administration. They create – de facto – the pathways and institutional arrangements inherent in decentralized systems.
The U.S.-led Iraqi reconstruction effort could have advanced decentralized reconciliation and development at the outset by integrating participatory methods in the process of building local administrative capacities and projects. From a sustainable human development perspective, it is inexplicable for the management of reconstruction to have been outsourced away from Iraqis to U.S. firms and agencies, including the military.
The United Nations concluded from the reconstruction carried out after the First Gulf War that Iraqis could manage projects without onsite help from foreign contractors. Foreign reconstruction is prone to being self-serving and humiliating for the host people and can cause vital loss of potential and resources.
Consequently, without Iraqis sense of ownership, too many projects remained incomplete or were sabotaged. The well-established tenet proven by 2006 in Iraq – that people do not destroy projects they control and from which they benefit – was relearned the tragically hard way: 318 American reconstruction personnel lost their lives over the course of the war.
With a massive $60 billion spent by the United States on reconstruction in Iraq, it is another travesty of the war that, today most Iraqis do not benefit directly in multiple ways from U.S.-led reconstruction projects. Had this amount been spent on community projects – which are driven by local beneficiaries in all project phases and that bypass costs for security necessary to protect U.S. reconstruction teams – then the accompanying bottom-up social development and multi-sectoral partnerships would have created a de facto decentralized administrative system.
With the current increase of U.S.-led training of Iraqi trainers, there is now the opportunity to develop programs integrating skills-building in facilitating community dialogue on vital projects, which would build goodwill with local populations likely more than any other measure. The U.S.-led coalition training hubs for Iraqis – who then themselves interface with local communities – should also serve as strategic points of dispersion of participatory planning capacities. At the time of writing, there is a window of opportunity for a model to be created in the strategically vital Sunni Anbar province.
If however, the Iraqis, employing necessary coalition support, do not fill the human development void, then it is clear that ISIS, like any hopeful long-term political player, will attempt to fulfill this role in its areas of control. To the enabler of truly sustainable human development belong the beneficiaries’ hearts and minds.
Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is an American sociologist and president of the High Atlas Foundation, a Moroccan-U.S. non-governmental organization dedicated to participatory human development.