Hearts & Minds: IS, “NGOs” and State Responsibility in Iraq

IS is repairing roads in Iraq.

Other sources have reported forced marriages to IS militants. Forced marriages – a debatable enough term in a place where choice of suitor is often not really left up to female teenagers at all – contrary though it may seem, may also be seen as a form of economic relief. Families in Iraq’s rural areas are large, and feeding a fifteen-year-old girl during times of conflict becomes something of a burden when that responsibility could just as easily be transferred to a husband (a powerful one who has just experienced a windfall, no less!).

These may seem like minor societal contributions, given the organization’s newly-found wealth, but it provides some insight into how IS intends to gain public support outside the low-hanging fruit of those sympathetic with their ideals. We’ve seen militant groups use this strategy to transform into legitimate governing bodies elsewhere: Hezbollah in Lebanon, with free clinics and schools paving the way to a voting bloc, springs to mind.

I thought a parallel concept was phrased very nicely by Francisco Toro (@boringdev) in a discussion of South Sudan:

What very little “governing” – in the sense a first world person would understand it – that gets done gets done by donors, with donor money and donor staff. It’s NGOistan out there. The prevalence of International Cooperation has led to this weird warping of incentives where the local elite doesn’t see “service delivery” as “governing” at all. (And why would they? There are always foreigners around to do that stuff…for free!)

NGOistan, in conflict and post-conflict zones, need not refer to internationally registered independent non-governmental organizations. I think a better conceptualization would include all bodies doing the work of government, including provision or regulation of services such as health, infrastructure, and education, that are not held accountable by-the-people-for-the-people. This can and should include provision by other actual governments, especially the US departments of State (including USAID) and Defense. In Iraq, protracted US involvement included rebuilding the public electrical grid, road construction, primary healthcare, agricultural support, and more.

The Iraqi government, needless to say, has not done a stellar job of maintaining these services in our absence. The International Rescue CommitteeMSF, and others remained after American withdrawal, but have increasingly focused on Syrian refugees in Iraq and lack the resources necessary for provision of large scale services…such as road construction.

IS’s protracted violence is driving “actual” NGOs in Iraq to the safe haven of Kurdistan. The competition for provision of social services has positively scampered. In barren stretches where citizens are used to barely-functioning governance, where infrastructure repairs are delayed or nonexistent, where USAID health spending is $0.32 per capita compared to $2.40 in Ethiopia despite similar health burdens, it’s no wonder that IS has begun to take over some of this provision. This is an opportunity created by unsustainable, poorly-integrated aid, shifting government priorities and atrophying capacity. The standards are low, and the rewards, in terms of potential public support, are enormous.

Hearts & Minds: IS, “NGOs” and State Responsibility in Iraq

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