Daily Star and Al-Hayat have same owner, an Arab
Iraq's potential unique to Middle East
By Marianne Stigset
Daily Star staff
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
BEIRUT: The daily news dispatches from Iraq leave little room for optimism - the roll call of casualties is still ticking and armed conflict is disrupting the resumption of day-to-day life. Yet under the media radar screen, a country is slowly being reconstructed by Iraqi citizens, with the assistance of the international community. Although forced to pull out following the deadly terrorist attack on the United Nations compound in Baghdad Aug. 19, 2003 out of which it was operating, the World Bank has been pursuing its work behind the scenes.
"We opened a World Bank office in Amman for operations in Iraq," Joe Saba, World Bank country director for the Mashreq countries and Iraq, explains. From there, the organization - which administrates with the UN the donor trust fund for Iraq - is managing development projects and offering technical assistance in a bid to build the country's institutional capacity.
"In the end, the measure of our success really isn't how many bricks and pumps we have laid, but whether we've built institutions that can do it themselves," Saba resumes.
Away from the media spotlights, progress is slow.
"There are some positive things, little things that have worked, that are actually amazing," Saba said. "For instance, the transfer in currency worked without disrupting economic life more. The whole way it was done is a remarkable success story."
Saba feels the need to stress that in many areas in Iraq, life is returning to normal, and development projects led by Iraqis are under way.
"Most kids are going to school, life in many areas in Iraq goes on. What we are trying to do, under the radar screen, is to work with the people who just do it.
"They may not get headlines, you are not going to see them on CNN, but those are the guys out there who are trying to keep the kids in school, make sure they have books, that there are teachers in the classrooms, that they are getting paid."
Intrinsic to the Bank's modus operandi is to assist local institutions - be they public or private - in implementing the projects themselves, thereby hoping to ensure its impartiality in the conflict. The method is applied for all 4 currently ongoing projects - one in education, one in rural infrastructure, one in municipal infrastructure and one in capacity building.
"We consider ourselves objective and independent," Saba said. "In the trust fund that we designed, we are the only organization which deals in our projects directly with Iraqi ministries and civic organizations. We are working directly with the different ministries and seeking ways to provide those ministries with funding directly, so that they will implement themselves - with our assistance - (the projects). It's not a political statement - it's the way the Bank works."
In addition to improving the infrastructure on the ground, such as the rehabilitation of 700 schools, the Bank is focusing on building up the country's' human capital, through training programs for Iraqi civil servants, business women and private commercial bankers, and providing policy advice.
"We're doing a lot of economic and sector work and that is as important," Saba says. "We're providing policy advice and sectoral advice to the Iraqis directly, in terms of how to better manage and to do the institution building, by international best practice. And this they desperately need because they have been cut off."
Although decades of international isolation, wars and a centralized command economy stifled economic growth and development, Saba remains convinced of Iraq's potential to get off international assistance within a few years.
"Iraq has the human and physical resource base to do it," he argues. "No other Middle Eastern country has that combination of water, land, a relatively educated population, an existing administration, and oil wealth. Different countries have different elements of this, but not that combo."
Pointing to the fact that Iraq graduated from the World Bank's International Bank of Reconstruction and Development program in 1973 - thereby attaining the status of middle income country - Saba maintains that the country is fully capable of doing it again. "How long it will take is more determined by political and security matters, rather than economics."
On the economics side, Saba's primary concern remains the unresolved issue of the country's debt. "The resolution of the debt reduction issue is critical," he stresses. "It needs to be done as quickly as possible, because without the certainty that a resolution provides, you will not see substantial foreign investment to Iraq. Iraq desperately needs huge investments. The money is out there, investment is eager to come in ... but they need some degree of financial security. Debt resolution is critical for that."
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