John Smith serves as a Provincial Reconstruction Team Leader in Iraq.
March 14, 2008
Hello, all. I’m a ePRT team leader in southern Baghdad. An ePRT means that you’re embedded with a military unit and collectively you address issues of governance. In my particular area, people have just gained their freedoms. However, with cooperative effort, we’ve been able to make some very good inroads.
It began with -- of course, like anything that we do in life, relationships. And the Iraqi people believe in relationships. So the time spent with tribal leaders, people in the community, and governance officials is important. They want to get to know you just as you need to get to know them. And then the relationship builds and there’s a trust and that trust is based on your word and their word.
And that’s essentially how we started in our area and from that, we’ve made some deep relationships. We’ve been able to move forward in realms that have benefited the people in our area of operation who have not had it easy for quite some time. One of those areas is in the agriculture realm, where – working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and his representatives - the Iraqis have been able to start establishing an agricultural sector. We (the PRTs) are just there to assist and I’ve actually got a tremendous USDA person on my staff. We’re all in sync with our mission and plan of action.
And so you find the farmers, they elect their committees, and then they submit the proper paperwork for recognition by the Ministry of Agriculture as NGOs, which gives them autonomy and allows them to build their farming industry and reap the rewards of their labor.
And we have gone from having only one farm that was recognized to the point where we’ll be establishing a sixth one. And that is something that will be sustainable because they know farming and they understand business, and it’s their organization and their farmers union, so they will continue to build on that. Of course, they will work with the local ag committees on the nahias and the qadas and that will also give them assistance by the government at a reduced cost.
Another area where the building block of relationships is proven is in the health sector. Because of the security situation in certain parts of the country, the health clinics were all closed. But over the last four months, many clinics have re-opened because of the relationships that we’ve built with the Ministry of Health and representatives in our area.
Once again, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to build that trusted relationship. We are a guest. They understand the needs of their people and by using the relationship-building approach, we gain their trust and therefore their cooperation. What we have found by working together is that the Iraqis have embraced these clinics as the security environment improves. They are staffing them and taking back overall responsibility for the clinics, which has aided in the healthcare for the women and children in those areas. To build a trusted relationship, it works both ways; not everybody works on our timetable. If we order them around, the relationship will dissolve. The lesson to be learned here is that you have to respect your fellow men and women. When you do, you will get results.
On the education realm, we’ve worked closely with the Ministry of Education and their representatives. As a result, the Iraqis have started getting more engaged with hiring teachers. They are assessing the qualifications of people that live by these schools and have engaged in a process to hire more local teachers. As a partnership with the unit with whom we’re embedded, we’ve had some projects to brother up with the Minister of Education to refurbish some of the schools to jumpstart their opening. We’ve painted, installed new windows, and purchased chalkboards and furniture; anything we can to get the kids back in school. We believe the kids are the future and these partnerships are making a major difference in ensuring a quality education for so many children.
In every place that we’ve been doing this, the schools fill up as soon as the doors open. One of the things that you start seeing is a lot of smiles. You start seeing the people are becoming comfortable with their way of life. They can see the hope and they can see the future.
Another area that our ePRT team has focused on is reaching out to the women in these communities. To start, it is proper to approach the local council, which is part of my duties, and invite the council's advice on how to reach out to the women of the community. What I've seen is that the men and the women on the councils have embraced this type of outreach. Typically, it means the young women on my team will get together with the Iraqi women to start forming women's councils or committees. And from that, what we have seen is -- and once again we take a back seat -- the ladies in the community identify where they want to take it, what they want to do. And we're just an assisting vessel to connect them with other organizations that can provide them with information or to assist them with where they want to go (if they want to form a co-op, for example).
We have one area where the women want to take ten small sewing entities and form a big co-op. Most of these women are widows from the war and have taken in many of the orphans from the war, in addition to having their own children. The whole focus on this women's co-op is to take a percentage of their profits and reach out and assist other widows and orphans throughout the community.
It's important to understand that the Iraqi people are tribal and family oriented and have a personal relationship with one another. You don't see homeless children roaming around or widows left to fend for themselves. The community embraces them and bears the burden. This phenomenon goes unseen to the naked eye, but it's there and it needs to be recognized. With this group of women stepping up to help, it opened our eyes in many ways to how important community is and what they will do for each other with just a little bit of help initially.
We just had another women’s committee host one of their first big events. There were over 200 Iraqi women and two of the guest speakers were prominent council members on the district council for that area. It was exciting to look out into the faces of these women. Some of them you could were a little apprehensive, but they wanted to be part of it and you could see their excitement and hope. Events and moments like this are exciting.
If I could say one thing to anybody reading this or to any of my colleagues, both civilian or in uniform, is that you have to see every situation itself and not be driven by a matrix and check the box. You've got to get the pulse of the people and you've got to see where they are. And from there, you can judge whether they are going to grab the ball and run with it. They're capable of it and they will.
The best thing that we can do is allow the Iraqis to do that, and because of our enthusiasm, there's 100 percent enthusiasm over here. It’s hard to let go and stand by them as a partner and allow them to grab the ball and run with it, but they know how to. They're a smart society. They're very astute on business and economics, and they're good farmers. They know to make things grow and they know how to get the water to flow in their canals. It's like with anything that you've taken and you've embraced. It's like your kids growing up. At some point in time, you've got to back off and let them take that step forward on their own.
This is my second tour here. Previously, I was engaged with another State Department mission, but it has changed a hundred percent from the first tour that I had over here. We all need to keep the faith and remain open-minded. The bottom line is that relationships are key. Their relationships with each other are like what I grew up with in the States: it's one on one, face to face, handshake to handshake, hug to hug. Relationships aren't built on metrics or emails or phone calls. It's very personal.
It's a pleasure to be serving over here and representing a country that I love. Thank you.