“Under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, the media were nothing more than a government mouthpiece. But after the war, it was different. I saw the need to tell the world what was happening in my country.” – Bassam Sebti, former journalist for the Washington Post in Iraq
The story of Iraq’s journalists is something near to my heart. During my first couple of weeks at EPIC, I wrote a blog post about a popular journalist who had been killed, simply for doing his job. The whole time I was thinking of one of my closest friends, Justin, who’s dream is to be a reporter for the New York Times.
This year, Iraq is ranked 152 out of a total of 179 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, and as you can see from the Committee to Protect Journalists‘ page on Iraq, journalists in Iraq face significant, life-threatening dangers. Despite these threats, however, both professional journalists and citizen journalists continue to grow and fight for the freedom of the press, and have gained the respect and admiration of the global community for their resilience.
Youth are well known for breaking new ground, dreaming big, and rewriting the rules. They fight in wars, push for revolutions, and are often the first to call for reforms and change to a system of governance. Their energy and enthusiasm is often described as a source to be tapped into. And it pretty much goes without saying that a nation’s wealth is measured in part by the promise of a nation’s youth. Unfortunately, contrary to these well documented tendencies, they are not always well represented in the policies and actions of a country – and are sometimes even systematically excluded.
When youth are kept out of the political or economic world they feel isolated and disillusioned – take it from me, I graduated a year ago and still haven’t found a full time job. I am part of the youth of the United States of America, and we are a driving force for the economy, the government, and popular culture. Economists write that because of the lack of opportunity during the formative years of my career, even long after the recession has ended I will still earn less than my peers a few years younger than me. Furthermore, my attitude about work, wages, and higher education will be forever changed – something I’m likely to pass onto my children.
Thanks to all who heard our call for a Conflict Resolution and helped spread the word! I am pleased to announce that we have found a terrific intern to help us research and design our on the ground projects in Iraq!
Thomas Oldfield is currently the Mustafa Barzani Graduate Peace Fellow and a masters candidate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University. After spending four months studying abroad in Ankara, Turkey, he completed his BA in Politics from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2010. He has a strong belief in the power of youth and the importance of diversity and his research focuses on the role of education in peacebuilding, specifically within the Middle East.
A dramatic change has taken place, all over the District of Columbia. The temperature has risen, flowers are in full bloom, everywhere I look I see people in shorts and sandals. One other thing, the District has been flooded with summer interns. Bringing with them their bright minds, unbridled enthusiasm, and willingness to work, they’ve given a more rapid pace to the pulse of the city. And EPIC is no exception!
This year we are pleased to welcome two very talented individuals to our team.
EPIC is looking for a motivated intern to begin immediately. As we work to implement our youth and peacebuilding initiatives in Iraq, our EPIC intern will work with staff in Washington, DC, to assist in researching, designing, and implementing our second Iraqi Youth Hike(iraqiyouthhike.org)and other programs.
We are currently looking for Master’s Degree candidates or recent graduates with academic or professional experience in the following areas:
1. Grants research & proposal writing
2. Conflict Analysis
3. Curriculumand ProjectDesign
4. Peacebuilding and/or international youth development
An interest in environmental education is a plus.
If you’re looking for a challenging internship where you’ll see the results of your work, EPIC is the place for you. If you would like to apply please send a resume, cover letter, and short writing sample to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Following the outbreak of civil war in Iraq in February 2006, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey, and more than 1.5 million became displaced within Iraq. Some families relocated to escape an escalation of general violence in their areas, while others fled targeted persecution, including members of religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, scholars, LGBT Iraqis, and those who formerly worked with Americans or other Westerners – whether military, government, or aid agency.
As long as the factors that led to their displacement persist, returning home will never be an option. Instead, these displaced individuals and families must seek refuge elsewhere, and sometimes that can only be found in a foreign country. It cannot be overstated that when vulnerable Iraqis seek resettlement outside Iraq, they do so as a last resort.
This morning, a Bloomberg Businessweek article proudly proclaimed “Iraq Oil Output Beating Iran Ends Saddam Legacy.”
I agree with Bloomberg that this is an important milestone for the country, one which will generate life saving revenue for development and rebuilding. However, I believe there are two problems with this statement: first, Bloomberg is mistaken in thinking that as complicated a subject as the legacy of Saddam Hussein lies in oil production. The root of Saddam’s legacy actually resides in the violence that exists in the Iraqi political culture. Second, Saddam’s legacy has not, in fact, been eradicated.
If you are like me and you grew up in a democratic society, it can be easy to take democracy and all its trappings for granted. But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what “democracy” means as a concept, a practice, and a system of government.
In particular, what does it take for a democratic society to function and be sustained? And how does a traditional tribal society (from which, in human history, we have all come) or populations overcoming dictatorship make the transition to democracy? Iraq’s movement towards democracy has been difficult to dissect. Iraq is a resource-rich, pluralistic and multi-ethnic country with over 27 million inhabitants. Its recent tumultuous history of successive wars, brutal dictatorship and punishing sanctions has left the country’s infrastructure, government provided services, and institutions in a fragile and vulnerable state. Not to mention that power consolidation has been an unwelcome, but persistent guest in Iraq’s political sphere.
However, Iraq’s newly forming civil society has become in a relatively short time an important player in advancing democratization.
I was recently given the privilege of talking to members of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) program team of the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. non-profit grant-making organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world. We met at NED’s offices in the heart of Washington, DC. Around the table sat Rahman Aljebouri, Senior Program Officer; Hanane Zelouani Idrissi, Assistant Program Officer; and Geoffrey King, Assistant Program Officer. (You may remember Rahman from this Ground Truth Project interview with EPIC in 2009.) Together they work on NED’s programs supporting civil society organizations working on human rights, accountability, and democratic reform in Iraq, Yemen, and the Gulf.
With modest funding, NED supports nearly 50 mission-driven local Iraqi organizations working to consolidate democracy in their country. Founded in 1983 under the Reagan administration, the Endowment is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the strengthening of democratic institutions across the world. The Endowment is steadfastly bipartisan: it was founded with bipartisan support and was closely followed by the creation of the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), all of which were joined by a labor institute already in existence, known as the Solidarity Center, which ensures political balance. The Endowment receives its funding annually through a congressional appropriation.
Behind the founding and the direction of the Endowment is the idea that freedom is an aspiration shared by all, and a democratic government is the best way to ensure that aspiration. As their Statement of Principles and Objectives (1984) states, “Democracy involves the right of the people to freely determine their own destiny.”
With issues of universal human aspirations on my mind, I made my way to the National Endowment for Democracy.
This interview was not only enlightening and informative, but also pretty exciting! In my enthusiasm, I dove – headfirst – into an unprecedented personal opportunity by asking my most difficult question first. What do you believe is at the heart of democracy?
A democratic society is a place where your opinions count and institutions of governance work; where there is accountability and clear rules of the game; where people are free to speak their mind, and there is a legal framework that helps them speak their mind. You need a healthy political system, a vibrant civil society, a strong labor movement, and a private sector; the combination of all will produce a place where people are respected, heard, and safe. A place where people can live their everyday lives without fear. -Rahman Aljebouri, Senior Program Officer: Middle East & North Africa
Democracy means that people’s opinions and their aspirations are taken into consideration in a respectful and accountable way. It means governance, rule of law, and having institutions and a political process that assure these are upheld. -Hanane Zelouani Idrissi, Assistant Program Officer: Middle East & North Africa
For me, the core concept of democracy is that a people collectively decide their own political destiny. -Geoffrey King, Assistant Program Officer: Middle East & North Africa
How does this translate into practice in Iraq? In Iraq, the Endowment focuses its small grants to local, non-governmental institutions working on human rights, government accountability, and legislative advocacy. The Endowment has a truly unique approach: rather than design its own programs, the Endowment responds to the self-declared needs, aspirations, and demands of local organizations. They place emphasis on the institutional development of these local actors to consolidate the long-term sustainability of Iraqi civil society. As a result, the Endowment’s MENA program has room for adaptation and can change its strategies as the issues evolve, while encouraging the democratic process. Their model promotes the ideal of a vibrant, locally driven Iraqi civil society.
In short: the Endowment’s dynamic and flexible character allows it to change its strategies with the changing needs of the Iraqi people.
One of the hallmarks of democracy is that there is room for debate and a range of opinions, and I certainly have mine. But in democracy promotion, impartiality and careful balancing are critical. The Endowment works with organizations from lots of different communities and political tendencies, and always avoids “picking a side” with either funding or advocacy. As Hanane explained it: “The key to our neutrality is that they are coming to us.” That is to say, the Endowment doesn’t cherry pick their candidates based on a preconceived set of ideals. Applicants approach the Endowment as a source of funding, and the Endowment is able to grant or deny funding based solely on the applicants’ potential to promote democracy.
I look at the work we do as means driven rather than ends driven. We are trying to assist these groups in connecting the dots, to facilitate their work on the democratic process. As long as a strong civil society rooted in international norms can be a watchdog for the democratic process itself, they will be improving their societies to whatever end they see fit. To us, perfecting the means is the end game. To what political end? That’s up to them. -Geoffrey King
Democracy in Iraq is starting to take hold, but Rahman and others at the Endowment still do not consider Iraq a democracy. Iraqis still lack an independent media, security, and a culture of democratic institutions. Civil society organization themselves are increasingly threatened by a lack of funding and political restrictions, and sometimes struggle to remain mission driven. In certain regions, political leaders distrust civil society. Visa problems and language barriers present significant roadblocks to finding funding from the international community. Furthermore, because there is such a high demand for support from the Endowment (300-400 applications a year!) coming from Iraq, sometimes it can be a challenge to strategically identify where to intervene and what to prioritize.
Despite the challenges, Iraqi civil society has made inspiring strides. In recognition of that progress, the Endowment has changed its tactics. In the immediate post-invasion years, Iraqi civil society focused on civic education and humanitarian assistance. Recently, the vanguard groups have shifted to government accountability and legislative advocacy. Rahman, Hanane, and Geoffrey highlighted examples of the strides made by Iraqi civil society over the past few years. Human rights organizations have moved from simply educating people about their rights to monitoring rights violations. A few think tanks have emerged. Activists are moving from protesting in the street to advocating policy. Groups are fighting for a legal framework for independent media. They have seen a lot of coordination across the country and across sectarian divides. All these different sectors and institutions have come together with one goal: building a democratic country.
We have been seeing a lot of sectors working together – this is an important part of democracy… In the last 10 years, they have made 20 years of progress! -Rahman Aljebouri
As far as the Endowment is concerned, there is plenty of room at the table for Iraqi youth. Several of their programs have been aimed specifically at youth, including one which teaches emerging leaders how to rise to meet Iraq’s challenges while maintaining their local identities and cultures.
Although largely ignored in the media, Iraq has not been immune to the Arab Spring. According to Rahman, Iraqi protesters have been focused on reform, rather than revolution. He explained that numerous youth leadership programs have been aimed at mobilizing the community. Geoffrey King had this to add:
Because the Arab Spring brought many of the youth who were interested in political or economic reform to the squares, it’s been easy, in some cases, for organizations to engage with these youth and identify their needs. Whereas the youth might go out and demonstrate because they have the energy and they might even have the vision of what they want for Iraq, they generally don’t have the skills to mobilize and, for example, work with a team on an advocacy campaign. This is where our grantees step in. -Geoffrey King
With the withdrawal of US forces, Iraq’s burgeoning civil society activists need a lot of financial and moral support. We have a moral responsibility to keep engaging these people. They are fighting to improve their countries and we need to believe in them. Iraq is not democratic yet. We need to listen and guide its institutions, and democracy will come. We need to give it the right environment and help.
So, to answer my earlier question. What do I believe is at the heart of democracy? I believe that democracy means having a level playing field; as citizens, we are all equal under the law. Democracy means a meritocracy in which your education and opportunities will be a reflection of how ambitious, hard-working, and intelligent you are. It also means that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination. It means that someone who comes from nothing can one day have everything.
What does democracy mean to you? No, really! Comment below or tweet us your answers at @enablingpeace or join our conversation at www.facebook.com/epicusa. We’d love to hear from you.
Every morning, as I fight off my lingering urge to return to bed, I surround myself by the news. On my phone, on the radio, on TV. Maybe it’s because I live in a city where politics is our bread and butter – or maybe water and oxygen make a better analogy. Maybe I just like feeling “plugged in.” Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on myself – millions all over the world probably did the same thing during their mornings, or something similar.
I’ve got a great deal of respect for journalists – I probably wouldn’t be able to do my job without them. Furthermore, a very good friend, and former roommate, of mine is an aspiring journalist. I learned a great deal from him about journalistic integrity, ethics, and standards.
A free and independent media is of the utmost importance in maintaining a free and democratic society. So much more than entertainment, the media can offer a free and unbiased opinion, investigation of an issue, or criticism of a policy. And real people, journalists like that friend of mine, are responsible.
I’ve also learned about the dangers facing journalists, I’ve even blogged about the subject. Things may look pretty bad for journalists in Iraq, but they press on. In the US, journalists covering the Occupy Movement have been harassed and suppressed. In other countries they have been threatened with violence, had their cameras smashed, and have been arrested and held without trial.
Freedom House recently released the latest edition of an annual index published by since 1980, coinciding with World Press Freedom Day. The report surveys freedom of the press across the globe. For the first year after eight years of decline, media freedom worldwide has actually improved. Improvements in the Arab world were the most significant findings of Freedom of the Press 2012: A Global Survey of Media Independence.
Three of the countries with major gains—Burma, Libya, and Tunisia—had for many years endured media environments that were among the world’s most oppressive. Both Libya and Tunisia made single-year leaps of a size practically unheard of in the 32-year history of the report. Furthermore, they were accompanied by positive changes in several key countries outside the Middle East and North Africa: Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Zambia. Other countries that registered progress include Georgia, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Togo.
In Iraq, however, media freedoms continue to erode. In an article by Prashant Rao, Rao recounts the violence against journalists in Iraq as documented by the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, an Iraq-based NGO. They report that the government is introducing bills to legally curtail the freedoms of media. As Rao succinctly put it “Iraq regularly ranks near the bottom of global press freedom rankings. It placed 152nd out of 179 countries in media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index, down 22 from the year before.”
As the fight continues in Iraq to determine its the future of its media. EPIC will continue to work with its partners to educate young Iraqis about the power of their own voice and their expand the opportunities available to them.
Yesterday, I blogged about a the power of art to overcome boundaries. I wrote that art has the power to unite people, even from different backgrounds and that we all feel the need to share our stories.
Today, I am happy to report about a group that perpetuates the idea that literature and drama have the power to bring us together.
Shakespeare Iraq: a troupe of college students who simply love Shakespeare. Based out of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, the group is made up of actors from all over Iraq, including Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Shias, Yazidis and people who aren’t religious at all.
Believe it or not, the works of William Shakespeare enjoy a healthy following in Iraq (not too surprising actually). What began as an appreciation-type club was quickly overrun by the students’ passion for live performance (the best way to experience Shakespeare, or so I am told). Last June, they made their dream a reality: an English-language Shakespeare production, not on a campus or in the Green Zone, but in a public theater, the first public performance of Shakespeare ever in the country!
“We tried to pick scenes that examined identity and what happens to people of different identities when they clash, fall in love or just misunderstand each other.” Said the troupe’s teacher, Peter Friedrich. Such themes turned out to have wide appeal and drew an audience of some 600 people. ”It was like a hockey game, that’s how loud it was,” said Friedrich, referring to the impassioned cheers at the finale.
Their daring performance caught the attention of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the top Shakespeare groups in the world, and they were offered a week-long slot in the OSF’s Green Show! The Green Show, which emphasizes community, collaboration, and commitment, features highly talented actors from around the country and attracts a variety of admirers, outside the stereotypical “theater types.” Check out The Green Show’s blog to see an archive of videos from last season!
Despite their incredible success thus far, Shakespeare Iraq needs help getting to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival! Once they’re there, OSF has promised to cover their expenses, but in the meantime, Shakespeare Iraq needs to raise $3,000 per student to cover their travel expenses, that’s $30,000.
*Update:They did it! Shakespeare Iraq has reached their goal of $30,000 and will be attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from July 3rd – 8th!!! For updates and more information, you can visit their fundraising page or their facebook page. We could not be happier for them and look forward to hearing more good news from these talented individuals! – From all of us here at EPIC, BREAK A LEG!