Billions of dollars must be spent wisely to rebuild Iraq

Iraq’s friends and neighbors gathered this week in Kuwait for a conference on rebuilding the nation’s war-blighted economy and pledged $30 billion in investments and loans to begin the massive undertaking. That’s a lot of money, but Iraq said when the conference began Monday that it was seeking $100 billon.

Hosted by the World Bank, the meeting was a pitch for partnership with the private sector to boost foreign direct investment so that companies from around the world can help power the growth Iraq needs to rebuild its shattered cities and towns – along with the fractured trust between divided communities.

At least $100 billion is needed for Iraq to rebuild homes, businesses and infrastructure, including the oil industry. This is on top of the billions of dollars in development aid that the U.S. and its supporters have already given to the effort.

It’s not enough, however, simply to rebuild roads and buildings and get businesses humming. On the surface, Iraq is already open for business. Stores in Baghdad are bustling, goods are flowing into the country and civil servants are being paid.

But an estimated 2.6 million Iraqis are still displaced, with a total of 8.7 million people in need of basic assistance. A significant majority of those displaced or recently returned home cite jobs as a top need.

Fear of resurgent extremist groups also hangs over the recovery efforts. Fifteen years after the U.S. invaded Iraq and toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are weary of war and extremist violence that has divided Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds – turning neighbor against neighbor. Many Iraqis do not trust their fellow citizens.

Of course, there is also the issue of donor fatigue. The U.S. and others have already spent many years along with many billions of dollars on rebuilding Iraq. Some are tempted to ask whether more money will have any impact.

If all the blood and treasure that has been spent in Iraq is to have meaning and promise, we must rebuild the country’s trust at every level. Iraqis need to trust they have a future before them, that they will be safe in their homes and that the terrible violence that has lingered on since 2003 has finally ceased. And they need to learn to trust each other.

It’s a tough challenge that economic efforts alone are unlikely to overcome. Americans are right to ask whether spending additional billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq will be effective.

Global research conducted by my aid organization, Mercy Corps, has shown time and again that improvements in economic development alone are unlikely to eliminate support for organized violence. The answer is that we must have a strategy for rebuilding that promotes long-term peace for that investment to be worthwhile.

A step in that direction would be to focus not only on the basic economic investment but also on efforts that focus on conflict prevention and foster good governance.

Iraq’s partners and friends should ask three questions when considering any new investment program in Iraq: Does it promote responsive, good government? Does it build bridges between communities? And does it include and encourage young people to take ownership of their future?

Let’s take these in order. Huge swaths of Iraqi society, whether Sunni or Shia, have expressed a desire for the government to be more inclusive and responsive.

The good news is that Mercy Corps has found that 68 percent of Iraqis believe it is their civic responsibility to be involved in politics – and that growing numbers are less afraid of doing so. Yet only 26 percent think they can influence government policies.

Savvy partners in Iraq’s recovery should condition any investment on a local or national government plan to boost political participation.

When people get involved in politics, they not only influence government policies, they influence each other. They learn how to create coalitions and work together.

For example, coming together to ensure a water-treatment plant serves everyone in a community can go a long way to combating longstanding divides before they become dangerously inflamed again.

And Americans should be aware that could easily happen. For example, anger remains high among many Iraqis toward families of suspected ISIS fighters, who are being resettled as part of the recovery.

Foreign partners in Iraq’s recovery should also demand to know whether plans for community reconciliation exist, what they entail, and what might be done if they veer off track.

Finally, there is the youth issue: those who do not yet have a stake in a recovered Iraq can be recruited and exploited for extremist causes. The lure of extremism feeds off poor governance and social tensions.

Iraq’s foreign partners must also make sure that investment gives priority to the education and empowerment of young people and helps create a strong, enfranchised workforce. Good jobs and a sense of ownership over the future are great inoculations against the sickness of extremism.

So governments, bankers and business people who hope to rebuild a better Iraq need to focus not only on physical infrastructure but also on the enterprises that bind together a community and ultimately, a nation.

An Iraq that is prosperous and at peace, with a government that is responsive to the will of its increasingly educated and optimistic people, would be a real return on all of the West’s expensive investment.