Most NGOs in Iraq Losing Face

BAGHDAD – Welcomed at first after the US-led invasion in 2003, most NGOs have run into skepticism and mistrust. Few remain to help.

Hundreds of local and foreign NGOs became active in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, after decades of restrictions under the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

"The former Iraqi regime did not trust NGOs, and always thought them to be spies," Muath A’raji of the National Societal Organization, a human rights NGO based in Baghdad told IPS. "Iraqis used to think the regime was wrong, but now they have changed their minds because of the many false foreign NGOs that look more like contracting companies than humanitarian and human rights organizations."

Iraqis expected NGOs to ease the agonies caused by both the US occupation and corruption of the Iraqi government. But now most appear to believe that NGOs work for money and personal interests, if not for intelligence and missionary purposes.

Talk of NGOs now often inspires fear rather than hope. "I was terrified when I heard of French organizations smuggling children from Chad to sell in Europe," says Um Yassen, whose six-year-old son was injured by a US bomb in Fallujah. "I have applied for many NGOs to take him for treatment abroad. We do not know who to trust any more."

But there is still the occasional NGO genuinely assisting Iraqis in need.

"Dozens of organizations took my niece’s medical reports and pictures; only one came back to take her for treatment abroad," Anwer Abdul Hameed from Hit, just west of Baghdad, told IPS. "Our five-year-old Nora was shot in the head by an American sniper in 2005. Her father took her to many Iraqi hospitals. Doctors did their very best, but with the hospitals practically not working and medicines not available, Nora’s head remained broken until an organization called No More Victims appeared and took her to Amman on way to America."

No More Victims is a Los Angeles based organization that takes Iraqi children injured by occupation forces to the United States for treatment.

The hundreds of Iraqi NGOs spread all over the country seem to have lost credibility too, along with most foreign NGOs.

People in Fallujah, 69km west of Baghdad, told IPS that some associations that helped them during the 2004 sieges disappeared after some of their activists were detained by the US military.

"The good men who served the city were either detained or forced to flee the country under threat of detention or even termination by secret police squads," an Iraqi doctor in Fallujah, speaking on terms of anonymity, told IPS. "Most of the ones who are active now belong to parties in power or people who know nothing about organized work. The Iraqi Red Crescent, for example, is totally dominated by Iraqi Prime Minister (Nouri al) Maliki’s Da’wa Party."

A member of the Iraqi Red Crescent IRC in Fallujah denied that the Da’wa Party controls the organization, but refused to answer IPS questions about the way they work.

Danger is clearly an inhibiting factor as well. The NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI), an independent initiative launched by a group of NGOs in Baghdad in April 2003, now comprises a network of about 80 international NGOs and 200 Iraqi NGOs.

The group does not provide a list of NGOs operating in Iraq because of "security concerns", according to their website. "With the high risks taken by aid workers on the ground, at least 94 aid workers have been killed in Iraq since 2003 (updated on 27th of September 2007)," the group says.

NCCI adds: "Our data takes in consideration incidents reported to NCCI. As aid workers face the same difficulties as any civilians in Iraq, the figure could certainly be higher, particularly regarding local NGO staff."