A Tale of Two Springs

Facilitating peace, development and banking in Mosul, Iraq

Treading Up The Tigris

with 8 comments

Mosul.  January 20, 2010

No matter what political reasons are given for war, the underlying reason is always economic.

~A. J. P. Taylor

I sit across the table from two majors in the United States army. They glare at me, measuring up the new guy, the latest civilian to show up in these parts, and they tell me their plan. Heads of a civil affairs unit who are truly committed to making things right here, jaded but still determined, they sound increasingly eager as we begin to craft our plan.Ninewa is in Northern Iraq, nestled between Syria, the Kurdistan regional area and the Sunni triangleThere is a class in Iraq for which the banking system seems to be functioning pretty well.  Decent interest on savings, loans to start and grow businesses, home mortgages.  And USAID and other US government agencies have successfully provided some degree of support to the institutions in that banking marketplace.  The problem is that group is very small, the majors explained.  It has been decades since Iraq had a census, but estimates are that as many as 90% of families here in Ninewa are subsistence farmers.  And that means 90% of residents are effectively shut out of the banking system, excluded from receipt of American economic assistance in the province.  And these two majors, who have no development background outside of their Iraq experience, have developed a scheme to provide micro-loans to that excluded 90%.  I listen, and we plan.  We have millions of dollars in US taxpayer money at our disposal.

After a career on Wall Street and microenterprise experience in East Africa, I elected to take a year to try to contribute in some small way to the effort in Iraq.  As an economic advisor to the US State Department, I am stationed on a military base in Mosul, Iraq, in Ninewa Governate, about 250 miles northwest of Baghdad and about 100 miles east, south and west of the Iraqi borders with Syria, Turkey and Iran, respectively.  Ninewa remains a leading bastion of insurgent activity.  The beauty of its diversity, as the only one of Iraq’s 18 provinces with a critical mass of Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Turkmen, Shabak, Yazidi and Assyrian Christian, is something of a curse in a time and place when difference often means death.  Bombs kill Iraqis here on a weekly basis.  I am here as a member of the Ninewa Provincial Reconstruction Team, an extraordinary and unprecedented attempt in both Iraq and Afghanistan for the American government, as military, as diplomats and as aid workers, to appeal to Iraqi hearts and minds, both for the benefits of Americans and for the sustainable development of those areas on the front lines of American hatred.

In particular, I am here to stimulate the banking and micro-enterprise sectors, to make sure rural women and persecuted Christians, under-resourced small businesses and businesses with quality growth strategies, individuals who love the United States and those who yearn for the days of Saddam have access to the financing they need to grow and create employment.  With highly contentious elections here in six weeks, the American military withdrawal over the next 24 months and a strong sense that the economic and political situation over the next year will determine economic and political stability for the next decade and beyond, stimulating wealth creation and economic development is absolutely critical.  In that setting, an accomplished group of Americans are here, working together to address the most fundamental issues of Iraqi development and American foreign policy.

This is an extraordinary development effort that couples together some strange bedfellows.  Our team of 30 plus individuals who have left family and friends to join the team includes a Department of Justice prosecutor, State Department diplomats, a USAid foreign service officer and numerous uniformed military personnel.  The military personnel conduct their business in a mission-oriented manner.  They want objectives to achieve and a timetable to achieve them.  The USAid officers want to see the development theory, implementation strategy and monitoring and evaluation plan, with an eye towards sustainability.  The diplomats want to see nuance and negotiation, with timetable and planning secondary to quality relationship building and bilateral relationships.  And then there is me, private sector guy, trying to understand a language of acronyms and the cultures of multiple agencies that at times have difficulty talking to each other.

And the Iraqi people.  This is no Wall Street.  But it is no East Africa, either.  There is centuries of sophistication in the banking system.  And decades of poor management and disrepair.  With a coordinated effort, together with the finance leadership in Ninewa, we can open the doors to savings and borrowing to the overwhelming majority of Ninewa residents, facilitating economic stability and create compelling competition to the appeal of both political insurgency and street crime.

My experience in East Africa taught me to understand the cultural context of community development before engaging in it.  Time and again, I was a witness to a very well-intentioned expatriate individual who would spend a day in a Nairobi, Kenya slum and see the total disrepair, to think that human beings live like this in the 21st century! Often, such an individual would start a project – usually based on donor money to stimulate education or health – that invariably ended badly, for the individual never took the time to understand the context in which the education or health program operated.  Money would be stolen or managed in a way incompatible with the values of the donor.  Cultural context – and a broad understanding of the day-to-day life of every day Iraqis – must be understand before we undertake project with an expectation of sustainability.

The development challenge is further exacerbated by our situation here.  Our safety is the highest priority, and that is good. Very good. But it means spending days and, at times, weeks on base without leaving.  The opportunities to understand the current economic culture and day-to-day barriers faced by the average Ninewa farmer are slim to none.  Engagements with our Iraqi interlocutors, usually government officials, business leaders or rural sheyks, take the form of brief meetings under significant military cover.  Such cover is necessary; without it, we would likely all leave.  In settings where corruption and inefficiency have been well documented, facilitating sustainable development is extraordinary difficult when you remove the simple ability to observe and engage in informal environments.

All of this is within the construct of supporting Iraqis to build their country, to diversification of an economy that is nearly entirely reliant on the foreign purchase of oil, in the hopes of leaving a positive mark that will last through the military withdrawal and long beyond.  An apology, perhaps, but, more importantly, some statement of positive future engagement.

We, the American taxpayers, have spent over $1 billion in the Ninewa governate alone since 2003.  And here, at this table in a conference room on a military base in Mosul, two army majors look at me, guided by lessons of the Iraqi street.  Mosul is known here as Ummu r-Rabi’ayn, the mother of two springs.  The scorching 130 degree heat suddenly lets up in September and October, giving way to a pleasant second spring, a time of harvest, transition and growth for all of Ninewa province.

I sit, with my colleague Tony, guided by fundamental principles of banking and finance.  Millions of dollars are at our disposal, for use by June of this year, to create economic vibrancy and address some of the fundamental economic problems facing those living throughout the continued violence of Ninewa.  Considerably smaller dollar amounts than back in New York.  But stakes that are much, much higher.



Written by treadingupthetigris

January 25, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. Wow Matt!! I knew it wouldn’t take you long to access and have an opinion. So well written which leaves me so much to ponder while I sit in my comfy chair, having lunch and thinking about a vacation.

    I have faith in you, if anyone can bring about permanent change, it’s you! May the springs forge ahead with opportunities for understanding, growth and sustainability!!

    Tread On my friend, tread on!!

    Sheryl Allston

    January 25, 2010 at 10:48 pm

  2. Very impressive beginning! We look forward to your future postings


    January 26, 2010 at 1:37 am

  3. Do you really think economics is always at the root of armed conflict? What about differences of religion? of ideology? For example, is the arab-israeli conflict basically an economic conflict?


    January 26, 2010 at 2:41 am

  4. The sky is the limit!


    January 26, 2010 at 11:05 am

  5. Matt, thanks for sharing your experience – and so eloquently! I enjoyed reading your experience thus far. This must be hard in countless ways but I admire your commitment and energy. Be safe.


    January 26, 2010 at 2:32 pm

  6. No matter what political reasons are given for war, the underlying reason is always economic.

    ~A. J. P. Taylor

    While this statement certainly has some merit, it is inaccurate. One needs look no further than WWI (although there are many other examples). No one wanted that war to erupt, all the countries were closely linked economically and had much to lose, yet war still broke out.


    January 26, 2010 at 6:50 pm

  7. Great first post. Keep ’em coming.


    January 27, 2010 at 7:38 pm

  8. matt, put matt’s ole man on your email posts. thanks bob b

    Bob Borgmeyer

    January 29, 2010 at 4:09 pm

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