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Help us to help ourselves!

Interview with Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana, Founder and Executive Director of the Iraqi relief organisation CAPNI

Young people have been demonstrating in Baghdad for several months. What changes have they triggered?

The demonstrators have set processes of change in motion. But to change this state in depth, with its powerful parties that dominate all issues, takes time. There is a new generation of politicians, but the current generation will not give up so easily. This movement from the streets has sent many messages: About the influence of a foreign country, about corruption, about the influence of Islamic parties. The most important thing is that a Shiite generation is against Shiite parties. And one cannot simply dismiss them as a conspiracy of a few individuals, as has been tried. They don’t belong to any group, but all come from the generation after the year 2003.

They have started well, but their demonstrations – as they did in the world at the beginning of such movements – are spread all over the country. From Baghdad to Basra, individual groups work without a common agenda. And it is also not clear who is speaking on their behalf.

It always takes time to change things. How will they manage that? What can be helpful for them so that they can organize themselves better? Not that an Arab spring is followed by an Arab winter…

Their agenda is far too extensive. They should focus on a few topics. At first they demanded a revision of the constitution, but that’s easy to say. Some demand that there should be no more parties, but that would not work. They should postulate clear demands: First, second, third, etc.

A central demand is new elections. But the big political groups are wisely hesitating, because they know that if elections are held soon, any new party that is secular or based on the rule of law would receive the most votes.

They also demand that the people responsible for the shootings during the demonstrations be brought to justice. More than 600 people were killed. No one is trying to clarify this.

They want answers to their questions about corruption or the elections. But just shouting big slogans that cannot be achieved is not useful. They need realistic goals and they need to set representatives who speak on their behalf.

I doubt that the government has a good will to respond to these demands, not to mention the ability to do so. But even if it was, who should she talk to? The demonstrators must clearly name their representatives.

After the assassination of the Iranian commander Qasem Suleimani at the beginning of the year, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to the Iraqi government to ensure an end to the military presence of all foreign forces in the country. What is the current situation? What direction will it take?

This was a reaction dictated by emotions. Sunnis and Kurds did not participate in this meeting and they did not vote. And even the President of Parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, was against it. Now we have a Shiite resolution, but not an Iraqi resolution.

In the meantime, emotions among Shiites have cooled down somewhat and they are more realistic in this respect. A troop withdrawal won’t work. Military details might be renegotiated, but we need the foreign troops!

Germany is investing a lot of money in Iraq. We are the second largest donor after the USA. Where should we improve? Where do we have blind spots? What should we focus on?

At some point, all international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will withdraw from Iraq, because hopefully everything will be settled here. Perhaps they will then concentrate on Syria or Yemen. Then the local community with its NGOs will take care of the needs of the people here and their daily life. Parallel to the support of projects, there should therefore be a focus on promoting and strengthening the NGOs. Investments should be made there. We must not forget that “civil society” and “NGOs” are new terms for Iraq, for our country. So far there is no control of the state. So let us expand the local NGOs so that they gradually take the lead. We should strengthen their capacities in terms of structure, accounting and transparency, mutual control mechanisms and accountability. This is very important, also for the projects they are implementing.

Take care of the returnee, too. In stable communities, such as the Region Kurdistan-Iraq, it is not German responsibility to take over the role of the Kurdish regional government, that is their responsibility. There should be plans to stop corruption and to plan the structures well. Germany should not replace the government, but focus on the people who return. They deserve it. But Germany is also doing a good job of it. They have done a lot at the Nineveh Plains or even in Mosul.

Do Christians from abroad come back to the Nineveh plain? Is there a movement here?

Some have already returned. But the reason for this is often only that they have not been granted the asylum they sought. They live in refugee accommodation and compare what they had before and what they have now. The reason for their return is not the attraction of Iraq, but the lack of perspective in Germany. This applies to Christians, for whom it is usually easier to integrate abroad. For Yazidi it is perhaps easier to return because they can only practice their religion here. Otherwise they have the feeling of losing their religious identity.

We were told of the opening of a Catholic University in Erbil. What effect does this university have? Does it really cause the decisive change?

We will not be able to restore the proportion of Christians among the population that we once had. We are severely decimated. We are now only 0.8 percent of the population, we used to be 3 percent. But what we can work on is to restore and activate the role that Christians and Christian institutions have in society. By this I mean Christian-run institutions that provide public services, for example hospitals or schools serving all people. But they should be open to all. From this point of view, the Catholic University is therefore helpful.

But are there not other important problems that need to be solved as a priority? I would prefer it if we were more focused on the health sector, because there is a huge gap in the country’s health care system. For example, there is no radiologist in the whole Ninive Plains. Neither Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) nor Computer Tomography (CT) is possible there.

In my opinion, primary schools are more important than a university. That is where the roots of education lie. A university is not really a luxury, but it is not a must, but a primary or secondary school is. I do not know how a budget of one million dollars would be handled in Europe, but perhaps it would be better to invest that much money in four or five primary schools in four or five locations.

In Germany we hear a lot about Christian aid organisations investing in houses and churches. Here in Iraq they tell me that long-term help is much more important. Why does this information get so little attention in Germany?

The major donors communicate mainly with the churches, which do not have their main competence in this matter. For example, they focus on housing, but do not consider that children need schools, and then the sick need a hospital and at the end of the month they all need an income. You have to have a strategic vision for this.

Back to the bishops or priests who speak or publish in Germany. Of course I respect all bishops, but this is not about matters of the church. Before the IS came we had 50,000 inhabitants in Qaraqosh, for example. Among them many very well educated engineers, businessmen, lawyers etc. These people should be allowed to contribute their ideas.

If we delegate this task to the Church, we are undermining its original role. It is not a church affair to contract entrepreneurs or to conclude contracts with electricians or builders.

Therefore, it is problematic when there are large Christian aid agencies that insist on working only with the Church. There is only limited transparency and control mechanisms there. I don’t want to blame anyone, but the way the Church works is not comparable to that of a professional NGO.

As a Christian-influenced NGO, we have repeatedly faced the following difficulty: We have given a church leader a leadership role because we respect that he is “the elder”. But his attitude to this was: I am “the only one”. But there is an enormous difference whether someone has a responsibility because he is “the elder” or because he is “the only one”.

It seems to me that also in Germany primarily people from Iraq speak who represent the view of the church. Do you have advocates for these ideas who can also give you a platform for them?

Unfortunately, no. Not even within Iraq do we have a network that brings together different people working on the same thing, not to mention a platform in the church for economic issues. So how can we expect others to do that?

There are many local partners that are supported by the same donors. So we had suggested a regular meeting to exchange who does what and where. But this could not be realized. Everyone acts on his own initiative.

You say we should strengthen local partners. They live in a world we do not understand, in a culture we do not understand, and they speak a language we do not understand. And the problem is to find the right people. Is there a simple checklist to guide us?

I am speaking from experience when I say that sometimes large NGOs come here with an attitude of strength and superiority. They come and try to push through their ideas, they do not strive for real partnership. This requires more than just a signature.

I have already dealt with German NGOs that lack the professionalism that we have in Iraq. So there are mistakes or weaknesses, sometimes at the headquarters, but I think that this usually happens in the country offices. Sometimes the right person is simply missing there.

NGOs must come in a spirit of partnership so that we can learn from each other. We do not need them as teachers if they are not at the same time willing to come as students. Some come with the attitude: “I have the money, I have the power.” That can’t work. We need a transparent, professional exchange. It’s a question of mutual respect.

Many thanks for this honest and profound insight!

The questions were asked by David Müller, Political Advocate for Religious Freedom in Iraq of the ojcos-foundation.
The interview was taken during one of his trips to the region in March 2020.

Further interviews with Emanuel Youkhana: