Sophia's Peace Work

Saturday, May 14, 2005

So last night I got slightly reamed by a woman from an Italian NGO. Bridges to Baghdad. A great group that has done some wonderful work in Iraq ...and the same group that had two Italian women kidnapped last year. Earlier, I had told the woman that I worked for an independent Iraqi NGO on environmental issues. For the past few days, my organization has had three Italians here for a training on GIS (Geographic Information System) offered to Iraqi Ministry of Public Works and to some of our staff. They will use the system as part of a survey of facilities and infrastructure (roads, water treatment plants, hospitals, schools, water networks, etc.) that exists in southern Iraq. The GIS system will hopefully help them to create of master plan for development and reconstruction for the south of the country.

But when I met the Bridges woman again last night and she heard that these Italian trainers were in town, she ask what organization they were from.

I said they were from the Italian Ministry of Environment and Territory. That's when she began to unloaded on me.

"Well, you don't work for an independent organization then! You are working with the Italian government and they are part of the Occupation! You can't claim to be independent! The Italians have troops in Iraq. And you are working with their government!"

I was a little shocked by the violence and rapid fire of her tirade. All I could say to her was, "Well, I guess that's true." Atleast by her definition. No more was said on the subject and we went off to have a nice dinner with friends. But I was certainly thinking about what she said most of the night.

This isn't the first time I've run into this argument. I got a taste of it once when I was in college. One of our facilty at the environmental studies program I was in got some research funding money from a company known for destroying the forests in the Pacific Northwest. Some people critizied her and told her that the company was just using her to make themselves look more "Green." She argued that, while that might be true, her work was important and would directly oppose the companies bad practices. At the time I remember feeling that it wasn't a simple black and white issue.

In this situation ... I don't really equate the Italian Ministry of Environment with a for-profit company trying to rape the land, but it is the same kind of thinking. Don't have relations with the "enemy" - stay pure and true to your convictions. The enemy being, in this case the Italian government.

The funny thing is that I work for an Iraqi organization and let me tell you that the vast majority of Iraqi organizations ... even one that doesn't like the occupation or actually opposes it... would be more than willing to accept money from the Italian government. Probably most would even take funding from the American government!

She is trying to impose her world view on the Iraqis and I'm sure they will disappoint her everytime in this regard. The next day I told the Italian engineers who were here for the training what had happened the night before. The head of the team responded this way.

"This is the typical stupid response of the peace movement. They think there is only one way to help the Iraqis." His didn't personally feel like an occupier just because he worked of the Italian government. He was trying simply to help restore a marsh and the life of the people living in the marsh. That was going to take a big effort and alot of money. The kind of money that governments can spend and his government was one of the few that had stopped up to the plate to do it.

In the end, I understand where this woman was coming from. She is Italian and disagrees with what her country has done in Iraq. I know that I wouldn't be particularly pleased if my NGO took a big grant from the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. State Department (not that this is likely to happen). Fortunately I would feel comfortable voicing my opinion with my boss (we have a good enough relationship for that), but in the end, it's an Iraqi NGO and I grant them perhaps more authority to make such a decision than perhaps I would with a group I worked with in the U.S.

In the end, since the goals of our organization are in line with the goals of the Italian Ministry of the Environment and focused on marshland restoration, I think our group is independent. That is our mission afterall. Should the Italian Ministry take a new course and try to steer us away from restoration (quite unlikely) I suppose we would see how independent we are ... but that is so unlikely that I can't see that really being an issue.

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