RTI International Report Describes Lessons Learned from U.S.-Financed Local Governance Program in Post-War Iraq

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Recognizing widespread criticism that the U.S. mishandled reconstruction in post-war Iraq, a new report from researchers at RTI International explores the progress made in establishing basic public administration practices and political processes to better serve citizens in a post-conflict society, an area that has mostly gone unnoticed by the media.

According to the report, "Provincial Governance in Iraq: Councils, Contestation, and Capacity Building," the experience in Iraq offers several lessons for international stabilization and reconstruction operations that can be learned from the local governance programs that were established there.

The report was published by RTI Press 10 years after the United States–led invasion of Iraq and the launch of the reconstruction program.

Through three consecutive multi-million dollar contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2003 to 2011, RTI led efforts to build local government capacity to respond to citizen needs and to function effectively within the newly created constitutional and legal architecture of decentralization.  

“Critics of the United States’ handling of the reconstruction raise valid issues,” said Derick Brinkerhoff, Ed.D, RTI fellow and author of the report. “Nonetheless, USAID assistance helped local governments to become better deliberative and legislative bodies and to reduce conflicts between provincial and central government actors.”

According to the report, Iraq’s decentralization is partial and incomplete. Provincial officials have gained governing experience and some legitimacy. However, the authors suggest, Iraqi provincial councils remain weak relative to centrally appointed actors and they see the pendulum swinging further toward centralization.

The authors suggest the lessons learned from the Iraq project, could benefit post-war rebuilding in other countries. These include:

  • Ambiguities in the constitution needed to be worked out through the political process and the subsequent elaboration of policy and legislation.
  • Decentralization debates are ultimately about the distribution of political power and control and cannot be addressed solely as technical and administrative governance questions.
  • Public administration matters, and when the gap between capacity and expectations is large, it matters a lot. This gap remains a serious challenge to the Iraqi state as citizens’ patience with lack of services, jobs, and security grows thinner.
  • Capacity development for provincial councils must take into account the political realities affecting the councils, their members, and other stakeholders, both provincial and national.

"A final observation is that international governance improvement templates can only be effective if they recognize that technical interventions must account for politics and the incentives facing local actors," Brinkerhoff said. “Decentralization efforts are never really finished in a definitive sense and in many respects, except for Kurdistan, the forces of centralization in Iraq are in the ascendancy. The recent increases in sectarian violence are a reminder that Iraq faces ongoing challenges to establishing stability and security for its citizens.”


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  • A new report by RTI International explores the progress made in establishing basic public administration practices and political processes to better serve citizens in post-war Iraq
  • The report, published by RTI Press, offers several lessons learned from Iraq that could benefit post-conflict rebuilding in other countries