This makes a point I have been thinking about for months, that the people in charge of reconstruction in Iraq, or aid in any desperate region of the world need to learn to
think like a squatter
What does this mean? Here’s an example: In mid-December, as attacks on civilians and armed forces in Iraq mushroomed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a splashy announcement: the $4.9 million renovation of Basra International Airport would be complete by July 2005. "Once the airport opens," an Army press release declared, "the tourism industry will find a welcome home in Iraq."
Talk about getting ahead of yourself. Life is a struggle in Iraq. Violence is rampant. Families are squatting in abandoned buildings. Electricity production has fallen below pre-war levels. In many neighborhoods, ponds of raw sewage cover the streets and garbage is seldom collected. Yet the U.S. is crowing about reconstruction work that the average Iraqi will never see.
The Basra airport renovation, the project to build a modern container port at Umm Qsar, the plan to refurbish railway stations in Southern Iraq: these projects may sound good to Washington’s armchair warriors, but they will likely not go over well with the general public. Despite the new, state-of-the-art stations, who in Iraq will ride the trains if they become targets for insurgents? Will any Iraqi cheer the modernization of the port of Um Qasr, or will people simply see it as proof that the U.S. wants a more efficient way of capitalizing on trade with the oil-rich country? Will the mass of Iraqis who don’t have enough dinars to feed their families feel good about the renewal of Basra airport? As the Times article suggests, shoring up water and sewage treatment plants will seem meaningless if people don't receive real benefits: cheap, easily accessible drinking water and fewer fetid pools of sewage in the streets.
The average American (and certainly the average Pentagon war planner) has no idea what it’s like to live without electricity or running water or toilets or sewers —- but the world’s squatters know. There are a billion squatters in the world today, approximately one in six people on the planet. They know how to build strong communities the hard way. The squatters carry water, food, and construction materials on their backs, sometimes over vast distances, so they can create their neighborhoods. The pool their money and invest in their communities. They do all this because they believe their work will give them a future.
Many of my friends in squatter communities across the globe are dismissive of the big ticket projects that governments and non-profits love to discuss. They know that these big ideas often have little impact on their lives -- and sometimes actually make things worse. The airports and harbors and train lines and other big projects may become important down the road. But, if the U.S. wants to cut a better figure in the world, it might want to scrap its super-sized strategy and instead concentrate on making small but crucial changes on the streets where people live.
That would be thinking like a squatter.