Thursday, September 29, 2005

Reporting and development in the Middle East

I'm listening to Dexter Filkins, who's a NYTimes reporter based in Iraq, on Terry Gross. I am in love with Terry Gross and would probably marry her if I could, despite the fact that my friend (no names here--tee hee!) no longer listens to her and her "pro-Israeli" views. I'm so glad I haven't picked up on any hardcore Zionist stuff because I don't think I could live without her.

Anyway, this interview with Filkins has me thinking about how in the heck these people are able to do real reporting in Iraq. Seems like he spends a lot of time out of the Green Zone, unlike most, and he says he speaks Arabic. That I also kind of wonder about, because I've yet to see many people with a good enough handle on Arabic to totally manage an interview, nuances and all.

Which gets me thinking about all the people we ended up meeting in Amman who were supposed to be doing development work in Iraq but live in Amman because the security situation doesn't allow it. The US is funneling gajillions of dollars to run projects from promoting democracy to rebuilding infrastructure, but a disquieting amount of this money seems to be sitting around due the inability to do work in Iraq, thrown at projects for the sake of being able to say they're "implementing" them, or just funneled out to pay the American consultants and staff their inflated rates for working in a war zone.

I never once met anyone I would consider an expert on the Middle East working with these orgs doing business in Iraq. In fact, at least 95% of the people I met had no experience whatsoever working in the Middle East. Again, the security situation is partially to blame; it's difficult to attract anyone to Iraq to work, so many unqualified people are taking on jobs that give them an easy entrance into the development world. But it's a pattern I typically see in the US development sector--people running projects who simply have no clue about where they're working. Kind of makes one wonder how effective or sustainable they're going to be.

But back to reporting on the Middle East. Samer and I went to see Anthony Shadid a couple of weeks ago. His new book, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, looks definitely worth a read. This is the kind of reporting that really appeals to me--the kind that digs into the stories of the regular people experiencing the mayhem around them.

His reading was good, but way too short, since the audience got broken into groups to discuss "key" questions on the US' involvement in Iraq. I totally felt like I was back in grad school, where everyone kind of has no clue but are trying really hard to speak in a super learned way. Too bad we couldn't have heard more from Anthony to figure out what's really going on over there.


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