The main strand of the physical reconstruction of social care in Iraq when I was there in 2004 was to improve the abysmal standards in care homes and day centres. We set up two teams consisting of a mix of US Army personnel shadowed by Iraqi ministry staff.
One team focused on teaching the Iraqi staff in the provinces how to improve the physical surroundings while the second team worked on the caregivers. In this team the Iraqis were health care workers, for example, a doctor, a dentist, a social worker. They were taught about basic care such as hygiene, emotional care and how to respond appropriately to the disabled adults and children they were looking after. The common element was the existing staff’s lack of knowledge on how to give care and treat people with respect.
These ministry teams had long journeys to each province in the country to do this work. Several times the convoys were held up by robbers and on one trip the cars were attacked and the director general for the northern region shot dead. But still the missions continued.
A new role started to emerge in the ministry – a more regulatory one of improving standards and getting better governance. Not in the way it is in the UK, but simply getting staff in the provinces to do what they were being paid to do.
Those who were corrupt and just took the money and did nothing were dismissed as the ministry teams visited and observed the conditions and the cruelty. But there were also those staff who had risked their lives to continue to care in desperate circumstances with no equipment, hot water, or electricity, those who had barred the doors when people had tried to loot the units, and those who had not been paid for months.
The people appointed to the roles in the ministry in Baghdad were eager to listen to how things were done elsewhere. Iraq had led on social care in the Middle East before Saddam’s regime and had advised Dubai on the setting up of their services. Now I was asking Dubai to help Iraq rebuild theirs. A group of Iraqi director generals (and the minister) came to London with me to social services in the UK and took back the ideas that would be culturally suitable.
Have they continued to progress in the last few years as I hoped? I doubt it. I am sure there is work continuing with international agencies and NGOs, but from what I have heard from those on the ground conditions are still bad. Many of those brave Iraqis who worked with us in the ministry are now too frightened to leave their homes. They and their families have received threats of rape or murder.
The e-mails I receive from those who should now be taking the country forward are rarely sent from Iraq. Instead they had no alternative but to claim asylum in other countries because they had helped the coalition and knew that the insurgents would now relentlessly seek them out.
We had bad days and good days in Iraq in 2004, for each bit of bad news there was also some heartening tale of freedom, of progress, of celebration. Eventually the tide will turn and one day the good tales will outweigh the bad. Iraq has the potential and the people to be great again, but there is a long way to go.
Irene Findlay (pictured top) has been director of adult social services in the London Borough of Barnet since her return from Iraq in 2004.