Scholar Reflects on Provincial Reconstruction Team Service in Iraq

mingusBy Jennifer Lambert (SC ’00)

As a recent PhD graduate interested in work involving development,
security and the Middle East, Jennifer Lambert (SC ’00) called upon the Truman
community to find someone with relevant experience.  She quickly connected with Matthew Mingus (CO
’86), who recently returned from working on governance and development issues
in Iraq.

Matthew was a double major in speech communications and public
affairs at the University of Denver when he won the Truman Scholarship in
1986.  His desire to work with community
development organizations drove his interest in public service.  And after his undergraduate degree, he did work
for community-based non-profits in Colorado and Michigan.  Yet his love for learning, influenced by the
work of some influential teachers, drove Matthew back to school, where he
earned an MPA and PhD in Public Administration. 
He is now a professor of governance at Western Michigan University.

Most of Matthew’s research
focused on comparative public administration—comparing two or more countries
like Canada and the United States.  While
he found his research compelling, he continued searching for international
consulting opportunities to broaden his knowledge and expertise.  It is this desire that led a rather
comfortable and tenured professor in Michigan to apply for the opportunity to
serve as a senior governance specialist with an embedded Provincial
Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq.

By the time the State Department
called to interview Matthew, he had talked with several people who had been to
Iraq before and served in similar capacities. 
So when he was presented with the opportunity, Matthew felt he had a
good idea of what he was signing up to do. 
Of course, no person’s path to Iraq comes without obstacles, and
Matthew’s biggest obstacle was making this work with wife of 19 years and a 15
year old daughter.  While his wife was
against the idea at the start, she was much more supportive by his first
R&R because she could see how excited he was by the work he was doing in
Iraq.  But perhaps Matthew was aided by
the speed of events after taking the opportunity.  Within weeks of being hired, Matthew was
training for his Iraq adventure just outside DC.  And after just three weeks of training, he
was landing at the military side of Baghdad International Airport.

Of course, going to Iraq comes
with risks, so his family’s hesitancy is certainly understandable.  While he had some concerns and worries about
his own safety, Matthew said he basically let the US military personnel worry
about security and focused his attention on learning about a foreign culture
and doing his job.  He remarked, rather
casually, “You know we have the best trained security personnel in the world in
the US armed services.  I wasn’t
preoccupied with concern about my safety; I let the people whose job it was to
protect my team worry about that.” 

Matthew’s job consisted of
working with local governments to teach local officials, in his words, “that democracy
means more than just elections.”  Life
under a dictator in Iraq meant that nearly all decisions were made by a highly
centralized regime in Baghdad, so most members of town councils and provincial
governments had little experience in actually making decisions and implementing
them.  One of the biggest lessons that
Matthew and his colleagues taught Iraqis was how to communicate more
democratically to reach a consensus. 

Perhaps his biggest
accomplishment was helping the more rural provincial governments, called qadas,
surrounding Baghdad work together and advocate for their collective
interests.  Matthew says that this is a
classic urban politics problem.  When
locales live near a large urban center, most of the attention and resources get
devoted to that urban center and leave many of the suburban and rural
surrounding districts with less clout. 
These more rural districts now hold a semiannual conference and have
learned to work more closely to get their districts’ concerns and issues
addressed.

Overall, Matthew said it was a
great experience, it will contribute positively to his research and course
content, and it gave him the opportunity to learn about a completely foreign
culture.  He had never been in an Arab
state before and didn’t have an educational background in anything related to
the Middle East.  Matthew characterizes
the Iraqi people as “a friendly, open, and extremely hospitable people who have
a very hands-on and engaged culture, particularly when in groups, but
individuals can be very reserved.” 
During meetings, when a new person entered the room, everything often
stopped as people greeted and welcomed the new member.  “It made for some long meetings,” Matthew
recalled, “but it shows just how warm and hospitable the Iraqi people really
are.”

If other Truman Scholars are interested in similar work, Matthew
said most of the current opportunities to serve on PRTs are now in
Afghanistan.  The key is to talk to
people who have done it before, so you can figure out if the opportunity is right
for you and how to get connected to the opportunities available.  Most opportunities are available at usajobs.gov (U.S. government) and devnetjobs.org (private contractors and
NGOs).

Jennifer
Lambert (SC ’00) recently completed her PhD in Political Science (International
Relations/Middle East) and is currently teaching at the George Washington
University in Washington, DC.

 

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