When you arrive in Basra in southern Iraq for the first time, all you are able to see is desert and the occasional smoke plumes from the oil fields. The city of Basra has a storied history that ranges from a possible site for the Garden of Eden to being the hometown of Sinbad the sailor, but years of civil unrest have turned it into a gray and melancholy place. At least on the surface. When you look closely, you will see that the city is full of life. Children are everywhere-they run and play, laughing and shrieking in family parks that have recently popped up around the city.  The busiest of all is a newly completed family park in Al Nashwa, a working class neighborhood of Basra.  The beautiful, green park, opened a few months ago- complete with tricycles and benches- has brought a splash of color and hope to the children and families of this hardscrabble district. As day stretches into night, the warm natural light fades and is replaced by the cool light of overhead solar lamps.  Children boast of their clean playground, families linger, chatting and relaxing —comfortable in the safety of the well-illuminated grounds.

The solar-lit park is the product of a partnership between an international oil company and the local community in Al Nashwa.  But it wouldn’t be what it is today without USAID’s efforts training a local community action group that wanted to do more in its community.

Representatives from an oil company and Al Nashwa community preside over the opening ceremony for the family park and solar lighting installation. Photo Credit: Mercy Corps

The company had originally proposed the installing solar street lighting to benefit pedestrians and drivers. However, in the course of engaging with the community and the USAID-trained community action group, another more pressing need was identified: creating a safe place for children and families to spend time.  Working together, the community was able to prioritize their needs and present the project to the potential donor.

This successful partnership between an oil company and the Al Nashwa community has inspired further collaboration in Basra on significant infrastructure projects, such as road expansion and crosswalks.

USAID’s Community Action Program is the model being used to ensure community participation in the processes that shape projects sponsored by the international oil companies and the local government. Since 2003, the program has worked with Iraqi communities to assist them in identifying and prioritizing their needs while promoting improved engagement with local governments and other stakeholders.

In Al Zubair, initial discussions between an international oil company and the USAID-trained local community action group identified unemployed widows as a priority for the community.  The company agreed to fund a sewing cooperative that would give training and equipment to 15 disadvantaged local women.  The project suits needs all around:  not only can the company save time and money by having company uniforms produced locally, but the women can earn income and gain valuable sewing, embroidery, and business management skills.  In the coming months, the Al Zubair sewing cooperative hopes to find new clients with the growing oil industry in Basra.

USAID’s Community Action Program has fostered partnerships between Iraqi communities, local governments, and other stakeholders that have empowered over 160 community action groups to implement more than 630 projects focused at restoration of essential services in southern Iraq since 2008. Iraqi community groups have rebuilt schools, bridges, and roads, and have promoted entrepreneurship, the use of information technology, and sports. These efforts have benefitted and improved lives of over two million people in southern Iraq.

As international oil companies and local communities are finding, improving and expanding infrastructure is of mutual benefit.  Through efforts like the Community Action Program, USAID will continue to ensure that local communities have a strong voice in the direction of that development.