UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Spring 2007
[stepping up]
Life During Wartime
Rebuilding public services for Iraqis from the ground up
by Julene Snyder

In Baghdad Joseph Ghougassian is seldom alone; he’s flanked by his personal security detail, which accompanies him everywhere he goes to protect him from insurgents.

photo by Tamer Ibrahim

Bringing decent public services to Iraq is a tough job. That’s why they called in Joe Ghougassian. From a secured compound in Baghdad, the former ambassador to Qatar talked about his decision to spend the next three years there to head efforts to bring basic services such as water, electricity and fuel to the people. “They have to wait in line for hours just to get a tank of gas, and it’s dangerous out there.”

Tapped in August to become chief of party for a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop and strengthen public service delivery to Iraqis, Ghougassian admits that things are wildly different now than they were back in 2004 when he was in Baghdad as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, charged with normalizing higher education.

“Then, I was able to travel all over the country by myself or with Iraqis,” he says, sounding weary. “Now, I cannot even leave the compound by car or by walking. I’m always surrounded by guards. Things have deteriorated to such an extent that I would not dare to travel about on my own.”

In spite of the dangers he and his team are facing — insurgent activity, ethnic violence, criminal elements such as kidnapping, carjacking and murder — Ghougassian is determined to bring about progress. “We want procedures to be transparent, and to stamp out the kind of bureaucratic corruption that is endemic in the Middle East. We want to bring them in tune with the best practices of industrial nations.”

It’s a gargantuan task indeed. “There are 1.9 million public servants that need to be trained,” he explains. Luckily, he’s put together a solid team, mostly made up of Iraqi-American academics who are there to show the people what being the best of the best looks like. “We train trainers, who train other trainers, and spread out from there.”

Ghougassian, who earned two degrees from USD — a master’s in international relations in 1977 and a J.D. in 1980 — also taught on campus for a number of years.

Of course, in a manner of speaking, he’s still teaching. “There are five areas we need to focus on,” he explains. “Fiscal management, personnel management, information technology, communication management, and strategy and planning.”

While the job seems impossible, Ghougassian is used to exceeding expectations. “Within two weeks, we had already put together two training courses in procurement. Washington couldn’t believe how quickly we were able to begin the work.”

In Baghdad Joseph Ghougassian is seldom alone; he’s flanked by his personal security detail, which accompanies him everywhere he goes to protect him from insurgents.