By Sgt. James P. Hunter, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 25, 2008 - With many streets here cluttered with trash and just as many roads bent out of shape, Baghdad can convey an impression of poverty. But something as simple as the produce available here tells a different tale. An anthropologist is helping soldiers and leaders from the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team better understand the needs and living conditions of Iraqi citizens in northwestern Baghdad.
Marcus Griffin is a 40-year-old college professor who is taking a one-year break from teaching to bring his knowledge and experience to the fight. Using anthropology and sociology methods, he tries to determine whether micro-grants coalition officials are providing to Iraqi shopkeepers are having any effect on communities.
Before being "thin" or "chiseled" became the rage in Western societies, the results of people's diet conveyed their relative economic standing. People with "thick" builds were perceived to be wealthy. That's the case in Iraq, Griffin said. Wealthier Iraqis eat rice, lamb and fish. Poorer people eat bread, eggs and beans. But all Iraqis have one thing in common: their daily intake of cucumbers and tomatoes. The difference here is the quality of these products.
"These are quick indicators of market infrastructure," Griffin said.
Economic growth can easily be measured by the quality of produce in Baghdad's inner-city markets, he said.
Griffin often looks at the quality of produce and fish available in the local markets and where the merchants are getting their tomatoes to help him assess the growing economy. The better the quality, he said, the more the economy is growing.
"His expertise in analyzing the type of food being sold in the markets has been useful," said Shreveport, La. native Capt. Thomas H. Melton, commander of Troop A, 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment. "He was able to explain the markets in my (area of operations) are receiving poor quality fruits and vegetables, indicating the area is fairly poor and malnourished."
Recently, Griffin toured the markets in southern Ghazaliyah with soldiers from Troop A, 1-75th Cavalry Regiment. There are four markets in southern Ghazaliyah: 8th Street, Nafla, Afran and Zawia. Melton said all four have shown substantial growth since he arrived in early December.
"With the exception of Zawia, the markets are all traditional open-air markets with bakeries, butcher shops, and fruit and vegetable stands," he said. "These markets cater to the residents of Ghazaliyah from within the (neighborhoods). Zawia market is more like a Western-style strip mall, catering to traffic on a main highway."
Heavy fighting in the area over the past year damaged much of the market, but with improved security, the economy is seeing much growth.
"Store owners are returning every day, but this market is very much in a rebuilding phase," Melton said. "The other markets are each seeing expansion, specifically Nafla and Afran. The presence of new stores, including restaurants, indicates that the economy is improving and the people feel secure."
Griffin said he wanted to see the economic boost and help identify the needs of these Iraqis to help the economy grow even more. "A bakery can change a neighborhood with just the basic necessity of bread," he said. "It can cause change, especially to the economy."
And that is where Griffin started his day: at the local bakery, talking with some of its workers.
Melton said Griffin has taken special interest in this bakery and "will help us facilitate a micro-grant approval for this business in order to study the effects that the micro-grant process has on the community."
The smell of freshly baked bread straight out of the kiln filled the afternoon air as they approached the bakery. Three men worked inside under no lighting except for the glow of the fire baking the bread. The bakery sells nearly 10 pieces at a time, at a cost of 1,250 Iraqi dinars. But keeping the business running is a problem. Having the money to purchase flour and fuel can be quite difficult.
A micro-grant is just what the bakers need to boost their business and the community as a whole, Melton said.
Griffin toured much of the area that day, spending time with an Iraqi family. They sipped on chai tea, ate lamb patties and discussed many of the area's needs, which mostly have to do with the availability of electricity. Lately, the family has been getting only a half hour of electricity a day. Griffin noted all the difficulties they are facing, hoping to fully understand their needs and what it would take to satisfy their desires.
"The biggest needs of the Iraqi people are the improvement of essential services," Melton said. "The residents average between one and two hours of electricity per day. The lack of electricity forces them to spend much of their income on black-market fuel to run generators. Additionally, it prevents the sewage pump stations from working, which contributes to the bad standing-water problems in the streets."
Griffin also stopped at a fruit stand during his visit, noticing that it had coconut for sale -- a rarity, to his knowledge, in Iraq, he said. Having the ability to bring in an exotic, luxurious food, he said, is a sign of economic growth.
"As we move toward tactical overwatch, we need to see visual indicators quickly of how the community and economy is doing -- see the growth within," Griffin said. "It keeps a pulse on the population."
(Army Sgt. James P. Hunter serves in public affairs with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.)