As a senior researcher with the Institute on Governance, Mike Fleet works with the Iraq team where he helps to implement the Fiscal Decentralization and Resiliency Project, funded by Global Affairs Canada. In this position, he travels regularly to and from Iraq. His research interests are Iraqi society and politics, federalism, state-building, security sector reform/disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and conflict dynamics.
Prior to joining the IOG, Mike worked with Global Affairs Canada as a junior policy analyst. He also held a junior research fellowship with an international think tank where he wrote policy recommendations for the Canadian government on China's Belt and Road Initiative.
Mike completed a Master of Arts degree in Global Governance from the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Memorial University of Newfoundland (Honours Political Science/Major in German). He currently lives in Ottawa, Canada.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your degree?
I grew up in Paradise, and after graduating high school the proximity and the affordable pricing made it a very attractive school to attend.
What drew you to do a degree in political science?
I spent a lot of time trying to decide what I wanted to study in university. Originally, I wanted to study history and become a high school history teacher, inspired by one of my favourite teachers at the time. But while I was in cadets I was awarded the opportunity to go to the U.S. on an exchange, where I interacted with dozens of others from all over the world in Washington, D.C. During that time, the organizers took us to the State Department. I attended a presentation with a man who talked about his work as a diplomat in the Middle East and North Africa division. I had a chance to chat with him briefly afterwards. After that, I felt very drawn to studying international affairs because I realized I was very interested in understanding global politics and the lives of those from afar.
Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as an student?
There are many! From seeing the Arkells play in the Breezeway just after turning 19 to getting the opportunity to travel and live in Harlow and in Heidelberg for classes, MUN offered so much for students to take advantage of. Also, the great support and care I got from my profs in both the political science and German faculties; without a doubt the profs are truly fantastic.
If you could do any course over again, what would it be?
I’m torn between my first comparative politics class in Harlow with Dr. Basta, where I picked up and learned so much, and my German society and language course, which I found incredibly tough and also fascinating to write on issues like memory and the state.
You currently work for a Canadian NGO running projects in Iraq. What sort of projects and what is your role?
The project is focused on fiscal federalism and decentralization in Iraq, which is funded by Global Affairs Canada. I work as a senior researcher on the team, and we work in Ottawa and with our office in Baghdad with the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee to work with the Higher Commission for Coordination among the Provinces. From here we run our pilot projects in two provinces of Diwaniyah and Maysan to help facilitate the decentralization process set by law in 2008 and enacted in 2015. We also engage in capacity building work on a variety of things, from women’s empowerment to civil society engagement to budgeting. My job typically involves updating the team weekly on political events, how it can affect our work and how to respond, developing the baseline and needs assessments, measuring impact, and working with the team on strategic planning for our work. It’s a fairly small team so at the end of the day my hands tend to end up in a bit of everything!
What is a typical day like?
The days can look very different depending on if you’re in Ottawa or in Baghdad. In Ottawa, I spend a lot of time between different tasks depending on the part of the fiscal year we are in, ranging from helping the IOG in different projects or events to developing reporting for GAC on the project to monitoring the political situation and sending a teamwide update on events. Additionally, I write on different matters on Iraq related to our work at the IOG and help to develop reporting and visuals to help plan our next year, where money will be spent and how, and what we want to strategically plan for in phase 2. Overall, I do a lot of reading and condensing that information into 1-2 page documents. Every now and again I’ll write a 40 page or so report on different matters.
Can you explain your career trajectory/path and how it took you to Iraq?
After MUN I completed my Master of Arts in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo. From there I continued to focus on Iraq politics and complexity theory, and I moved over to Global Affairs Canada for a work term in the strategic policy branch. While there my boss took me to an event being held at the IOG where they had brought in a women’s cohort of Iraqis as part of the project. The IOG heard that I focus specifically on Iraqi politics, and they were looking to hire someone as a senior researcher to specifically focus on the matter. So, there it was! Never turn down opportunities to get out and network, you never know where it’ll go.
Why is it important for citizens of Canada and other western nations to be aware of the politics of other countries?
There are 7.7 billion people in the world and Canada has about 37 million people – barely 0.5%. In an increasingly interconnected and complicated world, Canada cannot afford to shut itself away and try to ignore what’s going on around it. We could add “especially today” but that statement has been, and always will be, true. Our domestic issues will be rocked by the politics of those around us, so keeping a keen eye on trends is critical. When it comes to countries like Iraq, there is typically a deep ignorance among most Canadians about the country and its people that feeds itself into narratives that can be weaved and spun into different understandings of the world and our place in it. By being aware of the politics and societies of other countries in the world, citizens are much better equipped to face local political waves and question decisions made by our political leaders.
If there is one thing you would like people to know about Iraq what would it be?
I would say that the culture and people are absolutely amazing: big, warm, caring, diverse, and welcoming. It is the land of the cradle of civilizations, where the old testament writes about Babylon and you can go and see its ruins and visit the shrines of Hussein and Abbas in Karbala, or go north to visit Ninewa and see the beautiful ancient ruins of the Assyrian empire and also the Tomb of Job, or up again into the Kurdish region of Iraq into the mountains. It’s the place where so many cultures and religions of the Middle East come together. It’s hard to put into words how humbling it was to look at the one of the world’s oldest universities built by the Abbasids (The House of Wisdom) in Baghdad while smoking sheesha in a beloved tea house on a street filled to the brim with books and literature with the street named after the famous poet Mutanabbi. I have a deep love for Iraq that I would love for more people to be able to see and feel. While walking in a market in Amarah (a city in Maysan close to Iran), different shop owners would ask about me and how I liked Iraq, or would ask me in to offer dates and fruit to chat. A guard at a mosque was delighted and asked me in to explore the mosque and learn more of its history in the city. While recent history of Iraq has been terrifying and brutal, the perseverance and love of its citizens has been a true privilege to get to know.
How did your arts/HSS degree prepare you for your life and career?
In many different ways!
First up was getting hit pretty quick with the reality that if you want something, its on you; the degree is so open ended and provides massive space in letting you choose what you want to learn about and how. That level of freedom can be pretty terrifying and paralyzing if you don’t know what you care about or how to define it. But with an arts degree it helps to give you an array of thought and critical thinking tools to really question different aspects of what you care about and find intriguing to be able to dig in and come out (hopefully) with something meaningful to say about it, if you so wish. And at the end of the day, being able to answer “why do I care about this?” is an incredibly tough question that an arts degree can help you on the road to answering. Once you’re out of university it becomes pretty clear that no one is going to tell you which topic to write on, engage with, or problem to solve. But having an arts degree does give you the tools for you to help yourself in moving in that direction.
Secondly, it helped to land me my job, so that’s always a bonus! But it helped land me my job because through the degree I had to draw in many different influences and factors about how humans interact – from history to sociology to political science to economics to philosophy to religious studies to anthropology to etc. - that I had to take a critical look through a variety of means for problem definition and solving.
Third, it helped me learn to write. This skill takes a tremendous amount of time to learn and refine; conveying complex ideas as effectively and efficiently as possible to be understood by a broad audience is a true art that would behoove many to appreciate and hone.
Fourth, and last, it really cultivated a love and appreciation for lifelong learning and seeing the value in a variety of disciplines, languages, and skillsets. At the end of the day it brought me back to what I love to learn about most: people.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In a nice dream, I see myself continuing to visit and write on Iraq, finally able to speak Iraqi Arabic. I also hope to potentially work in the federal government on an Iraq/Middle East focused file to be part of the growing diplomatic ties between Iraq and Canada, while also doing lectures on Middle East politics at a university (*stares at MUN*).
What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?
I’d say that an arts degree is like any other degree; it’s a tool for a person, not an end in and of itself. The degree doesn’t make the person, the person decides and makes the knowledge they’ve learned from the degree “valuable.” There are those who have finished a business degree to then become poets and those who have finished an arts degree to become business owners. Also, what defines value? If it guarantees you a job in the end? Because in that case, I suppose studying law becomes much more dangerous, doesn’t it? At the end of the day, if you do what you care about and find a way to make it work, it can work. And if you yourself feel enriched with the knowledge you have, then that’s value.
What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?
Think about what inspires you and intrigues you, and think it through. Try that first. Don’t like it? Try something else. And don’t be afraid to try a couple of different fields of study, even ones that you may think on the surface you have no interest in, because you never know what may catch your passion. I never thought I’d study German and German culture and society in university, but I am so happy I did; asides from the language training (which has helped me beyond just German as I teach myself Arabic now), getting different perspectives and understanding of history and society has benefitted my own views and work. Plus now I have a love for German cinema. Also: I didn’t think at the time that studying Iraqi federalism and politics would land me a job, yet here I am! So it’s better to study what you care about than just what you think is in “most demand.” If you genuinely care about the subject, it will come through your work.
To go back to the point of thinking through what inspires you, I mean to take something and come at it from a myriad of ways. I myself love coffee, which got me thinking about how it’s produced; societal impacts and coffee cultures (in our global culture its common to take someone on a date over coffee - why is that for example?); coffee shops and their relationship with local arts scenes; coffee shop owners and their networks in cities and how they support themselves; small shop owners and policies that affect their livelihood; how bean price and quality affect the lives of consumers and the lives of farmers; and so on. There are so many ways to break apart things that seem simple to look inside as see a massive network of topics. That’s always a good place to start if you’re unsure of what to study.
What’s your favourite place to visit?
Maybe it’s because I miss living home in St. John’s, but I love to visit Fixed Coffee in the downtown area, then head to Broken Books, and then down to the Harbourside Park to read or write on a nice sunny day. It’s really one of my absolute favourite places.
Otherwise I’d say Edinburgh or Berlin – Edinburgh has the whiskey and the heartbreakingly beautiful architecture, and Berlin has the beer and the quirky and alive underground arts culture.
What are you reading and listening to these days?
I listen to a massive variety of music; from Pink Floyd to Miles Davis to DeadMau5 to a wall of 90’s and 2000’s alternative to Childish Gambino to Acid Arab to 12Vince, Slowy, and FloFilz. I try to stay pretty open minded.
As for reading, I typically read a fiction then a non-fiction book in a cycle, with the non-fiction typically about Iraq. I just finished a book by Hans Fallada (excellent German writer, highly recommend Every Man Dies Alone), then I’ll head on to a book on the Iran-Iraq War and the Iraqi exiles. Have 4321 then Shantaram lined up after that!
What are you most looking forward to within the next year?
I have a couple of projects going on, like I’m writing a book chapter on Canadian military training operations in Jordan, Iraq, and with the Palestinian Authority, and have a plan to try and write an article every month on subjects that interest me (such as the new youth of Baghdad and how they’re shaping Iraq) so I’m looking forward to having those completed and out.
Also it sounds cheesy but every single year since I graduated I’ve been in a radically different place then I was the year before through different opportunities that just come up unexpectedly, so I’m looking forward to see what comes up!