Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Can Iraq Survive the "Perfect Storm"?

An Iraqi citizen being tested for Covid-19
Iraq faces a series of inter-related crises which haven’t been seen since the 1991 Gulf War and the March 1991 uprising (al-Intifada) which almost toppled Saddam Husayn’s Ba'thist regime. I refer to this crisis as a “perfect storm” because of the combination of severe shocks facing Iraq’s economy and body politic. With pressing health, economic and political problems confronting Iraq’s Federal Government and the KRG, what are Iraq’s prospects for being able to address this crisis and prevent widespread economic and political instability?

The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched the capacity of an outdated, corrupt and inadequately funded national health care system.  The pandemic has resulted in a world-wide drop in the price of oil. Corruption in Iraq has intensified as Iran’s proxies – politicians and militias – have created a parallel or grey market economy which neither the Federal Government nor the KRG has been able to control. Poverty rates are climbing, not only workers and farmers but for middle class families, all of whom find it difficult to make ends meet. 

With Iraq dependent of 95% of its government revenues from oil sales, the collapse of oil prices has created a huge budget deficit.  Currently hovering around $40, a barrel of oil’s price must remain at $60 or above for Iraqi to meet its budgetary needs.  The recent rejection of al-Kadhimi’s budget by the Council of Deputies (Iraq’s parliament), which seeks to draw upon central bank reserves to cover part of the deficit, points to the problems facing the government in meeting its fiscal responsibilities, especially the salaries of the large salaried bureaucracy and those “ghost employees” who are paid regularly but fail to contribute any social benefit.

Since October 2019, a large youth protest movement (the October Revolution or Thawrat Tishreen) has been demanding an end of government corruption and early fair and free elections.  Despite the demonstrations’ overwhelmingly peaceful nature, over 1000 youth protestors have been killed and as many as 25000 injured by pro-Iranian militias and the so-called “Blue Hats” of the Sadrist Movement.  Many other activists have been kidnapped and tortured. 
Iraq's Thawrat Tishreen demonstrations in Oct. 2019
The government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has condemned these attacks and tried to quell them.  However, it has been largely ineffective in providing security for the youth protestors. Some police officials have been replaced, e.g., in the southern city of Basra, but the militias’ ability to attack demonstrators continues unabated.
Basra activist, Reham Yacoub, murdered by pro-Iran militia, Aug. 2020
The power of Iran’s proxy militias and their supporters within the Iraqi government, especially former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and Hadi al-'Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization and its militia, do Iran’s bidding.  As many Iraqis have pointed out, it is no exaggeration to argue that al-Maliki runs a “deep state” on behalf of Iran and promotes its political economic interests in Iraq, at the expense of Iraq’s citizenry.

Part of the problem of aggressively confronting the crises which Iraq currently confronts is that it isn’t a sovereign state.  Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has attempted to reign in corruption at Iraq’s border crossings with Iran, eliminate militia control of Baghdad International Airport and the many illicit financial benefits such control bestows, and assert control over the Ministry of the Interior and other security forces which have failed to protect the Thawrat Tishreen’s peaceful demonstrations.  

In addition, Iraq is facing a threat which has received relatively limited attention to date. In the north central provinces, whose population is primarily Sunni Arab, the Daiish is working hard to reestablish itself.  Working in small cells, Da'ish terrorist have attacked oil refineries, police stations, and army patrols as well as destroying infrastructure and burning fields of crops.  
Lt.Gen. Gen. 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Sa'adi, Counter Terrorism Services commander
Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Services, under the able leadership of Lt. General 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Sa'adi, have been working with US and Coalition forces to prevent the Da'ish from achieving their objectives.  Nevertheless, the areas in which the terrorists are active, including the city of Mosul, find many local residents displaced from their homes as a result of the 2017 struggle to defeat the Da'ish. 

al-Falluja residents, Anbar Province, displaced by war against the Da'ish
An estimated 4.5 million Iraqis were displaced during the struggle to regain the city of Mosul, and the additional territory the Da'ish had occupied in north central Iraq and along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Federal Government’s curtailed revenues, resulting from oil price declines, undermine its efforts to implement reconstruction of homes, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. Thus, these areas could become fertile ground for terrorist recruitment, especially of youth, in the future.

Climate change is adversely affecting Iraq.  As was evident this past summer when temperatures reached close to 130 degrees in Baghdad and elsewhere, Iraq lacks the ability to provide electricity to its population.  Further, the intense heat has harmed the cultivation and harvesting of crops. If we add to this problem the reduced water supply coming from Turkey and Iran through the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, Iraq faces a dangerous climate change induced crisis affecting its population and agricultural production.

Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, not only suffers from intense heat and lack of electricity, which leads to anti-government demonstrations each summer, but also suffers from a lack of potable water.  In fact, the water supplied to the city’s residents is not even suitable for bathing.  Lack of adequate municipal sewerage facilities adds to Basra’s woes and threatens its residents’ health. 

All these crises interact to produce what can be called the “perfect storm.”  Reduced oil revenues severely constrain the Iraqi government, whether in Baghdad or Erbil, from paying government employee salaries and investing in projects designed to promote economic growth and improve the nation’s outdated infrastructure.  The massive corruption and nepotism which plagues the Baghdad and Erbil governments results in the waste of huge amounts of public funds which could be spent to improves Iraqis’ standard of living.  

Iran’s control of proxy militias, such as the Badr, Kata’ib Hizballah, al-Nujaha’ and several others, has created a state within a state. These militias benefit Iran’s economy and the militia members, but robs Iraq of huge amounts of revenue through illicit commercial transactions over which it has no control.  Through attacks on the US Embassy and other diplomatic facilities in Baghdad, the militias also hinder Iraq’s effort to crush the Dacish because such attacks have led members of the US led coalition to withdraw their troops from Iraq. 

Iraq’s underfunded health care system also costs the state because it lacks the necessary ability to engage in testing and contact tracing which would help curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus.  The greater the number of Iraqis who are infected as a result of inadequate health care services, the more people are removed from the workforce, further undermining the economy (not to speak of the suffering caused to those who become ill and to their families).

Lack of adequate electricity increases mortality rates among the elderly, the sick and young children.  In addition to the needless suffering that is causes to those who can’t find shelter from intense heat, the state incurs additional medical costs which could have been avoided.
Climate change is hurting Iraq's agriculture
State funds are also negatively affected by declining supplies of water for agriculture and the harm to crops by intense summer heat.  When domestic agricultural production is negatively affected, precious hard currency must be spent on importing food to make up for these losses.

What is to be done?  I would suggest that we divide state action into short and long-term policies.  The short-term policies need to focus on meeting immediate shortfalls in the Iraqi budget while the long-term policies need to address the issues which the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of oil prices have laid bare to the Iraqi populace and those outside Iraq.

First, it is critical that Iraq’s current government retain close ties to the United States and the European Union.  The US and the EU possess the clout to have the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provide Iraq with a loan which will cover its immediate revenue needs.

Second, Iraq should try and exploit the contacts that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has made with Saudi Arabia in establishing a joint investment initiative.  One way this collaboration could benefit Iraq is from a large Saudi investment in Iraq’s agrarian sector.  Such an investment would provide Iraq with much needed funds to improve agricultural production and the Saudis with greater food security.

Third, the al-Kadhimi government needs to more aggressively pursue its efforts to reign in corruption.  Despite replacing some officials at border crossings and removing police officials, e.g., in Basra where youth have been treated especially brutally by militias, there needs to be a coordinated national effort with televised and social media communications from a wide variety of officials who are respected who ask the Iraqi people for their help in reigning in corruption.
PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi meeting with KRG PM Masrour Barzani in Erbil, Aug 2020
Fourth, now is an opportune moment for Baghdad and Erbil to put aside their differences to come together to confront the “perfect storm” which adversely affects Arab Iraq and the KRG. If the two sides could agree upon a program to seriously confront corruption, that in itself would provide a large amount of desperately needed revenues.  Increased coordination between the Counter Terrorism Services and the Pesh Merga would also allow more effective prosecution of the campaign to rid Iraq once and for all of the Da'ish terrorists.

Fifth, Iraq’s economy must become diversified if it is to escape the “oil curse.” It cannot depend on oil revenues to sustain it in the future, especially as the world moves away from the use of fossil fuels and surpluses of oil grow, further depressing prices.  Thus, the private sector must be given a more central role in Iraq’s economic development.  How might that occur.

First, the Federal Government must pass laws which eliminate much of the bureaucratic and regulatory impediments which hinder the formation of private enterprise.  Forming a commission comprised of government technocrats with business and financial expertise, and successful entrepreneurs, should formulate solutions to immediate issues which need to be addressed, such as impediments to forming new commercial, industrial and financial enterprises, as well as a 5 year roadmap to diversification.
Iraqi youth, especially women, need greater access to employment
Second, the Iraqi government - both Federal and KRG – need to mobilize a highly underused resources, namely Iraq’s youth, which constitute 70% of the population under the age of 30, namely 28 of Iraq’s 40 million population.  One effective measure would be to provide resources – technical and financial – to establish thousands of new youth social entrepreneurial ventures.

Youth could play a critical role in improving Iraq’s national health care system.  During numerous protests, Iraqi youth who support the Thawrat Tishreen have established rudimentary health care clinics in the city centers in which their demonstrations are taking place.  These clinics have provided important services, especially to the poor and needy.
Iraqi youth need more incubators like al-Mahatta (the Station) in Baghdad
To date, Iraqi youth, both in the south and the KRG, have successfully established a wide variety of social entrepreneurial ventures, including recycling companies which purchase recyclables from local residents, which cuts down on neighborhood refuse.  Other firms seek to recycle food waste and one venture has created a successful school in Baghdad’s Abu Ghrayb district. 

With the problems of Basra’s potable water crisis, the Federal Government could fund a youth-run venture to assure the elderly, ill and families with children of access to clean water. The Iraqi government could create, both in the south and the north, a joint National Public Health Corps comprised of physicians, medical technicians and large numbers of youth who could assist in delivering much needed medicines to the ill, elderly and needy. 

Youth who were part of a national Public Health Corps could also disseminate information to households, especially in poor neighborhoods and villages which provide information about public health and vaccinations. They could also conduct questionnaires to obtain information regarding the medical needs of these neighborhoods and then provide the information to the local hospital or clinic. 

In terms of its large youth demographic, Iraq possesses a large amount of human resources which hasn’t been effectively utilized. Youth in particular haven’t been given the opportunity contribute to Iraqi society to date. For example, there are many youth who have been trained as engineers and natural scientists (including a large cohort educated at Rutgers University, my own institution).

These activities would serve another function which is to train the youth working to improve health care so that they might themselves become physicians or medical technicians. could contribute to helping to revive and improve Iraq’s agricultural sector. Again, youth could engage in data collections which could assist the ministries of agriculture in the Baghdad and Erbil better address the needs of farmers. Iraqi youth in the south and the north could disseminate information to farmers on where to best purchase seeds and fertilizer. In effect, they would serve as Agricultural Extension Agents as exist in the US and other countries.
 Iraqi youth continue to suffer from a high unemployment rate
Iraqis love their sports organizations, especially their football teams. Football provides an excellent way to bring Iraqis of different ethnic, confessional and regional backgrounds together. Establishing a National Sports League to teach sports and offer youth the opportunity to meet each other constitutes a way to mobilize youth.
Iraq's national team with 2007 Asia Cup trophy
 As has been done in other MENA region countries, sports center provide opportunities to offer youth civic education. In Egypt, for example, youth who visit sports centers in poor neighborhoods of Cairo learn not only how to become more physically fit and skilled in specific sports, but are taught that Islam is a religion which doesn’t support extremism and violence. Thus, sports centers can serve as educational institutions and as vehicles to promote civic engagement.

In my recent posts, I have focused on youth as constituting an important component in Iraq’s efforts to confront the multiple crises it faces at the moment. As a large demographic, the Iraqi government ignores youth at its own peril. Youth alone can’t solve Iraq’s myriad problems but, as the “generation in waiting,” who will soon assume positions of responsibility in all aspects of public life and in a growing private sector, training them for their future roles is critical to Iraq’s ability to successfully navigate the “perfect storm” it currently faces.

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Role of Youth in the Fight Against Corruption In Iraq دور الشباب في مكافحة الفساد في العراق

Recently, the New York Times published an article, “Inside the Iraqi Kleptocracy,” by Robert Worth, who has spent many years reporting from Iraq. The article was very disturbing in its detailed description of the many ways in which corruption has taken over Iraq’s economy and political system. How did this situation come about and what can be done to fight it? Inside the Iraqi Kleptocracy

Clearly, the corruption that dominates Iraq today can be traced back to the US occupation policy after Saddam Husayn’s Ba'thist regime was toppled in 2003. Rather than give Iraqis who had remained in Iraq under Saddam the ability to decide how the country would be governed, such as the highly respected elder statesman, Adnan Pachachi, the US offered positions to returning Iraqi expatriates, many of whom had close ties to Iran. 

A prime example was cAbd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which had been established in Iran in 1982 during the Iran-Iraq War and run during its first two years by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Another unsavory character active in post-2003 Iraqi politics was Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, who had established close ties to many US policy-makers during his time in Washington, DC prior to the US invasion. Chalabi’s unsavory background included having been convicted of looting the Petra Bank in Jordan in 1967 for which he was given a prison term after being tried in absentia. 

Of all the political figures the US empowered after 2003, none was as destructive as Nuri al-Maliki. George W. Bush took him under his wing in 2005 and began to meet with him from Washington, DC, though video conferencing. Thinking he would follow Bush’s advice on how to rule Iraq, the President overrode the objection of his advisors who distrusted al-Maliki and appointed him prime minister nevertheless in 2006. 

Appointing al-Maliki prime minister was one of the worst the US decisions during its occupation of Iraq from 2003-2011. Although al-Maliki did not show his sectarian side immediately, during his first term in office between 2006 and 2010, once he obtained a second term followed the parliamentary elections of 2010, his destructive behavior ravished Iraq. Barack Obama was now complicit in keeping al-Maliki in office despite his main opponent, Ayad Allawi, having obtained 91 to his 89 parliamentary seats. Once pressured by Iran, Obama agreed to allow al-Maliki to remain in office, another disastrous US decision.

al-Maliki's policies in Mosul were the most egregious and important for understanding the corruption which engulfs Iraq today. In addition to attacking Iraq’s Sunni Arab community, Maliki undermined the Iraqi Army’s officer corps in Mosul. Professional career officers were replaced by his cronies, many of whom lacked military experience. These officers began stealing the salaries of Iraqi troops and offered other troops the option of turning over their salaries in return for not having to serve and being allowed to return home. 

Meanwhile, troops in Mosul established check points throughout the city which they used to collect “fees” to replace the salaries which they either no longer received or received as partial payments. Understandably, the response of Mosul’s residents was to view the army as an occupying force. Because the majority of troops were Shi'a, the army’s presence in Mosul began to be viewed in sectarian terms, namely Shi'a troops vs. Sunni Arabs, who constitute the majority of the city’s inhabitants. 

When the Da'ish arrived in Mosul in June 2014, the Iraq Army fled, leaving behind much US supplied equipment, some of it state of the art, such as armored personnel carriers. Over 1500 troops, all of them Shi'a, were captured after they left Camp Speicher where they had been training and were summarily executed with their bodies dumped into the Tigris River. Nuri al-Maliki’s corrupt and nepotistic policies provided Islamic State terrorists with the opportunity to penetrate Mosul prior to June 2014 and convince notables that they could “liberate” the city from what they called the “Shi'a occupation.” 

Bribes were offered to local officials and the city residents offered no resistance when approximately 800-1000 Islamic State fighters on pickup trucks with mounted machine guns were able to take over the city. Mosul’s banks were looted of their funds and the Islamic State was now in control of Iraq’s second largest city. As terrorist forces seized territory beyond Mosul in other areas of north central Iraq and into al-Anbar Province, concern mounted as they moved closer to Baghdad. 

A fatwa issue by Grand Ayatallah 'Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis to organize to stop any further seizure of Iraqi territory. al-Sistani’s fatwa legitimized in effect the Popular Militia Movements (al-hashad al-sha'bi) which, as Worth describes in his article, effectively control much of Iraq today. Because Iran sent units of its Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to fight against the Da'ish, in effect in alliance with US forces, they extended their influence among existing Iraqi militias and the new ones which had just been formed. 

After the Dacish advance was halted, the IRGC, under the command of Qassem Suleiman, who was killed by a US drone strike in January 2020, consolidated Iran’s influence in Iraq. To be sure, Iranian influence in Iraq was prevalent, thanks to the Bush administration, after 2003. Once al-Maliki became prime minister, he worked to strengthen economic ties with Iran. He even sacrificed Iraqi industries, such as the ancient brick industry, by importing competing goods from Iran. 

Exploiting the quota system (nizam al-muhassasa) which has been used to allocate seats in Iraq Chamber of Deputies (parliament), corruption has been institutionalized in Iraq. A small number of political parties divide up the spoils. These parties are in reality cliques who agree prior to national elections who will be given control over which ministries and other parts of Iraq’s government depending on the election’s outcome, namely the share of party's the votes. For example, Muqtada al-Sadr’s party, the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri), has controlled the lucrative Ministry of Health and distribution of medicine since 2007. 

Iraq’s corruption is hollowing out the economy and destroying its citizens' trust in government. “Democratic elections” are becoming synonymous with stealing public funds and resources. As politicians become ever wealthier and the standard of living of ordinary Iraqi stagnates, and social services continue to deteriorate, Iraq’s populace has become ever angrier with the massive corruption which has engulfed their country. 

In October 2019, a new youth uprising burst onto the political scene. Known as the October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen), and recalling the June-October 1920 Iraqi Revolution (al-Thawra al-'Iraqiya al-Kubra), it gained the support of thousands of Iraq youth. Demonstrations appeared in Baghdad and virtually all cities and towns in the south of Iraq (with many Sunni Arab youth in the north expressing sympathy but not participating to give the government the excuse to brand the uprising as “terrorist”).

Despite vicious attacks by security forces from the Ministry of the Interior and militias, all of which have close ties to the Iranian regime, the demonstrations remained peaceful as deaths and injuries mounted and activists were kidnapped and tortured or some never heard from at all. In late November, the massive demonstrations forced the resignation of then Prime Minster 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi. 

Two candidates, Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi, who were nominated to succeed 'Abd al-Mahdi were denied the post when Thawrat Tishreen’s suppoirters rejected them. Finally, Iraq’s Director of Intelligence, and former journalist and human rights activist, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was appointed prime minister, even though Iran felt he was too sympathetic to the United States. (For a discussion of al-Kadhimi, who has tried to protect the demonstrators, see my post,  Can Mustafa al-Kadhimi Save Iraq?

Iraq’s peaceful youth uprising has elicited broad support from the Iraqi public. It also was a reason behind an effort of Iraqis to boycott Iranian goods because the Tehran regime is viewed as organizing the violent suppression of the protests. Most recently, Iranian directives to kill youth activists in Iraq’s third largest city, al-Basra, in the far south, has infuriated Iraqis. 

What needs to happen now? Because Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has called for early parliamentary elections in June 2021, it is important that the supporters of Thawrat Tishreen move to institutionalize the revolution. First and foremost, this process requires establishing a political movement which can field candidates for the June 2021 elections. 

I would argue that any political movement which Iraqi youth seek to organize must be closely tied to members of the older generation who share their goals of ending the Iraqi government’s extensive corruption and nepotism, improving social services and restoring trust in democratic governance. Clerics, tribal leaders, professionals, educators and members of the private sector need to unite to form a powerful political list which will attract the votes of large segments of Iraqi society. 

To make this political effort succeed and win a large number of seat in parliament, Iraqi youth need to use social media and the online press, such as al-Mada, al-'Alim al-Jadid, and, just to name a few news sources, to document the deterioration of social services in Iraq under previous governments, including the antiquated health care system, an ineffective national school system, poor public transportation, lack of affordable child-care facilities, and proper maintenance of districts which incur health problems due to intermittent or non-existent refuse removal and street cleaning. 

The majority of youth who have been the drivers behind the October Revolution are from Baghdad and the south which explains the disproportionately large number of Shi'a youth in its ranks. Even though the demonstrators stress their tolerance toward all religions and ethnic groups and strong anti-sectarian bona fides, they do not seem to have reached out in any systematic way to Arab Sunni or Kurdish youth or youth in other ethnic communities, e.g., the Turkmen. 

Because youth in all Iraq's ethno-confessional communities are equally angry, the Thawrat Tishreen could expand its influence if it could establish a de-centralized network of candidates throughout Iraq and not just in the south. In the struggle over ideas, many of the parties in the Chamber of Deputies claim to be “religious parties.” They also claim that they are protecting Iraq from the ills and immorality of secularism. 

However, their corrupt activities have nothing to do with Islam. Instead, these so-called “religious parties” traffic in politicized religion. In other words, they manipulate religious categories to promote their financial interest and political power under the guise of supporting Islamic values. In this instance, it is important to engage clerics who can dispute the claims of these parties to be committed to strengthening religious values. 

By focusing on their corrupt activities and demonstrating that little or nothing which they do helps the poor and marginalized in Iraq society, Iraqi youth can use their political movement to dispute that the “religious parties” have any connection at all to the Islamic religion. The struggle to win seats in the Iraqi parliament will not be easy. Power is never ceded without a fight. However, only by gaining control of the avenues of power, beginning with the Chamber of Deputies, can Thawrat Tishreen gain the strength to achieve its goals, which is to end state corruption and establish a true social democracy.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Youth Building the New Iraq: The 2020 Iraq Public Leadership Program. الشباب يبنون العراق الجديد: 2020 برنامج القيادة العامة في العراق

This month, I once again had the privilege of working with the participants in the Iraq Public Leadership Program (IPLP).  Now in its ninth year, the IPLP is a highly sophisticated program designed to train Iraqi youth professionals in social entrepreneurship. What role does the IPLP play in helping a new generation of young Iraqis contribute to developing and diversifying Iraq’s economy?

The IPLP reflects the best of the new Iraq. A highly competitive program, it draws upon the best participants from a large applicant pool. This year’s cohort reflects the spirit of a future Iraq in which all members of the country’s diverse ethnic and confessional tableau are represented. The IPLP members include Arabs and Kurds and almost half the group are women.

IPLP participants receive a very broad training from a wide variety of experts.  Under the excellent direction of Dr. Yass al-Khafaji, Professor of Business Administration at the American University of Sharjah and founder, CEO and Principal of Alkafaji and Associates (A&A), the IPLP has attracted many outstanding young Iraqis who have gone on to make numerous contributions to Iraqi society.

With Iraq facing an extended period of decline in oil prices and a the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to diversify its economy is a pressing concern.  Currently, Iraq relies on oil revenues for over 90% of its foreign currency reserves.  Already, the closing of Iraq’s borders with Iran and Turkey due to the corona virus has boosted Iraqi manufacturers, small businesses and farmers who had difficulty competing with foreign imports prior to the pandemic, suggesting tht Iraq's private sector has the opportunity to become more robust under more supportive circumstances.

What type of training did we engage in during the sessions on which I worked with this year’s IPLP members?  The training centered on 6 themes: democracy and civic engagement, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, improving public health, diversification of the economy and promoting social entrepreneurship.

First, participants are concerned with the ability of Iraqi youth to bring about change. Thus, they want Iraq’s political system to offer more opportunity for youth who seek to use their creative energies to develop social entrepreneurial ventures. to participate in civic affairs. In this regard, one of my presentation, “Democracy, Civil Society and Democratic Thought: Iraq’s Gift to the World,” was intended to remind us, Iraqi and non-Iraqis, that modern forms of democracy actually trace their lineages to ancient Mesopotamian civilization.
A slide from "Democracy, Civil Society and Democratic Thought
A slide from the "Democracy, Civil Society and Democratic Thought: Iraq's Gift to the World"

The presentation offered examples from ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, the Abbasid Empire (750-1258 CE) and the 20th Iraqi nationalist movement to demonstrate Iraq’s historic contributions to modern notions of democracy and civil society. The presentation's purpose was threefold.

First. the goal was to document these contributions.  Second, the presentation sought to help to offset the negative feeling many Iraqi youth have towards their country based on repressive Bacthist rule (1968-2003), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and Gulf War (1990), the March 1991 Intifada in which hundreds of thousands were killed, and sectarian violence following the US invasion and toppling of Saddam in 2003. The presentation shows that Iraq is not a country of dictatorship, wars and violence but has a history which gave the world much of its civilization, a fact of which Iraqis can be very proud.

Third, the presentation was intended to lay the basis for a social entrepreneurial venture. The proposed venture would have Iraqi youth create a website for secondary school teachers and university faculty which would contains lesson plans and instructional materials on democratic governance, citizenship, the rule of law, cultural and religious tolerance, gender equality, civil society and citizenship.

Iraq developed the first legal system in the form of Hammurabi’s Code in 1752 BCE. This code is still part of the legal system of 140 nation-states today. One reason for its centrality to the law over many centuries is its comprehensive structure and the concern Hammurabi showed for the less fortunate of society.

The word for freedom, as understood in its modern meaning, was first used in ancient Mesopotamia which can also boast not only of having the first parliament, but of a parliament which required the ruler to obtain its permission before he began a war against a neighboring kingdom.

The incentive for ancient Mesopotamians to develop the world’s first language was a response to the Fertile Crescent's prosperity and the extent of their trade which extended from southern Egypt to the Black Sea and to present day Myanmar (Burma). Traders needed a notational system to keep track of their long distance trade. At the same time, the ancient Mesopotamians developed the world's first system of accounting and first financial contracts.

During the Abbasid Empire, Iraq developed the first planned city, Baghdad, and made great contribution’s in the sciences and mathematics, inventing chemistry (al-kimiya) and algebra (al-jabr).  The Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833 CE) was highly intellectual and established an important library-university, Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom). The Bayt al-Hikma sought to compile all the knowledge of the world that existed at the time.

Today, many in the West looks to classical Athens for the origins of Western civilization. However, it was al-Ma’mun who helped preserve Greek culture through having his advisers bring the writings of Plato, Aristotle and other intellectuals to Baghdad to be translated into Arabic by members of the Chaldean Christian community Even though many of the works of the Greeks were subsequently destroyed, those preserved in the Bayt al-Hikma would later be translated from the Arabic into Latin during the European Renaissance.
Youth at work on Iraq's large "blogosphere"
The second presentation I offered, “Empowering Iraqi Youth: Social and Generational Perspectives,” sought to document the contributions Iraqi youth have made to Iraqi society since the fall of Saddam Husayn’s regime.  It included many activities, such as creating a large and influential “blogosphere,” which advocates for the rights of women, the poor, and the marginalized, working in NGOs devoted to promoting conflict resolution, contributing anti-sectarian programing to Iraqi television, mentoring poor students and creating myriad new social entrepreneurial ventures. 

Most recently, Iraqi youth have organized the "October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen). Peaceful demonstrations, which has been ongoing since October 2019, have demanded that the Iraqi government end its extensive corruption and nepotism and establish a true social democracy. Their vision is accountable governance, religious and cultural tolerance, anti-sectarianism, gender equality and sustainable development. 
Iraqi youth have been the vanguard fighting sectarianism since 2003
The purpose of the presentation of empowering youth was to stimulate a discussion among IPLP participants regarding the possibilities of using social entrepreneurship in the future as a central vehicle to bring about economic, political, social and cultural change in Iraq. The beauty of social entrepreneurship model is that it serves two critical functions simultaneously: it can offer its practitioners steady employment while simultaneously making an important contribution to society.

Following our sessions which discussed and analyzed the first two presentations, IPLP participants were asked to choose between 6 topics and develop, in small groups, a project related to the topic. The topics were: Promoting Democracy and Civic Engagement in IraqEmpowering Youth and Social Entrepreneurship in Iraq; Increasing the Contribution of Iraqi Women to Building the New Iraq; Promoting Environmental Sustainability in Iraq; and Improving the Capacity of Iraq’s Public Health Infrastructure.

Groups of 5-6 participants took a week to develop their projects. The outcome of the exercise was very impressive.  Each project was presented as a Power Point.  All projects were creative, innovative, and extremely well formulated and thought-through. Not just limited to the realm of ideas, each project offered concrete proposals of how it would be implemented.

Although space does not allow for a full review of the projects, a few examples of the concepts and ideas for developing them offer a sampling of the IPLP group’s creativity.  “Recycling Food Waste into Fertilizer” noted how Iraqi cities have grown rapidly from the 1950s to 2020 and the growth of material waste has likewise dramatically increased. Thus, this project continues a 4 part plan to reduce food waste through donating excess food to the poor, using food waste to feed animals, composting to transform food waste into fertilizer (and anaerobic digestion to produce biogas), and  home, community and commercial composting.
TEDx Nishtimani conference on women's role in Iraqi Kurdistan society
Another project, “Increasing the Contribution of Iraqi Women in Rebuilding the New Iraq,” addressed the pressing problem of empowering women and increasing their ability to participate in and contribute to the public sphere.  The problem identified by this project is the inability of educated women to translate the skill sets they have learned during their educational training into full-time employment and careers.  By providing them with pathways to employment, the project seeks to enhance the confidence of Iraqi women of their ability to contribute to Iraqi society. 
To increase economic opportunities for women, the project proposes to improve their skills in obtaining and effectively using micro-grants to establish new social entrepreneurial ventures. One component of the plan is to establish an online company which would assist poor women to bring products to market such as handicrafts, food and sewn items.  A second idea is to create a women-owned and managed transportation company which would provide taxi and delivery services which meet the needs of Iraqi women.

Perhaps the most ambitious component of the project is to offer a series of 2-4 week courses, in cooperation with the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Oil and Gas, to train Iraqi women for positions in public agencies and private firms which require specific skill sets.  These short courses would be offered through the establishment of a new training institute which would benefit from Iraqi government and international support.
Tala - know as "Mother of the South" for helping Iraqi children with cancer
Another project, "Improving the Public Health Infrastructure in Iraq," developed a sophisticated public opinion survey to use in communities throughout Iraq where the local heath care system fails to provide adequate services. The questionnaire seeks to document the needs of local inhabitants with a view to developing hard data which could subsequently be used to improve health care delivery.
Developing  Iraq's Public Health Infrastructure 
This "bottom up" approach could provide local physicians, health care clinics and hospitals with badly needed information of what residents in the areas they serve are lacking in terms of health care. The data would also be useful to health care agencies in Iraq's provinces and to the Ministry of Health in Baghdad because it would allow them to target their services and funding in a more focused manner.

"Promoting Democracy and Civic Engagement in Iraq" grapples with the problem of political change in Iraq.  Without such change, this project argues, reducing violence and political instability can't be achieved. Nor can the rule of law and human rights become core components of Iraq's political culture.
What is particularly compelling about this project is the assertion that democracy must in fact take the form of social democracy.  Unless there is a more equitable distribution of income in Iraqi society and more opportunities for Iraqis from all socioeconomic sectors and ethno-confessional backgrounds of society, Iraq can't become a truly democratic country.

To promote democracy and civic engagement, this project proposes to develop new educational curricula.  One component of the educational process is teaching youth in elementary and secondary school about the many contributions of Iraq to world civilization and to encourage pride among them in Iraq's impressive cultural heritage.  
Promoting Democracy and Civic Engagement in Iraq's Active Learning Model
The learning model proposed by this project involves active learning.  Rather than merely write down what the instructor says in the classroom, students are encouraged to engage in simulations of the democratic process, such as elections, and meet with representatives f the Iraqi government who visit their classes.
The "Micro Lending Project" developed by another group of IPLP participants points to the large unemployment rate among Iraqi youth - currently 22% - and the degree to which the lack of jobs contributes to ability of terrorist and criminal organizations to recruit youth to their ranks. This project proposes to create a cooperative to help applicants go through the process of obtaining a loan as well as form a limited liability corporation to oversee the loans, their effective use and repayment.  
The proposed micro lending process in Iraq
Micro-finance and lending has already been used in others parts of the Arab world, such as by the  Egyptian financier, Sharif Samy, whose "Mashru'i" (My Project) offers groups of 4-5 women micro loans.  This project has been very successful since the group of borrowers makes sure the payments are made when required even if one borrower might have difficulty with making her part of the payment.  The default rate of Mr. Samy's fund is less than 1%. Given this success in Egypt, there is no reason why it couldn't be replicated successfully in Iraq.

These projects make clear the wide range of entrepreneurial talent which exists among Iraq's youth population.  Because youth constitutes 70% of the population under the age of 30, Iraq loses a huge amount of human resources by not enabling youth to contribute to society. 

Many Iraqi youth are keen to create social entrepreneurial projects but don't have access to investment capital. The critical question which remains is when the older generation of Iraqis will realize that the oil economy is in peril and diversification of Iraq's economy is a must. The inclusion of Iraq's younger generation is key to assuring the long-term economic growth and stability of the country. 

is a fundamental solution in stopping the cycle of violence in Iraq, ensuring political stability linked to the equitable distribution of wealth, opening new opportunities, and guaranteeing all human rights and individual freedoms


Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Specter is Haunting the Arab World: the Threat of Failed States شبح يلاحق العالم العربي: تهديد الدول الفاشلة

Arab states are facing unprecedented threats to their stability.  Economic challenges, civil strife, environmental degradation, authoritarian, corrupt and ineffective governance and a global health pandemic.  What do these challenges tell us about the future of the Arab world and what efforts are being made to address them?

What do we mean by a failed state?  Clearly, the collapse of the central government is at the core of state failure. However, citizens’ loss of trust in their government produces a loss of legitimacy, deep disaffection with social services and their standard of living and a lack of hope about future aspiration all point to many “quasi-failed states” and the possibility of future collapse.

Using a 5 point scale, we can rank Arab states as having become failed states or facing that prospect in the foreseeable future.  If 5 represents the worse-case scenario, then Libya and Yemen already qualify as having collapsed, politically, socially and economically. Neither has a central government, and both are rent with sharp political cleavages and internal conflict which shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

Syria does not face as dire situation as Libya and Yemen.  However, after 8 years of civil war, the country is bankrupt as its currency is virtually worthless and its economy is in tatters, much of the country’s cities and infrastructure has been destroyed, and deep divisions plague its social fabric. President Bashar al-Asad seems determined to follow a “scorched earth” policy even if leads to Syria’s complete destruction.

Neighboring Lebanon has seen a state-sponsored Ponzi scheme, which was used to fund the country over many years, collapse, causing inflation to spire out of control. Lebanon’s political elite is deeply divided and neither able to address the political or economic challenges facing the country.  Much of its highly-educated citizens, especially the young, have already fled and migrated to other Arab countries or the West.

Other countries in the region also face serious challenges, not only economic but environmental.  Egypt’s tourist sector, which at its peak in 2010 comprised 11% of GDP and employed 12% of the population, had been suffering through 2016.  The Arab Spring uprising of 2011 and attacks on tourists in the Red Sea area by an ISIS affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula led to a serious drop in visitors to the country iconic cultural sites.  By 2019, just Egypt had recouped its 2010 level of tourist visitors, the tourist industry collapse once again due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Egypt faces a more existential environmental crisis resulting from Ethiopia’s decision to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which it fears would deprive it of Nile River waters which are critical to its ability to survive as a nation-state.  Egyptian farmers could be adversely affected by a decline in water availability. Because Egypt’s continues to experience rapid population growth, which intrudes on agricultural farmland, the long term fear is feeding its population.  Although only 6% of Egypt’s population currently faces the problem of “water stress,” the government estimates 25% of its agricultural population would be adversely affected by the filling of the Renaissance Dam

Jordan and Palestine (the PNA) likewise face a potential water crisis as the aquifer on which they depends is controlled by Israel and is being depleted.  Jordan has one of the highest indices of “water stress” of any Arab state which affects 87% of its population.  Gaza, which has no desalinization plant, faces both water shortages and sewerage processing problems. 

Still another group of Arab states are facing economic problems due to the precipitous drop in the global price of oil.  Although oil prices have recovered from their lows of $10/bbl last month and were hovering around $40/bbl at the time of this writing, they are still too low for countries like Iraq and Algeria which depend on them to finance their national budgets.

Iraq requires a price of at least $60/bbl to meet its budgetary needs. Both the Federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil employ 65% of the workforce.  Recently, the new government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi  was forced to take a loan to meet government salaries this June. While “double salaries” and the extravagant benefit packages enjoyed by members of parliament and high level government officials are to be cut, there is strong resistance to al-Kadhimi’s proposed moves.

Algeria is also suffering from declining oil prices.  A price of $30/bbl would cut its GDP by 22%.  According to the World Bank, Algeria’s GDP is expected to experience a negative growth rate of -3%.  Like Egypt, Iraq and Syria, Algeria suffers from a bloated and inefficient public sector and weak government support for private sector development.  Human resources are wasted as women and youth fail to receive state support to develop entrepreneurial ventures which could offset stagnant public sector growth in the future.

Tunisia is one of the Arab world’s bone fide democracies, perhaps the only one worthy of that title.  It is resource poor and has always depended on European tourism, like another North African state, namely Morocco.  Many Tunisian youth have soured on democracy because they don’t see the economic benefit they expected from the ouster of the authoritarian ruler, Zein al-Din Ben Ali in early 2011. Youth unemployment is high, and the country still faces a social and economic cleavage between the more prosperous, and often Francophone, population on the country’s coast and the poorer segments of the interior who struggle to make ends meet.

We might place Egypt between 3 and 4 in the category of potential failed states, especially since the al-Sisi regime has done little to offset the negative impact of the Covid-19 virus. Iraq, Algeria, and Tunisia, on the other hand, should be placed in the 3 category. Will they be able to ride out the current health pandemic? And will they be able to use the pandemic as an argument to make inroads in the fight against corruption.

Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf States will be able to weather the dual challenge of falling oil prices and the corona virus.  However, Saudi Arabia is still mired down in its war with the Houthi rebels in Yemen who continue to confront its facilities with rocket attacks.  The tourist industry envisioned by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman is on hold and the kingdom has bene forced to drastically cut the number of pilgrims. Bin Salman’s Vision 2030, which seeks to diversify the economy and move it away from oil dependency, is facing serious challenges.

For the Arab Gulf states, which have small populations, the ability to bring necessary labor from South Asia and East Asia as it has done in the past, will be severely constrained by the downturn of the global economy. Dubai’s role as a global financial hub is likely to see much of its capital resources dissipate.  These states also will face growing environmental problems as temperatures in the Gulf rise into the 60 degree Celsius range as we move towards 2050 which will limit human behavior during the heat of the mid-day.

What can Arab states do to offset the economic, environmental and health threats which they confront?  How can they avoid following in the path of Yemen, Libya, Syria and Lebanon?  First, these countries require honest leadership.  Such leadership is sorely lacking throughout the Arab world.  Perhaps one positive sign is the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi this past May to become Iraq’s prime minister. Already, al-Kadhimi has been straightforward with Iraq’s citizenry, earning him a high degree of respect which he will need to make hard decisions regarding Iraq’s economic woes.

Second, Arab leaders need to tap into the human resources which have been largely sidelined in most Arab states. Women, who often comprise up to 70% of university student populations, have been largely neglected in the process of economic development.  Likewise, youth, who constitute 70% of the population under the age of 39 in many Arab countries, lack resources to begin businesses and social entrepreneurial ventures.

Third, corruption must be tackled.  Lebanon is the poster child of a country which went off the rails in large measure due to massive corruption, which existed well before the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war.  Only Mustafa al-Kadhimi has made corruption a central issue in his effort to bring it under control in Iraq, which ranks as 169 of 174 on Transparency International’s list of the world’s most corrupt countries. 

Fourth, environmental challenges have to be addressed head on.  Much of the water scarcity in the Middle East is not as much a function of droughts and  declining sources, but also caused by the lack of water management programs implemented by Arab states.  If the state could use education and a form of the US’ agriculture extension agents who help farmers learn how to conserve water, positive change could be made in this area.

Greater use of solar energy, as we already seeing in Egypt and Morocco, and the use of wind, for example in the Atlas mountains, the Lebanese mountains and the mountains of Iraq’s KRG could offer cheap and abundant energy, reduce pollution, provide new areas of employment, and promote greater technological innovation in the Arab world.

Finally, the Arab world needs to take economic cooperation seriously.  The Gulf Cooperation Council has yet to fulfill this need but does suggest how regional bodies could be used to begin the process. hopefully creating the functional equivalent resembling the European Economic Community in the near future.