Person walking into the distance
How many miles to Babylon? Photo ©

Pixabay, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

January 2017

British Council former Director in Iraq, Marc Jessel, argues that in education, cultural rehabilitation, technical training, and the rebuilding of trust, the UK can provide valuable support to help underpin Iraq’s recovery – but only if short-term fixes can be transformed into long-term partnerships.

There is a good prospect of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, soon being recaptured from Daesh, and Iraq’s territorial integrity finally being recovered. An alliance mostly consisting of Sunni tribesmen, Shia militia and Kurdish Peshmerga will have contributed to this outcome, effectively supported by foreign air cover and advisers. For as long as this alliance has a shared enemy, the prospects of unity remain strong. The question is what happens after Daesh has been defeated, and how Iraq’s long-term stability and prosperity can benefit from victory. Long-term cultural, educational, and people-to-people engagement with Iraq will be vital: a focus purely on stabilisation risks promoting a view that foreign engagement is only here for the short-term, whereas what Iraq needs is a promise of long-term engagement across a broad range of sectors. 

‘And Nineveh is laid waste’

Iraq-watchers are naturally considering the reconstruction needs that are likely to emerge after Mosul has been liberated. Little is known about the fate of institutions that have fallen under Daesh rule over the past two-and-a-half years. There will no doubt be further revelations post-liberation. Culturally, the destruction has been enormous, ranging from archæological sites like Nimrod, Nineveh, and Hatra through Sufi shrines, Yazidi temples and ancient Christian churches to newspapers, publishing houses, galleries and – above all – communities settled for millennia on the plain of Nineveh.

Mosul University, the second largest in the country, was once among Iraq’s strongest. Daesh banned subjects deemed subversive, such as philosophy and literature, history and politics. Languages were still encouraged as a means to communicate with foreign fighters and spread Daesh ideology across the globe. Physical sciences like dentistry, medicine, and pharmacy were prioritised in order to fill skills gaps, no doubt caused by the early flight of the professional classes from Mosul. The university’s student body has been split, with some risking their lives to resist occupation, others infiltrating the system to uphold Daesh ‘values’ and root out counter-insurgents.  

Disturbingly, tens of thousands of school children have been subjected to Daesh’s graphic propaganda and systematic indoctrination. How does one ‘undo’ the damage caused?

Disturbingly, tens of thousands of school children have been subjected to Daesh’s graphic propaganda and systematic indoctrination. How does one ‘undo’ the damage caused? The rehabilitation process is likely to require a complex mix of psycho-social, educational and infrastructure inputs. 

Though it hasn’t yet been explored by quantitative sociological research, there is clearly a gigantic, if unevenly distributed, trust-deficit in Iraq, which threatens to undermine the country’s recovery of social cohesion. Furthermore, there is a large trust-deficit between Iraqis themselves and the outside world. This is hardly surprising given the legacy of recent invasions and sectarian government, and is likely to have been exacerbated by the Daesh insurgency. The question is: what can be done by the international community to address this trust-deficit and promote the re-establishment of Iraqi stability and prosperity. Collectively burying heads in the sand will only result in the problems worsening.

Not Burying Heads in the Sand

The economic crisis triggered by falling oil prices, together with Iraq’s sectarian politics, represents a double-whammy for Iraqi youth. The education sector is under-resourced; and experience shows that schools become a battle-ground for sectarian politics. It is Iraq’s youth who require investment, both in terms of the hard and soft skills required to meet the needs of a diversified economy; and of fostering greater tolerance and understanding than existed in their parents’ generation.

No country can achieve such radical reform without long-term international engagement. Whilst the international community rekindled its interest in Iraq after Daesh’s 2014 shock insurgency, much of the investment is focused on stabilisation and humanitarian assistance. A feature of such external interventions is that they require such rapid action that coordination with the host government is rare. The emphasis is on deploying resources quickly to achieve a short-term fix. Such interventions are crucial. But they are not sufficient, and must be supplemented by mainstream development and social and cultural interventions which promote systemic reform and connectedness of the sort Iraq so badly needs. 

Of course it takes two to tango. Iraq is currently ranked 161st out of 168 on the World Corruption Index, which does nothing to attract international partners. Furthermore, in spite of the growing divides between haves and have-nots, Iraq remains a middle income country and so not on the priority list for mainstream donor agencies. There is a strong political will to diversify the economy, reducing Iraq’s dependence on the oil and gas sector. This has translated into reform of the vocational education system, so as to train the technicians necessary for this transformation. Engagement in this sector of vocational and technical education must be long-term, and involves partnership between the Iraqi Government and the outside world. Organisations such as the British Council, EU, and UNESCO are actively involved in this process. The answer is to build strong long-term development partnerships which don’t rely on huge financial investment. Indeed, a foreign aid glut would probably only fuel corruption and exacerbate the divides.

There is also the question of how tens of thousands of demobilised troops can be helped to transition to civilian jobs. It is clear that Iraq’s public sector can no longer afford to absorb such a large workforce. The World Bank is making tentative steps, with the Iraqi government, to create an enabling environment for emerging private sector entrepreneurs. Clearly this all needs time, partnership, and resources to succeed. 

More challenging are interventions that promote tolerance and understanding between people and religious denominations. Although Iraq’s governance structures, at a macro level, are designed with its diversity in mind (the President is always a Kurd, the Prime Minister, a Shi’a and the Speaker of the Parliament, a Sunni), we know that sectarianism has risen, with little recognition of this problem in senior circles. This short-sighted nonchalance, and the resulting feeling of Sunni marginalisation in Iraq, arguably created the vacuum which made it possible for Daesh to occupy swathes of the country with little resistance. At a minimum, the international community needs to offer long-term support. Ideally the UK should partner with Iraqi institutions to promote peaceful coexistence, either by helping make sense of the issues in play, or by introducing tools, such as structured and evidence-based debate, that could over time provide a conduit for responsible exchange on this topic.

Iraq’s challenges look set to become even more pronounced in the coming months. Whilst the Iraqis need to lead, the UK must be there by their side to help address post-Daesh rehabilitation needs in a broad and sustainable way. Short-term fixes won’t address the underlying weaknesses, so the UK should engage fully in Iraq’s human reconstruction and its future.

Marc Jessel, Former British Council Country Director Iraq

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