Iraq’s socioeconomic and political culture is today shaped by the power of patronage networks and inefficient governance in Baghdad. Years of infighting, impasse, and failure have led many Iraqis to lose faith in their political leaders, ministries, and state institutions. Widespread reports of corruption and graft have shown Iraq’s people – particularly youth under the age of 26, who comprise nearly 60 percent of the total population – that their government does not sufficiently represent their interests, nor can it respond adequately to the economic and security challenges threatening the country’s future stability. The trajectory of Iraq’s development as a democracy after 2003 ultimately precipitated a curious situation in which the country’s political leaders are more powerful than the will of the people they purportedly represent. As one young man in Baghdad told the International Crisis Group, “the only thing politicians know how to do well is to steal, steal, steal.”
On August 9, 2015, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced a series of reforms to address governmental inefficiencies and corrupt practices across the political establishment. These steps represented an encouraging attempt to restore public faith in his leadership, as well as the ability of Iraq’s politicians to deliver essential services and pass needed legislation. Central to Abadi’s plan was the installation of a technocratic cabinet and reduction in government spending, coupled to farther-reaching efforts to deconstruct the patronage networks undermining democratic development by perpetuating identity and communal – rather than national – politics. Yet less than two months later on November 2, Parliament voted to revoke the Prime Minister’s mandate for conducting reforms – thus ending an 11-week period during which the head of government rode a wave of popular support. The actions of Members of Parliament in Baghdad seemed to confirm the public’s general perception of corrupt leadership, and their official unwillingness to govern.
Abadi’s failure highlights the deeper structural flaws in Iraq’s sociopolitical framework. As the Washington Institute’s Bilal Wahab noted during an interview with EPIC, “In the Iraqi political system, everyone has an interest in the state’s survival, but also in keeping it weak.” No single political actor has the military or economic means by which to dominate the country, leading to a culture of deal making, temporary coalition-building, and transactional alliances. To gain leverage in this environment, politicians are incentivized to cultivate patronage networks rooted in individual ministries: by controlling a ministry or other high-level government position, these figures can channel resources away from the state to their political parties. In Iraq’s rentier economic system, such graft precludes serious discussion of revenue-sharing beyond political circles and pushes politicians to maintain weak institutions.
The result for Iraq’s population is that basic services and governance remain withheld; as Wahab concluded, “if the state could deliver these services to its people, the power of political parties would weaken as a result.” Iraq’s political landscape today is diffuse, with numerous actors competing for influence and funding. The calculation these individuals make when entering government is founded on three overriding principles: money is needed to win elections; this money can be drawn from the state’s oil revenue; to access this money, one must hold a ministerial position. Iraq’s political debates at the national and local levels thus center on the issue of how much control an individual or party has over the state resources – not how to deliver the benefits from these resources in an equitable and effective manner.
Without an effective national political establishment, Iraqi civil society has assumed a critical role in filling the service provision and local organizational void. Since 2003, the civil society sector has received support, funding, and training from international organizations, including the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as the UN and USAID. These efforts have focused on strengthening groups working in areas such as government monitoring and accountability, media freedom, minority community protection, humanitarian/infrastructure development, youth advocacy, and legislative reform. As research conducted at EPIC has noted, smaller, local, and non-government organizations often act as bulwarks against government inefficiencies: they are generally far more nimble than larger international or Iraqi government bodies; they can quickly assess and meet population needs in rapidly-evolving or dangerous situations; and they earn trust from the communities in which they operate while building local capacity through grassroots work. Efforts after 2003 to bolster Iraqi civil society have yielded positive results, and today, these organizations are generally vibrant, competently-led, and deliver important opportunities for Iraqis to work in their communities.
Many of these organizations still lack capacity and expertise, however. Over the past two decades, the country has experienced significant “brain drain” as thousands of skilled administrators, intellectuals, engineers, healthcare professionals, poets, and artists joined the Iraqi diaspora in the broader Middle East, Europe, and North America. Many of these emigres had previously received graduate training at top universities in the United States and Western Europe, and had once brought this advanced training back to the Iraqi public and civil society sectors. Their efforts strengthened Iraq’s once powerful universities, public healthcare system, and intellectual discourse. Today, this diaspora community represents a vast, yet largely untapped, reservoir of talent for civil society organizations working inside Iraq. This global network can provide both the expertise and financial support civil society organizations need to continue their important work – while also offering an alternative source of support from inefficient (and sometimes obstructive) government channels.