What role can Parliament hold in influencing youth political and civic engagement in Iraq?

Adlah Alkurdi is GPG’s Head of Iraq Programme. Having recently returned to GPG, she initially joined us in 2013 and contributed to a wealth of projects in the MENA region. In this blog, she shares her memories and impressions of GPG’s work in Iraq and examines how the country can hope to address the grievances of its young people in the face of unemployment and insecurity.

I will be sharing in this blog some personal reflections on the impact of our work in Iraq over the past 10 years. I joined GPG in 2013, an eager political scientist by education, and a civil servant in the Jordanian Government where I worked as a policy analyst in the King’s Office for five years before moving to the UK.

It is necessary to explain my background for those reading and interested to understand how Governments’ function in the Middle East. I would argue that across the region we can have a culture of fearing the implications of questioning our political leadership. A culture of obedience not favourable or conducive to free thinking, questioning, and – God forbid – political opposition and freedom of expression.

What struck me when I took on our first parliamentary strengthening project, which aimed to support the first elected Libyan Parliament after over 40 years of dictatorship, was the tendency to perceive joining a political party as unpatriotic. With this mindset, political pluralism is perceived as an attempt to fail democracy. Imagine the effect of those widely accepted cultural norms on young people. And yet with the revolution, people found the courage to start demanding their political rights, although sadly many sacrificed their lives in exchange for speaking up. Across the Arab world, the one-party Government system has been the norm pre-the Arab spring. Even, in Jordan political parties were illegal until 1989!

In Iraq now, a wave of targeted assassinations of young political activists is currently sweeping across the country. The Government is failing to hold the perpetrators accountable. How can we expect young people to be politically engaged and to take an active role in shaping their futures in this hostile environment deprived of rule of law and accountability?

According to Human Rights Watch, the Government of Iraq has failed to put an end to the abuse and excessive force against protesters, with armed groups continuing to perpetrate arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings with impunity against those involved in organising protests and openly criticising the political elites.

In response to protestors demands, early parliamentary elections will be held on 10 October 2021. However, there is limited hope for genuine reform by the Government, and a heightened sense of disillusionment and distrust in the political class, who are widely seen as corrupt and inept. As pointed out by Sajad, a 23-year-old interviewed a few days ago by France 24, “I see the politicians’ posters in the street, but I don’t know the names or the programmes.” “I think they all have the same programme: ‘We will do this; we will do that.’ It’s all promises,” he scoffs – a sentiment shared by his friends.

Sajad, a young man from Baghdad, could not have portrayed the current state of Iraq more accurately. Any role in government as well as the purpose or essence of its existence is to represent and serve the public through delivering essential public services, including health, education, employment, and – most crucially in Iraq ­–  security and stability after two decades of war and insurgency. Sadly, the Iraqi Government is failing its people and is unable to meet those basic rights.

Endemic corruption, dysfunctional governance, deep polarisation compounded with lack of rule of law, geopolitical tensions, and the pandemic make a recipe for disaster. One may wonder: if the country is that fragile and damaged, why bother supporting the building of those democratic and political institutions?

Here I recall my wise mentor Dr Sue Griffiths, GPG former Director, telling me on my interview with GPG:

“Adlah, our role as an international development organisation specialised in political reform is not to bring about democracy and fix all those grave problems. It is to offer technical expertise, hands-on political advice, and political mentoring to policy-makers in the most politically unstable and challenging settings and create pockets of good practice that would improve policy making and, in the future, the delivery of public services”.

I have followed that advice earnestly and have been working for the past 7 years on precisely just that. Through our work, we draw on the exceptional pool of associates GPG has, including the likes of Sir Bill Jeffrey, Rt Hon. Meg Munn, Rt Hon. Jacqui Smith, Baroness Alison Suttie, and Lord Jeremy Purvis of Tweed, who are all passionate about Iraq and the future of its people, and heavily invested into making our support timely and impactful.

We inspire a reform movement through supporting the Government to be more inclusive, representative, and responsive to people’s priorities and demands. We identify champions of change, both elected and appointed officials at the highest level of federal and provincial government. We do not prescribe solutions, and certainly never attempt to tell them what to do, but rather offer a safe space and a platform to facilitate candid discussions on the changes they would like to bring about – and how we can help them bring those to life.

By now, you must be wondering: “But how does this help the millions of young Iraqis who are struggling to find jobs, and make ends meet?”

One of GPG’s core functions is to support policymakers in exercising their roles more effectively and proactively through working with cross-party parliamentary committees on specific policy areas. Traditionally, the role of committees has been limited to passing legislation passively without influencing public policy outcomes. Committees do not exercise their constitutional powers of holding the Government accountable, simply because they lack the capacity and means for pro-active scrutiny. In the past ten years, GPG has successfully pioneered the introduction of Parliamentary Inquiry (Fact-Finding) to scrutinise government policy to over 15 committees in the Iraqi Parliament. GPG developed a 9-stage good-practice guide to conducting an inquiry, based on the House of Commons select committee’s work.

In simple terms, an inquiry is a scrutiny of government policy and strategy, whereby cross-party members of a committee investigate a matter of public concern through gathering evidence from the public on the impact of policy and offer evidenced-based policy recommendations to the Government. I have personally supported over 8 parliamentary committees including Human Rights, Media & Culture, Finance & Health, Youth, Women, to name a few.

We are currently supporting the Youth Committee on undertaking an inquiry into youth unemployment and on conducting a scrutiny process into government strategy and youth strategy. We are supporting the committee to take a leading proactive role in setting the national youth policy in Iraq and to influence government policy on youth empowerment and economic participation.

Back in 2016, when Mosul was under the occupation of ISIL, I had the privilege and sheer burden of working closely with the Provincial Council of Nineveh, and with the Governorate authorities on a medium-term strategy for governance post Liberation from ISIL. We supported the Chair of the Youth Committee in Nineveh Provincial Council, the youngest female political leader elected to represent the Yazidi community. An inspirational, resilient young woman, who advocated relentlessly for women’s political inclusion and youth participation in the political process. That work was the highlight of my career. Throughout those frequent visits to Erbil, I met and spoke with people who had lost their loved ones and their homes and been subjected to the horrific war crimes committed by ISIL. Yet, they were resilient and incredibly strong to put this behind them and make their ways to meet us at a hotel in Erbil. Those types of encounters restore my faith in humanity and my conviction that, in spite of all the destruction and corruption, there are still genuine people out there,  committed to rebuilding their country.

We supported the Youth Committee on undertaking an inquiry on youth de-radicalisation after the liberation from ISIL. The Committee held fact-finding hearing sessions that brought together tribal, religious, and community leaders along with government officials and Civil Society Organisation (CSOs) to jointly discuss and identify solutions to counter ISIL ideology and work on integrating young people and including them in public life. The threat of youth radicalisation still looms, with the stronghold of militias backed by political parties and few employment opportunities. The challenges highlighted by young people in this inquiry, conducted over 3 years ago, are still sadly unmet and unaddressed by the Iraqi Government. The Government cannot continue side-lining youth and marginalising them. In one of the hosting sessions we held a few weeks ago for the Parliamentary Youth Committee, a prominent CSO leader from Kurdistan rightly pointed that neglecting the youth is neglecting the future of Iraq. A young female community activist also expressed concern that the majority of Iraqis youths feel that they do not belong to Iraq and lack opportunities. She herself, a civil engineering graduate, struggled to find employment in this heavily male-dominated sector.

For change to happen, policy makers need to be proactive and take the lead on working across political differences, community lines, and ethnic divisions to promote policies that protect youth political participation as well as Government strategies and programmes for youth training and employment. The journey towards political reform is long and marred with uncertainties, but hope lies with those who risked their lives and took to the streets for a better future for Iraq. I end this blog with this timeless quote by Antonio Gramsci: ‘’Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will’’.