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Renewing the Rural Economy in Kurdistan - Interview With a Minister

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The ability to love your country but face the facts and be truthful about its shortcomings is what distinguishes patriotism from chauvinism, which essentially says 'my country right or wrong.' Many people are critical of America or Britain but not as forthrightly as some Americans or Brits.

I recently met Serwan Baban who was a senior academic in the UK before becoming vice chancellor of the University of Kurdistan-Hawler and who has just been appointed, as one of four independent technocrats, to the cabinet of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

He comes across as a forward-thinking and frank patriot. He cheerfully and candidly canters through some of the problems faced by his homeland. Citing the number of expensive tractors that were lent to farmers by the Agricultural Bank but which then end up in Iran and the illegal practice of siting hilltop villas on agricultural land, he concedes that the problem is one of weak law and order.

He recognises, as one of so many Kurdish leaders who spent years in exile here, that respect for the law in countries such as the UK is deeply engrained psychologically: "why does a driver stop at a stop sign at 2am when there are no police around. It's because they know that it is the right thing to do deep down." He believes that the Kurdistan Region is maybe 20-25 years ahead of the rest of Iraq but maybe 50 years behind Europe.

He also agrees that too many people in ministries have skills that were gained in the liberation struggle in the mountains but that there now needs to be professional recruitment and development. He cites how large ministries send many thank you letters to staff which are then used in CVs while no reprimands are issued, which doesn't make sense given the numbers employed.

He acknowledges the prevalence of what is described as 'wasta' in the Middle East, using influence for a relative in order not to offend and that this "blurs the social and professional scenes." He adds that this is another reason to make more use of private companies which are better in insisting on clear professional standards.

I raised the issue of litter having seen over the years that the region is spoiled by litter, especially water bottles. He replies that "the sooner we can ban plastic the better, given that they last for 5,000 years" but points out that "Kurds love our homes but not necessarily our country" and mentions a campaign to persuade Kurds to clear up after themselves.

His remit is agriculture and water which is one of the big challenges facing the region. Agriculture was born in Kurdistan and most of the population used to work the land and live in villages. Today, however, a much smaller section of the workforce is farming, most food is imported and a great potential is being neglected.

This is the direct result not so much of the global trend towards urbanisation but the deliberate decision of Saddam Hussein to drive Kurds off the land and into the cities where they could be eliminated more easily as part of the genocide against the Kurds.

Farmers and livestock were shot on sight in free fire zones in the countryside, wells were capped and people sent to concentration camps. The UN sanctions regime after the Kurds threw Saddam out in 1991 made things worse by shipping in substandard agricultural products and undermining incentives to produce their own food.

The ministry is now devising an ambitious roadmap for reviving agriculture and asking foreign universities and experts for help. The draft plan has also been put out for consultation to the people of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The plan goes back to basics by asking how much protein people need and working out how to increase the amount of home-grown red meat and chickens, for instance, in the coming three or four years. The minister admits that "we're flying the plane but also building it."

One of their major problems is the availability of ground water and the need for increased irrigation. He details how ground water has become the primary rather than secondary or tertiary source for agriculture and how this is drying out supplies in a way that can make it unsustainable.

He says that the solution is to build five dams but that because these are deemed as serious strategic projects they are the responsibility of the federal government in Baghdad but they not a "priority for them" and "the signs from there are not encouraging."

Given the scope of agricultural assets - great honey, pomegranates and 56 varieties of grape, for instance - he argues for "something like the Marshall Plan" to unlock the potential: "there is little so important as food that touches our daily lives. We need good quality food at reasonable prices and food security. We need to set up an irreversible process that is evidence based and a priority for everyone."

The minister's expertise and enthusiasm speak volumes about the ability of the Kurdistan Region to husband its resources for the good of its own people.