Overcoming the Past in Iraqi Kurdistan Through Reform

Overcoming the Past in Iraqi Kurdistan Through Reform

The external environment for the Iraqi Kurds is better than for decades. My main fear is that if anyone can defeat the Kurds, it will be the Kurds. They could be their own worst enemies.

They could, despite their best intentions, slump into being just another rentier state without a thriving civil society that can harness the creative energies of the 70% of Kurds under 30. This could encourage destructive disaffection and directionlessness, albeit one cosseted by high public spending.

Or they could build community cohesion and purpose, using their new wealth to the maximum, and deepening their democracy. To their credit, Kurdish leaders have voluntarily embarked on what the Foreign Minister says is "the journey from revolutionary to constitutional legitimacy." They decided to establish a Parliament in 1992 and to reform the unviable command economy.

If they are a quasi-state they are also what one senior figure calls "a quasi-democracy," which is unsurprising after such a short time. Parliamentary democracies, with all their checks and balances including a vibrant media, take time to mature. Understanding that Kurdish democracy is in its infancy sounds like an excuse but remains true.

Many Kurdish leaders are urbane sophisticates with substantial experience of the outside world but others retain the old mindset of hoarding power, fearful of taking decisions that could rebound.

The state is obese and employs the vast majority of the workforce. Many with comfortable jobs in government offices - the main aspiration for young people - don't work much, as candid ministers concede. A small elite of dedicated public servants carries these employees and makes strategic decisions.

A dynamic patriotism requires a strong work ethic. But a lax tax system and labour market obstruct this. Workers pay no income tax although they make a small contribution to pensions. Low or non-existent charges for utilities encourage irresponsible use of scarce resources such as water and electricity.

A tax base, contributory welfare state and reasonable utility charges would alter the relationship between the state and the people. They would move from supplicants to citizens willing to hold the state to account for its decisions about how to align tax and spending decisions.

It would encourage a more sustainable economy rather than relying on Baghdad or Erbil handing down a budget from on high. It would encourage greater public sector efficiency and encourage a growing private sector to introduce new disciplines.

The Kurds are, however, part of the wider Middle East where top-down decision-making and dependency are the norm. The Foreign Minister remembers a group briefing him about plans to boost volunteering but asking for state salaries.

Changing that mindset could prepare them for the day when their energy reserves earn less or expire. It also illustrates the need to expand other money-making sectors such as agriculture and tourism.

Furthermore, the Kurdistan Region is largely secular and profoundly pro-western. Former Prime Minister Barham Salih said: "if it plays its cards wisely, Kurdistan could be a catalyst for the Middle East. It may be Muslim and at the heart of the Middle East but it is not shy about saying 'thank you' for the liberation."

The Catholic Bishop of Erbil recently showed me his new, KRG funded church near Duhok. Many Christians have fled to the sanctuary of the Kurdistan Region and receive exemplary treatment.

On women's rights, Kurdistan is still part of the Middle East which is a man's world. I remember the shock among Kurdish leaders when it became clear that FGM was more widespread than previously thought although it is difficult to specify its scale. The incidence of self-immolation by women seeking to escape their husbands is also deeply disturbing, if exaggerated by some.

But there have been great efforts to change all this. I recently met Pakshan Zangana, the Secretary General of the KRG's High Council on Women's Affairs whose job is to influence all ministries.

I first met her when she was a Communist MP. She is a former Peshmerga - the Kurdish name for a fighter which means "those who face death" and which is unusual for a woman. She is fiercely independent and no nonsense.

She acknowledges that women tend to follow their husband and their tribe in how they vote. She agrees that there are too few women in public life - only one woman is in the Cabinet and for the typically female social affairs brief. She feels that her organisation is under-funded and wants women's rights to be a bigger issue.

But she is proud of successes so far. The KRG has all but outlawed polygamy. They couldn't ban it outright but have put so many conditions on it that it is virtually impossible. The KRG leadership has criminalised FGM and been working with Imams to undermine it culturally. Pakshan cites one area where its incidence has been reduced from 86 to 5%. She praises improved police training on domestic violence.

The good news is she and many Kurdish leaders are completely open to external criticism, co-operation and expertise and that they have a small cadre of officials who worry hard and long about how they could learn from best practice elsewhere. There is a hunger for contact with the outside world after decades of isolation. Some hard-headed and candid thinking is taking place.

Increased commercial and cultural connections can boost such strategic thinking and wider workforce capacity. British companies should examine prospects in the Region, which boasts an enviably generous foreign investment regime but which needs to do more to improve its commercial infrastructure, including banking and the rule of law.

Its leaders always encourage visitors to describe Kurdistan as it is. But we should avoid condescension because their basic problems are common. Dialogue should be respectful and based on mutual interests.

Immense progress since 2006 justifies the contention that the Kurds of Iraq can overcome the manana syndrome, as they have in important aspects already, and build a better tomorrow.

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