Futuristic Readings No.7-2020
The Future of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq amid Internal and External Challenges:
Problems in politics, the economy, education and higher education.
– Futuristic Readings No.7
Dr. Yousif Goran, Dr. Omed Rafiq Fatah, Dr. Abid Khalid Rasul, Dr. Hardi Mahdi Mika
– Centre for Future Studies – Sulaimani – Iraqi Kurdistan Region
– August 2020
Section One:The challenges facing the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Section Two: The uncertain future facing education at the Ministries of Education and Higher Education
Ongoing structural challenges in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s (‘KRI’) political and economic spheres continue to plague the region’s governance. Meanwhile, its government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (‘KRG’), is struggling to manage the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on the KRI’s education and higher education sectors. Relevant ministries are engaged in discussions on the best way to resume the KRI’s education process.
Issue seventh of Ranan is dedicated to a discussion on the problems and challenges facing KRI on two levels. First, it discusses the general problems facing KRI, which together have left a significant impact on the future of governance in the region and also on the region’s political movements. These problems include; internal disagreements; economic crisis, a weakened process of democratization and its consequences, relations between KRG and the Iraqi Federal Government, the KRI’s international relations and the uncertain and complex future facing KRI as a consequence of recent events that have transpired in Iraq and the wider region.
The second discussion is regarding the resumption of the education and higher education processes in KRI following the extended closures due to COVID-19. This issue will debate the different options before the relevant ministries and also discusses the prospects, challenges and consequences between perusing an online system of education and reopening schools and universities, among other possibilities.
The challenges facing the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
The current form and power of KRI is the consequence of a series of historical events that go back to the long time ago before the collapse of the former Ba’ath Party regime in Iraq. Moreover, the federalism granted to KRI in the 2005 Iraqi constitution is the result of the development and evolution of decades of ambition, objectives and struggles of the Kurdish national movement to achieve freedom, establish their national identity and reject continued attempts to wipe-out their identity.
The issue of the decentralisation for the Iraqi Kurds was first discussed as a resolution to Iraq’s Kurdish question in the 1960s. In early 1970s, this discussion was evolved into the notion of autonomy. Later, in the 1990s the establishment of a federal Kurdish entity was the primary demand of the Kurdish movement in Iraq, which was supported by the Kurdistan parliament and the Iraqi opposition. These demands culminated in the 2005 Iraqi constitution, which officially recognised a federal Kurdish entity within Iraq, also allowing for its internal and international recognition. Also, in the early 21st century the Kurdish nationalist groups, academics and residents hoped that KRI could push further by using their federal region as a stepping stone towards independence and the declaration of a Kurdish State.
However, after 15 years on granting of Kurdish federalism, the region currently faces concerning internal and external challenges. Some of these challenges relate to the conduct of government officials themselves. However, many others are either being orchestrated by regional powers or are the consequence of the policies and actions of the Iraqi Federal Government.
1-Intra-Kurdish disagreements: Disagreements between the KRI’s two dominant political parties have played a significant role in the region’s development. These disagreements have caused a broad spectrum of problems from divisions in political decision-making, power and fiscal capabilities, to the geographic division and reunification of KRI and the creation of a shadow dual-administrative system in the region. The disagreements behind these problems continue to deepen and threaten to worsen the problems they have created. The deepening of these disagreements presents a significant threat to the attempts of reorganising Peshmergas and security forces, attempts to create a joint strategic vision on politics and the KRI’s international security. Furthermore, these problems are not only a threat to the KRI’s internal structure, but they even do not serve attempts to create a single national approach to resolve external Kurdish problems. These disagreements also prevent the development of a united Kurdish position on the international stage, a phenomenon that has always worked against the regions decision-making ability on the international stage.
2-Economic crisis: The fall of the international oil price coupled with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled the KRI’s fiscal ability since April 2020. Some sources indicate that since March and April when the crisis hit, the KRG’s income from oil revenues reduced by 45%, while its internal revenue collapsed by 90%. According to documents obtained from the KRI’s Ministry of Finance (dated 17th of August, 2020), the KRG’s internal income and its incomes from oil sales do not exceed IQD 390 billion. However, it was not clear from the document if this income was for a single month or a more extended period. In comparison, the KRG’s monthly income in 2019 was approximately IQD 600 billion, a monthly reduction of 35%. These figures do not reflect the fact that the Iraqi Federal Government has only sent IQD 320 billion to KRG as its share of the Iraqi national budget. These fiscal challenges have resulted in KRG’s failure to keep up with its financial obligations to state sector employees as to date it is approximately six months behind on its salary payments. If the oil price does not recover in the short-term and if international markets do not overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19, then there is no sign that KRG will manage to overcome its economic challenges.
Furthermore, KRG will likely become further entrenched in this economic dilemma if it does not take steps to diversify its economy away from its current rentier model and create a more productive workforce. It should also work to reach a conclusive deal with Baghdad on payment of its share of the Iraqi budget. We note that recently there are hopes that both Iraq and Erbil may have reached a preliminary deal.
3-COVID-19 Pandemic: KRG was able to mount an effective national defence against COVID-19 in March and April 2020 during the early period of the pandemic. However, since June both confirmed cases of the virus and deaths caused by have been on the increase. In August 2020, confirmed cases in KRI have been so high that they have made up approximately 13 – 14 percent of Iraq’s total of confirmed cases for August. The swell in numbers has put pressure on the KRI’s hospitals and its health sector more widely. This sector was already struggling with a lack of hospitals, beds, medical professionals and the provision of viral medication before the pandemic. Given these pressures on the KRI’s health sector coupled with the economic crisis, the capacity is not currently there for KRG to take further steps to confront COVID-19 and prevent more infections and deaths.
4-Good Governance: Aside from the problems outlined above, governance in KRI has always been problematic. The political parties in KRI endorse the democratic tools of government, such as elections, press freedom, freedom of expression and the freedom to gather, but blatantly abuse these very tools. KRG supports the concept of political opposition and the democratic challenges to power, but will not take the necessary steps to enshrine their role in KRG formally. KRG supports the passing of laws to strengthen decentralised administrative and fiscal decision-making but has yet to take any practical steps in this direction. Lastly, KRG is struggling to accept the independence of the legislature, judiciary and civilian organisations. These branches of state and organisations have become inactive, inoperative and marginalised as a result of the relationship between power and the KRI’s dominant political parties. The problems associated with the KRG’s struggle to provide governance for KRI are only compounded by the government’s failure to provide adequate essential public services, healthcare, education and social insurance for residents. Further weakening good governance is the lack of productivity in state sector offices and increasing levels of corruption, which fosters distrust between residents and the state.
1-A weaker Kurdish position in Baghdad: The KRI’s Peshmerga played an influential role during the war against the Islamic State; however, after the war, the KRG’s fortunes changed. In 2017, after KRG held its independence referendum and subsequently lost military and administrative control over the Iraqi disputed territories, the influence of KRI in Iraq’s political map waned and anti-KRI rhetoric in Baghdad increased. Whenever KRI is viewed as an economic and political burden on Iraq, anti-KRI rhetoric proliferates. At present, mounting attacks against KRI, its politics and symbols are political currency. It provides for a great distraction technique for politicians in Baghdad wishing to distract from national crises. Anti-KRI rhetoric has recently become more potent as Iraq approaches fresh elections. With Arab politicians seeking to galvanise support and votes, anti-Kurdish slogans are more widespread in Iraq. This phenomenon has now reached the point where some Arab politicians are openly calling for amendments to the 2005 Iraqi constitutions to erase any notion of federalism in Iraq. These politicians argue that the articles in the document that relates to federalism have allowed for the Kurds to take advantage of the constitution to extract finances from the Iraqi budget unfairly. They argue that the amendments should be made to the Iraqi constitution to limit the extent of the KRI’s influence “to that which they merit”. These politicians believe that the Kurds have to be allowed administrative decentralisation at best. Therefore, in addition to Iraq’s economic crisis, another cause of the slow progress of talks between Erbil and Baghdad is likely KRG’s weakened role and status in Iraqi politics. Baghdad’s blaze approach to negotiations with Erbil may also be an attempt by the Iraqi Federal Government to reflect the KRG’s attitude towards Baghdad between 2012 and 2014, when it perused an “independent economy” policy. During this period Baghdad argued that KRG was disregarding its economic obligations to the Iraqi Federal Government.
2-The withdrawal of US support for the Kurds: Between 2003 and 2017, the US perceived the Kurds, the Iraqi Sunni population and the liberal forces in Iraq to be effective partners in countering Iranian and extremist forces in Iraq and the wider region. However, the US has since lost hopes in the Iraqi democratic process, it has withdrawn from the Iranian nuclear deal and became the subject of mounting pressure to withdraw its forces from Iraq (pressure that has resulted from the increased influence of Iraqi Iranian-backed forces in the Iraqi executive, legislature and armed forces). These changes have forced the US to adjust its approach in its confrontation with Iran to achieve its strategic aims. This change has resulted in that USA will no longer bet on the Kurds, Sunnis and other liberal forces. Instead, it has now chosen to work with the Iraqi Federal Government, which further weakens the KRI’s position nationally and internationally. Some believe that the current marginalised Kurdish position is a consequence of the KRG’s independence referendum in 2017, which it implemented unilaterally disregarding all calls from its national and international partners to halt the process.
3-Increased influence of regional forces: Since 1991, fighting on the KRI’s borders between the Turkish state and its Kurdish parties (the Kurdish Workers Party (‘PKK’), on one front, and between the Iranian government and its Kurdish forces (Komala and Democrats) on the other have worked to create security and political problems for KRG. The aim of both Iranian and Turkish interference and military intrusions into KRI were not only attempting to suppress their respective opposition Kurdish parties and forces but also attempts to weaken KRI structurally. For example, after the 2017 Kurdistan independence referendum, Turkey became concerned about the possible annexation of oil-rich Kirkuk to KRI. It is important to note that Turkey’s geopolitical attitude towards Kirkuk is that the city belongs to the Iraqi Turkmen population who Turkey perceives as extensions of the Turkish people. In response to their concerns, Turkey took a hard-line stance against KRG and put its full support behind the then Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. With blessing from the Turks, Abadi conducted a national military offensive supported by the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces to retake control of Kirkuk from the KRI’s Peshmerga. In respect to the Iranian response, it is no secret that the military operations against KRI were orchestrated directly by Qassim Sulaimani, Iran’s then top military general. Furthermore, the latest rounds of Iranian and Turkish military operations in KRI against their respective Kurdish parties and forces present a significant risk to KRI as an entity. This is especially the case in respect to Turkey’s recent military operations in KRI, which some argue are an attempt by Turkey to carve out a buffer zone between itself and KRI, a strategy it has sought for numerous years. The Turkish operations and perceived objective pose an even more significant threat when one considers that Turkey would likely have sought permission from the Iraqi government before conducting its operations. Therefore, the KRG’s inability to confront Turkish attacks by preventing PKK from launching attacks on Turkey from its soil may result in KRI requesting the deployment of Iraqi and international forces to protect the borders of KRI from the PKK’s war with Turkey. Furthermore, to further weaken the KRI’s regional role, its neighbours may demand that the Iraqi Federal Government play a more significant role in protecting the KRI’s international borders. If this comes to pass, it threatens the KRG’s influence over its international borders. Losing control of its borders presents a threat to the KRI’s politics and global security. It delivers a blow to one of the KRI’s primary sources of income, its collection of border customs.
Future scenarios for the KRI:
In light of the internal and external challenges outlined above, there are several potential future scenarios for the KRI, these are:
- KRI retains its current form: we assess this to be the most likely logical future scenario for KRI; however, the continuation of the region in its current form is dependent on the extent to which KRG continues its poor short-term governance. If KRG does not implement broad national political, economic and administrative reforms dissatisfaction and anger amongst the residents of KRI will likely spill over into widespread nationwide protests. In such an event, the primary demand of protestors is likely to be the resignation of the KRG cabinet, the dissolving of parliament and the holding of early elections. To counter the protests, KRG will likely experience some of the same events that transpired in Iraq during their October 2019 widespread protests. The Iraqi protests led ultimately to use of violence against protestors, the resignation of the Iraqi government and the subsequent political troubles associated with the formation of a new government.
- The dissolving or shrinking of KRI: KRI may become a local administrative unit similar to the period between 1991 and 2003. Some of the anti-KRI politicians in Iraq argue that the current round of talks between Baghdad and Erbil should result in the further shackling of KRI to Baghdad and that this should be a preliminary step on the path to a constitutional amendment to remove from the document all the articles of federalism that have allowed for the “phenomenon of KRI” in Iraq. Also, as Iraq approaches fresh elections, some Iraqi forces and Kurdish personalities are trying to utilise anti-KRI rhetoric for electoral gain. However, the extent to which this scenario succeeds is dependent on the amount of support it receives from Kurdish voters, the extent to which Iraqi political forces are united in achieving this aim and the extent to which the Iraqi federal government is willing to provide financial support to KRI to reduce the financial burden of the economic crisis on Kurdish residents. However, given the sectarian Iraqi politics that sprouted in the country over the previous 15 years, the chances of these condition being realised are small.
- The division or reorganisation of the KRI’s internal structure into two separate entities or regions equally split in terms of their legal and military influence. This new arrangement could come about as a consequence of internal conflicts between the KRI’s two dominant political parties. Equally, it may come about or through the two parties reaching a peaceful agreement on financial and political decentralisation, which they deem to be more beneficial than the current state as it may reduce the financial obligations of the central government in Erbil. A peaceful agreement on any scenario that prioritises the economic and humanitarian development of KRI, facilitates the needs of the KRI’s residents and is intended to bring about the strategic goals of the Kurds, internally, in Iraq and internationally will be advantageous and should be supported.
- Utilising the Kurdish referendum to declare independence from Iraq: while this scenario is challenging to realise, Kurdish officials may seek it to use it to dampen internal challenges. Similarly, they may use this scenario as a pressure card against Baghdad to force the Iraqi central government to make more financial and political concessions to KRI. For this scenario to be realised, there needs to be a significant change in the attitudes of the KRI’s international partners and its neighbours. They need persuading that Kurdish independence is also in their advantage. However, more realistically what could occur is that Erbil may succeed in convincing Baghdad to accept a reorganisation of the region under the principles of confederation as a transitional phase, one that benefits long-term Kurdish goals and guarantees strategic, political and economic opportunities for Iraq.
Therefore, while some of these scenarios promise opportunities for KRI, most present a threat to it. To reap the maximum benefit from any scenario the KRI’s decision-makers must take into account: the fact that the KRI’s problems are all-encompassing and multifaceted. As a result, their solutions are similarly problematic. The KRI’s difficulties are not only limited to salaries and finances, despite them currently being the most prominent predicament. Economic reform alone will not resolve all of the KRI’s problems. Instead, the KRI’s decision-makers should also consider taking further steps in other areas, such as: completing the ratifying process of the KRI’s constitution and making it sovereign in the reforms process; reorganising and institutionalising the Peshmerga forces; implementing decentralisation; taking genuine steps to confront and combat corruption; work to restore respect for the elected offices of state and returning sovereign decision making power to them; taking steps to diversify the KRI’s economy and reducing dependence on oil; and many other measures.
The uncertain future facing education at the Ministries of Education and Higher Education
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted all sectors in KRI. The expectation is that the impact of the virus and the KRI’s response to it will last for a significant amount of time. The behavior of the virus, coupled with the lack of a treatment or vaccine, has made the future uncertain. It has impacted individual roles and responsibilities, and the continuing effort to keep different sectors aligned to continually changing health advice has made long-term decision making within sectors increasingly tricky. The psychological environment for work and decision-making has also shifted. The education and health sectors in the KRG, similar to their international counterparts, have succumbed to this new reality, which has presented them with numerous challenges that require urgent investigation.
The higher education and education sectors in KRI divide between the public and private sectors and their respective administrative and financial structures have been determined by two different laws, which regulate the education system in both sectors. Furthermore, established laws govern both industries, and both receive direction from their relevant ministries.
Before the pandemic, the KRI’s educational system and the laws governing it kept the education process at arm’s length from technological developments in electronic and distance learning. The KRI’s higher education and education sectors faced legal obstacles in this regard; for example, the Ministry of Higher Education adopted Law No. (10) of 2008, which is to date remains unamended, and Law No. (2) of 2013 specific to private universities. Neither of these laws took account of the rapid technological changes in the process of electronic learning and distance learning. Education delivered electronically is an established and reliable tool in modern education, knowledge transfer and information exchange. In contrast, in its education-specific laws, KRG views electronic and distance learning with skepticism, especially during the certificate equalization process.
Further to its legal obstacles, in KRI, the infrastructure to support e-learning and distance learning is inadequate. It suffers from weak internet service providers and a lack of professional training to deliver education in this way. Currently, the implementation of electronic and distance learning in KRI without the proper infrastructure and training is contributing to the problem.
The challenges facing the education and higher education sectors in KRI:
To identify the fallout of COVID-19 on the KRI’s education and higher education sectors, the difficulties each sector is presented separately below.
- Education Sector:
- There is a lack of educational infrastructure and a lack of access to reliable and essential technologies. There is a mismatch in KRI between the number of pupils and school capacity, with existing schools also failing to meet teaching requirements effectively.
- Schools are underfunded, and teachers have gone unpaid for months due to the KRI’s salary crisis. The non-payment of salaries has kept the possibility of a teacher boycott of classrooms alive, a move which would threaten to halt the education process.
- KRG has failed to take advantage of the extended holidays resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic or the long summer holidays to improve human capabilities in the educational sector. For example, it could have used the time to provide training for teachers to prepare them for the move towards electronic learning, which the current pandemic demands.
- Teachers and students are struggling to accept modern technology in the education process. They continue to prefer traditional face-to-face teaching methods.
- Psychological anxiety exists in KRI that has worked to create a feeling of bleakness and doubt about the prospects for the future of education.
- The KRI’s private education sector has, to some extent, overcome these problems; however, the obstacle facing the private sector in attracting pupils is the high costs and fees they require. As a result, the private education sector is also currently facing a downturn.
- The high costs involved in the provision of internet services and the unreliable provision of these services by local internet service providers is another reason why electronic and distance learning has failed to take off in KRI.
- Higher Education
The higher education sector faces challenges similar to those encountered in the education sector; these are:
- Significant student numbers and a lack of essential infrastructure: the sector fails to meet the student’s basic needs. It fails to meet subject-specific requirements, such as the availability of labs and lab equipment. Furthermore, higher education institutions have a shortage of classroom as well as electronic and smart study rooms … etc.
- Similar to the education sector, the higher education sector also suffers from a lack of financial support and the non-payment of higher education staff, which has led to significant levels of dissatisfaction amongst lecturers and administrative staff in universities. We note that the current financial position of employees in this sector has increased the threat of a staff boycott of universities.
- The lack of electronic infrastructure at universities: higher education in KRI suffers from poor internet connections, a lack of smart tools for staff and students and the continuation and persistence of the traditional means of delivering education. These difficulties have led to both lecturers and students losing faith in the higher education process. Furthermore, the electronic and distance learning experiment trialled during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the limitations of the KRI’s infrastructure in its public higher education sector to deliver this type of education.
- The failure to amend the laws governing the higher education process in KRI to bring them in line with modern requirements has become an obstacle to its development away from classical teaching methods. These obstacles have not been experienced to the same extent in the private sectors.
- Weak and unreliable lines of communication between the KRI’s higher education sector and international centres of scientific development in advanced countries has meant KRI has failed to take advantage of their knowledge and experience.
- The higher education sector is unable to provide adequate management of student accommodation as it requires significant funds, which KRG is currently unable to deliver due to its economic crisis. Furthermore, the management of these halls of residence, coupled with student culture makes them fertile ground for the spread of COVID-19.
– Scenarios for the education process in KRI going forward:
To date, the only indication of what will occur in the education and higher education sectors going into the 2020-2021 academic year is a proposal put forward by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, which plans to restart the educational process. The Ministry of Education has reflected this plan:
- KRG could decide to conduct education through electronic and distance learning until such time that the threat from COVID-19 has passed.
- KRG could decide to divide the week into two teaching blocks by splitting the week into two periods of three days. Classes are then similarly divided, and each half of a class attends different teaching blocks.
- KRG could decide to delay the opening of schools and universities until October and then open them completely after taking into consideration KRG Health Ministry advice. To achieve this, KRG may decide to reduce the school times and focus education around the subjects that it regards as primary subjects.
Each of the above scenarios has pros and cons, and putting any of them into practice will prove difficult. The lack of an electronic infrastructure available in public schools will likely cause the implementation of the first scenario to fail. The second scenario is more problematic than the first as it effectively increases the workload of teachers and staff by increasing their working week from four to six days. Moreover, most schools in KRI already run a two-shift working day.
The third scenario may prove more successful, especially in light of medical studies around COVID-19 which has found the risk of under eighteens catching the virus to be minimal, and those who do contract the virus, often have minor symptoms. Furthermore, a decision on the part of KRG to reduce pupils’ contacts time and reduce the syllabus to core subjects will allow for reduced exposure to the virus among pupils. However, the implementation of this scenario remains dependent on the assessment of health professionals who should ideally have the final say on what the safest step forward is.
Higher education scenarios: the proposal put forward by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research proposes that the KRI’s higher education sector implements a “mixed learning approach”. The approach would see students both utilising electronic and distance learning and face to face traditional teaching methods as allowed for in the UNESCO guidelines for restarting the education process. Furthermore, the proposal requires that greater autonomy be given to each higher education institution to identify the best method for its particular geography and student base.
Another potential scenario is that the restart of the KRI’s higher education process is delayed until there is a vaccine or effective treatment against COVID-19 or until we know more about the virus.
- A third scenario is to reopen higher education institutions after taking into consideration KRG health ministry advice. This scenario would be a consequence of the fourth paragraph of KRG Council of Minster’s proposals that most of the education process should take place within university campuses, especially practical subjects, core subjects, examinations, and lab work. However, we assess that such an approach would cause classroom overcrowding. Therefore, the most promising scenario, at least in private universities where other problems, such as protests, student accommodation and lack of electronic communications are less, is a mixed education approach.