From nationwide anti-government protests, to U.S.-Iran tensions playing out on Iraqi soil, to a protracted government formation crisis, 2020 has been a tough year for Iraq. The pandemic has only deepened the country’s challenges, including distrust of the political class and inter-communal tensions. On top of this, Iraq is experiencing one of its worst economic situations since the country’s formation. Understandably, there is a crisis of confidence. Almost everything ailing Iraq stems from the lack of trust between the government and its citizens. Only by working together as partners can faith be restored. Iraq’s citizens must be given a bigger role in the decision-making process about the future of the country, starting with a say in next year’s budget.
Faced with the declining global demand for oil, reduced international aid, and a struggling economy, Iraq must diversify, desperately needing cash for post-ISIS reconstruction. The health crisis and precipitous drop in oil prices has hit ordinary Iraqis the hardest. Against this backdrop, the Iraqi government will be forced to make hard decisions as it drafts the upcoming 2021 annual budget.
As the Iraqi government faces these challenges, USIP has been working with its partner the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities (AIM) and community-led participatory budget committees in Nineveh governorate to engage citizens in the budget decision-making process. Since the 2017 territorial defeat of ISIS in Nineveh, and the start of emotional and physical rebuilding among minority communities there, this initiative signals a pivot to a more locally led, post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding approach that promotes community agency to reap the gains of peace.
These committees are working to alleviate tension within territories disputed between the central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Region, which are inhabited by a mixture of ethno-sectarian groups, including Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and other minority groups. This protracted dispute has fueled competition and bedeviled reconstruction efforts. Although this process will not expand the economic pie in real terms, as one top Iraqi government official in Mosul commented, “It will help the people of Nineveh do more with less.”
Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which communities decide how to spend part of a public budget—something new to Iraq. Last October, Iraqis took to the streets to call for an end to corruption, job creation, and restoring public services, all of which can be addressed by participatory budgeting.
Better targeted service provision and investments through community deliberation stretches out the budget. Across the globe, the participatory budgeting process has been found to improve perceptions of fairness and community ownership of the budgeting process. Since committees across Nineveh were formed in December 2019, they have worked to foster a more active citizenry and enhance the accountability and effectiveness of the government.
Measuring Iraqis’ Perceptions on the Budget
To better inform this initiative and other efforts by the Iraqi government and the international community, USIP developed the Conflict and Stabilization Monitoring Framework (CSMF) to gauge the evolving perspectives of the governorate’s most prevalent ethnoreligious groups. Respondents believe service provision and reconstruction efforts are not distributed evenly in their areas, which may contribute to common perceptions of marginalization and political favoritism. Moreover, roughly half of the respondents felt other ethnoreligious groups in their areas received priority over them.
According to the CSMF, Iraqis view resource distribution as a zero-sum game, with resources spent in another neighborhood or targeting another ethnic group taking away from their own community. There is a perception that resources are distributed along ethnic, religious, or geographical divisions, which can translate to real or perceived inequality. This has serious implications for conflict and peace, as groups that believe they’ve been deprived of resources relative to their neighbors may respond with violence.
This tension will only sharpen with the economy likely to shrink next year. Still, efforts that give citizens greater agency over the budget can address the perception of inequitable distribution and increase the government’s effectiveness.
A Reason for Hope
Although there is a rough road ahead, there are some positive trends. The CSMF has tracked a decrease in the perception that other groups receive priority for reconstruction and service provision. This suggests that the Iraqi government and international community’s increased attention is having a positive effect, such as the UNDP’s rebuilding of the Hamdaniya hospital after ISIS rolled through the district. Louis Marcos Ayub, the deputy director of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, told USIP, “If the hospital had not come back, then [Hamdaniya residents] would not have returned.”
USIP began working in 2012 on participatory budgeting with minority communities. These efforts culminated with the Institute facilitating minority groups' successful advocacy for Iraq’s 2012 budget law to be more equitable and responsive within the provinces. AIM then worked to engage provincial, district and sub-district councils in Nineveh to convert the law into service delivery projects in health, infrastructure, and education.
Sail Ismael al-Omari, a former advisor to the Nineveh Governor’s Office for Planning Affairs, views the participatory budgeting initiative and the resulting 2012 law as a positive step in decentralizing budgetary power to the provinces. Still, al-Omari believes the ISIS occupation has hampered the law’s full impact. “Until now, we have not had a chance to see [the law’s] fingerprints in its entirety,” she told USIP.
In 2018, USIP initiated the second phase, and AIM launched townhall sessions and government trainings in five districts and subdistricts of Nineveh and then formed participatory budget committees, comprised of both community members and government officials, to lead the process of identifying key projects to prioritize in the upcoming investment budget. A social media campaign, alongside a virtual poll, was launched at the beginning of July to get community input on which investment projects to prioritize and to explain how the often abstruse budget process works.
At the townhalls, USIP heard countless stories about how government officials obstructed projects, while other projects that were completed did not have the necessary costs for staffing. As welcome as a rebuilt school can be, without funds for teachers and operations it remains merely a building. Another obstacle cited was the lack of coordination or preparation by the Nineveh government. One senior staff member of a multilateral aid organization who manages a reconstruction fund in Nineveh said that officials often propose projects based on personal criteria rather than based on need or feedback by their constituents.
Through the townhall sessions, USIP witnessed a mismatch between government and citizen perception of local needs. Local government officials seldomly speak to the community ahead of decisions on basic service provisions or when they did they typically spoke with leaders like the local mukhtar or sheikh, who do not necessarily represent or appreciate all the complex needs of their communities. Community participants plainly stated that their lack of faith in their government representatives isolated them from working to solve the issues they currently face.
Adad Yousif Ishaq, deputy executive director of Nineveh Center for Research and Development, facilitates the participatory budget committee in Tal Keif, a district in Nineveh. He witnessed how both government officials and community members pivoted to this more participatory approach after the sessions: “Everyone was surprised by how easily citizens can be involved in the [budget planning] process.” This type of collaboration, he continued, will help Iraq face the tough road ahead.
Now that the community has completed voting for specific projects, AIM and the participatory budget committees will begin to engage local media and advocate with local officials. With sustained efforts by the budgeting committees and increased community interest, next year’s budget can respond to local communities’ growing needs. On top of better matching annual budgets with community priorities, the participatory process can lead to a shift in how decisions are made and how budgetary power is wielded.
Ahmed Nadhim, the director of Nineveh’s Planning and Development General-Directorate, sees the participatory budget initiative aligning with the vision of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s new government. “As a response to the [October] protests, the Council of Ministers formed a committee to listen to people and choose projects based on their needs,” he said. Building off this, government officials can formalize the consultation processes that took place with a wide spectrum of community members. This can positively shift service provision from competition to cooperation. Moreover, community consultation can help set unified priorities with community support. This important step can provide coherence between the simultaneous top-down and bottom-up budget processes. And it isn’t a one-way street. The government can utilize the forum to work with civil society to apply for international funds to meet local priorities where public funding falls short.
If this initiative works, it can enhance participatory governance, and democracy more generally, in Iraq. The new government has made an attempt to listen to the demands of the protest movement to be more inclusive. Dialogue among different communities about budgetary needs improves cross-community relations. Government institutions can adopt this process to heal the broken social contract, which can undercut the persecution of minorities; weed out the desire for communities to become clients to other states, militias, and extremist groups; and build bridges between Iraq’s diverse communities. This participatory approach, and a cleaner, clearer budget process, can first fix Nineveh’s local industries and then become the model by which the Iraqi government scales up its fight against corruption and lifts the country up as a whole.
Lana Khalid is a program assistant for the U.S. Institute of Peace in Erbil, Iraq.