Iraqi Kurdistan: Civil Society at the Crossroads


In 2005, Iraq’s Constitution recognized an autonomous Kurdistan region in the north of the country, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Today, with a referendum on independence in speculation for autumn 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan stands at a crucial political juncture with potentially global implications, writes Frini Chantzi. The region’s fragile political equilibrium is again challenged by the Iraqi Kurds’ growing autonomy which is likely to have a significant impact on efforts to stabilize Iraqi democratic institutions and behavior. US foreign policymakers are closely monitoring developments, not least because the US relies on Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria as vital allies in the fight against ISIL.

“Civil society organizations play a crucial role in explaining the meaning and implications of an independence referendum to citizens of the Kurdish state” – Nawaf Haskan

Yet it is unclear whether civil society is sufficiently independent and democratically-minded to facilitate dialogue about the political future of Iraqi Kurdistan. That, at least, was one of the issues emerging from a recent presentation at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED),  by Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow Nawaf Haskan (right), a Yezidi journalist and political commentator.

Iraqi Kurdish civil society has emerged as a dynamic presence since the 2003 American-led international coalition intervention in Iraq, the forum heard. Almost 3,000 of Iraq’s 7,000 NGOs self-identify as Kurdish organizations, a dramatic increase taking into consideration that there were only some 300 or civil society organizations active between 1991 (the de facto start of Kurdish self-rule) and 2005. The 2011 NGO Law facilitated the operation of civil society organizations by improving and simplifying the processes for registration and funding, while establishing the conditions for NGO financial sustainability.

The new law created a level of transparency, and with more independence from legal constraints, Kurdish civil society groups have developed a diverse range of activities, including humanitarian response, support of vulnerable groups, human rights activism, gender issues and legal assistance, and infrastructure projects, said Sherizaan Minwalla, Practitioner-in-Residence in the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the American University Washington College of Law. However, NGOs still suffer from unproductive competition for scarce resources, while dependency on donors can limit CSOs’ capacities and capabilities. Some 60% of civil society originations are dependent on USAID or political patronage and activities are often shaped or constrained by nepotism and political party affiliations. Accordingly, civil society groups still need to address issues of accountability and transparency vis-à-vis the general public and with respect to their internal structure. Civil society activists are also at risk when addressing such sensitive issues as freedom of expression, independent media, advocacy, and election monitoring. The war, ISIL’s atrocities and the massive flow of refugees and displaced peoples have further complicated CSOs’ work.

Both Haskan and Minwalla agreed that these challenges should be seen as opportunities for improving civil society’s performance. Local organizations need to improve organizational structures, foster trust, establish clear goals, engage youth, counter disenfranchisement, promote coordination and collaboration, and restore a balance in government-civil society relations. International civil society groups could help by prioritizing capacity building projects, encouraging local actors through technical assistance and moral support, and utilizing micro-grants instead of investing in large projects lacking appropriate regulation and accountability

Civil society’s problems reflect fundamental issues of power allocation and similar structural problems within the broader Kurdish society. Unless civil society addresses such structural issues – not least, how political power acquired, used and reproduced – it will continue to face recurring constraints on its operations and service to the community.

Watch a short trailer with highlights from the discussion, or watch the full event video here

Frini Chantizi is an Intern in Government Relations and Public Affairs at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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