Iraqi medical students carry a flag to protests in Basra. (photo: Hussein Faleh / AFP / Getty)
Iraq is at a turning point. Frustrated young Iraqis of many walks of life - students of all ages as well as graduates, unemployed, underemployed and even employed - have taken to the streets with a spectrum of demands ranging from the practical to the existential; they want jobs, a better life and a different “system”. This government, or the next, must deliver tangible solutions, and it is becoming increasingly clear that business as usual is no longer an option.
The government has promised to answer young protesters’ demands by providing more jobs. But the public sector is already bloated, eating up over 60 percent of the federal budget. Youth unemployment is estimated at around 17 percent and about 750,000 Iraqis join the labour market annually, including around 200,000 graduates. With 65 percent of Iraqis under 30, things aren’t going to get simpler anytime soon.
I have been struck by their tempered optimism. They and others are testament to Iraqi ambition and ability, even in tough times.
Real structural solutions will be required to address the jobs crisis and the private sector will be crucial if sufficient employment opportunities are to be created quickly. As I have argued before, a key first step will be education reform to prepare young Iraqis for private sector employment.
Over the past decade, I have been working to identify what is preventing Iraqi youth from finding private sector jobs. It is clear that the issue is not a lack of demand. The companies I have spoken to are extremely keen to hire qualified young Iraqis and their inability to do so is one of their key barriers to growth. I frequently receive emails asking if I know any suitable graduates to fill positions in multiple sectors including marketing, banking and accounting.
The fundamental problem is that most Iraqi graduates are simply not equipped to fill these positions and this is due to the failings of the Iraqi education system. In dozens of conversations with private-sector leaders, they identify the same gaps: A lack of English language skills first and foremost, a lack of training in basic business skills such as finance and accounting, and a lack of core professional abilities, from critical thinking, research and report writing to being able to work with common software programs. Lastly, there is also an access gap: Over the years I have encountered many young Iraqis who are equipped to work for companies, but cannot connect with them.
This points to the urgent need to completely overhaul the public education system, including modernizing the curriculum. The government also needs to regulate private, for-profit universities that put making money ahead of providing a decent education.
These and other structural reforms will not happen overnight. However, there are more immediate fixes that could be considered. One would be to establish a nationwide series of accredited, specialized, one- or two-year programs that focus on developing language, business and professional competencies.
A classroom in Basra.
This is what my team has been working on. We have developed a one-year intensive program that will enable a university graduate to work with leading private sector firms. In just over 12 months, we will welcome our first cohort of young graduates. My hope is that, this initiative will grow and will spark others to open similar centres.
The government, working with the private sector and international entities, could also draw on other successful experiments that have been tried in Iraq before. An Iraqi employee at US company, General Electric, established Dar Al Takamul, a program for Iraqi engineering graduates to develop the skills they need for private sector oil and gas companies. To date, 30 of the 35 students have found jobs or been promoted.
Local telecommunications company Zain Iraq has launched the Zain Youth “empowerment platform” which provides training in software coding and robotics. A consortium of Iraq’s banks, the Iraqi Private Banks League, offers training and job opportunities for recent graduates. And Careem, a regional ride-share company that is the equivalent of Uber in the Middle East, is expanding rapidly in Iraq, hiring young people and offering university internships.
All of these individual initiatives in entrepreneurship and education require constant investment, rather than off-the-cuff funding.
Another successful model can be found with my former employer, the American University of Iraq, based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, with whom I worked for ten years. Around 80 percent of graduates are either employed with private sector companies and NGOs, or pursuing graduate work, thanks to a curriculum that emphasizes proficiency in English and the basics of business. Students also have access to career services and other programs to help them identify opportunities. While the university’s model could not be replicated across Iraq in the short term, some of the most pertinent elements of the curriculum could be offered on a wider scale relatively quickly, if there was sufficient government and private sector support.
Another step the government could take in the short term would be to address the needs of Iraq’s burgeoning entrepreneurship and tech sectors. Many young Iraqis are now looking beyond the public sector. They want to open their own businesses, following the lead of the godfathers of Iraqi entrepreneurship, such as Ammar Ameen of Iraq’s Amazon, Miswag, Marwan Ahmed of grocery delivery service Mishwar, Mujahid Waisy, who developed co-working company, The Station, Ali Hilli, a youth and entrepreneurship consultant and Hussein Abul Maali who developed the popular clothing line, Zuqaq13, often worn by Baghdad youth.
Telecommunications company Zain recorded 65 new start-ups in Iraq in recent years. At the same time, young graduates have also launched hundreds of pages on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram to sell their crafts online, from jewellery to clothing to soap. But they lack funding to open brick-and-mortar stores.
Venues such as the Al Faisaliah culture café in Baghdad’s Karrada district offer free space to such start-ups. Visiting these venues and meeting these prominent entrepreneurs over the past year, I have been struck by their tempered optimism about the future, combined with their energy and determination to succeed. They and others are testament to Iraqi ambition and ability, even in tough times. Indeed, spending time in Baghdad of late, the energy and perseverance of younger Iraqis is infectious. The ouster of the extremist group known as the Islamic State has created a much more permissive security environment, and as a result, the city is bustling with renewed activity.
All of these individual initiatives in entrepreneurship and education require constant investment, rather than off-the-cuff funding. The United Nations Development Program and the European Union – in particular Germany and the Netherlands – have been active but more is needed inside Iraq. A functioning banking sector that offers loans, government promotion of new start-ups and expanded public-private partnerships are among those needs. The focus should be on extensive educational programs, not simply short-term, one-off training.
Clearly Iraq needs major reform, and better education and supportive private sector programs won’t solve all of the country’s underlying structural problems. But initiatives like the ones mentioned above - especially if backed by the private sector, the Iraqi government, and international partners - can provide a blueprint for more comprehensive policies that could finally shift the Iraqi economy onto a more productive, progressive path, one that delivers the peace and prosperity Iraqis have craved for 16 years.