Kurdish Iraqi aid workers feel heat as corruption and war take toll


Partisan political alliances have jeopardised many Kurdish NGO operations, according to those trying to aid more than a million refugees

Displaced Iraqi family from Mosul bake bread for their Iftar during Ramadan at a refugee camp al-Khazir near Erbil (Reuters)
Benjamin Kweskin's picture
Last update: 
Monday 3 July 2017 7:52 UTC

Non-government organisations in Iraqi Kurdistan have warned that their activities are being curtailed by a mixture of financial insecurity and interference by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Due to the ongoing political and humanitarian regional crises, the KRG hosts roughly 1.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and some 250,000 Syrian refugees, straining already thin resources.

Despite - or perhaps because of - its previous economic success, the KRG continues to be plagued by corruption and internal political strife, and has become increasingly scrutinised for its alleged human rights violations.

Adding to this instability, arbitrary, opaque policies and bureaucracy have hampered government services, leaving civil society groups to provide essential services to refugees and displaced people, local NGOs say. 

Dler Ibrahim, who works with the human rights organisation Defend International, said that the main challenge facing NGOs was the "dispersion of projects and the lack of co-ordination".

More than 1.3 million Iraqis have been forced from their homes due to fighting (AFP)

He said, for example, that there are dozens of organisations and agencies focusing on "early marriage for girls" and most of these are implementing their own projects while the KRG simultaneously implements its own.

Another major problem has been the influence of political partisanship.

In 2011, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) reported that 57 percent of NGOs it interviewed in the KRG maintained partnerships with political parties.

The Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) reported that for local NGOs to effectively operate, they often need support from political parties, strong community support and the backing of an INGO.

Ibrahim said that this created difficulties trying to operate independently.

"The [KRG] has tried to strengthen the role of NGOs but the main challenges relating to NGOs are due to partisan sympathies and led to many local NGOs linked to party affiliations," he said.

NGOs are the backbone of society

- Murad Ismael, Yazda

Murad Ismael, executive director of Yazda - a Yazidi advocacy and humanitarian NGO - told MEE that "NGOs are the backbone of society" despite the difficulties his organisation has faced.

Yazda temporarily fell out of favour with the KRG in 2016 for "political activities" and was forced to close its offices for two months, in what Ismael called a "major setback".

Akram Jamo, director of the NGO's directorate in the KRG, denounced the closure as illegal at the time, claiming that it was not up to the provincial government in Dohuk to close the offices of an NGO, as only his office had the authority to do so.

Iraqi Kurdistan has long been seen as having a major problem with corruption - a concern that, in the 90s, led USAID and several European organidations to withdraw their developmental support.

Civil society remains politically splintered: while most international NGOs seek to distance themselves from the grasp of the major political parties, the local leadership of many foreign NGOs are typically aligned to one of the main parties and often coerce and intimidate others to work for the interests of their party.

Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan (Reuters)

Many of these senior NGO staff have benefitted from lucrative business dealings in the oil, real-estate, and telecommunications markets, while relatives of important families are given jobs they are unqualified to oversee.

Until the formation of the KRG in 1992, the United Nations and other intergovernmental organisations and INGOs primarily worked in northern Iraq indirectly - though when such work was direct, it was primarily with local Kurdish NGOs focusing on "agricultural rehabilitation".

These challenging social and political circumstances created a "double rule" shared between a weak local government and relief agencies. 

In many cases, INGOs had larger coffers than the regional government itself and most locals turned to relief agencies to survive.

Seizing upon the opportunity, the two main political parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -  established control over many local NGOs, using them as "lucrative sources of income, and as powerful instruments of clientelisation".

It is estimated that the KRG received more than $1bn in goods and services from international donors from 1991-1996.

"Many foreign NGOs became engaged in Iraqi Kurdistan out of a clear sympathy for the Kurdish plight and a genuine desire for stability and democratisation in the region," wrote Michiel Leezenberg, of the University of Amsterdam.

"Ironically, their efforts unwittingly contributed to the undermining of the elected regional administration in various ways."

Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan. Fighting has displaced more than 250,000 Iraqis (Reuters)

Over the last few years, laws were established by the KRG to provide NGOs more independence. In 2010, the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was considered one of the most liberal NGO laws in the Middle East and was praised for closely following international best practice.

Three years later an additional law was ratified, laying the groundwork for a more robust and effective partnership between government and civil society.

Akram Jamo explained that these laws provide NGOs "full access to monitor, evaluate, independently implement follow-up reports across any sector, including that of the KRG itself."

However, he conceded that the "judicial authority and integrity committee [must] follow up on these final results".

During the occupation of Iraq, the KRG's economy vastly improved and NGOs mushroomed to an estimated 3,400 registered in 2016.

Jamo contends that NGOs have complete autonomy as per the "rules and regulations of the KRG", stating that there are "275 INGOs registered and helped fund some 400 projects spanning two dozen sectors".

Local NGOs are ineffective. It is very difficult for local NGOs to survive financially if they are not affiliated with a political party

- Qassim Hamad, MICT international

Qassim Hamad, an employee at MICT international, a Germany-based media NGO, told MEE that the KRG should strengthen and provide NGOs with equal opportunities "based on qualifications through structured proposals", adding that INGOs should use their leverage with the KRG to ensure "transparency and professionalism".

Under the KRG, it is very difficult for local, independent NGOs to secure funding.

"Local NGOs are incapable and ineffective. It is very difficult for local NGOs to survive financially if they are not affiliated with a political party," said Hamad.

Jamo told MEE, in response, that local NGOs are currently conditioned to remain independent and that those found to be explicitly linked to parties will be investigated, adding that "[partisanship] is decreasing".

Jamo express optimism, implying that the large number of registered NGOs is indicative of a healthy environment in general.

He said he expects NGOs will play an increased role within civil society, especially post-IS, and called for establishing a "strong foundation which includes more knowledge, finance and human-based resources".