Erbil- The West is now focusing on the fight against the self-proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). The topic of how to destroy this terrorist organization dominates most of the meetings of the Western diplomats in Iraq and Kurdistan Region. However, the Iraqi forces are about to retake Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. The mission of Kurdish forces in Iraq against ISIL is almost over. The US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s awarding medal of honor to a group of Peshmerga in Erbil was an indication that Peshmarga’s mission accomplished. The rest of the mission, the rebuilding of the society and reconciliation of the communities, should be done by the civil society organizations, but the question is, do we have a civil society in Iraq? Well, there are thousands of registered NGOs on paper, but only a few of them are there to do the job.
Out of three thousand registered NGOs in Kurdistan Region less than a dozen of them are actively working; the rest is out of the market. Among the active ones, the only couple of them are non-partisan, and they are getting the least attention from international donors due to political influence and the unlimited access the partisan NGOs and foundations have to public institutions.
In 2011, the Parliament of Kurdistan Region of Iraq passed a new law for registering non-governmental organizations. According to the law, the Department of NGOs formed which is directly linked to the Council of Ministers. The New law not only facilitated to civil society activists to register their non-governmental organizations in a much faster pace without facing security check, but it provided funds to thousands of startups and other NGOs.
However, this opportunity was exploited by political parties, especially the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). These parties pushed their members to register new NGOs as a new model to suck the public fund and use them for political purposes. Millions of dollars provided by the Department to the startups for doing nothing or nominal activities such as seminars, workshops, and training, but in reality the participants of these activities were mostly members of the political parties.
There were some good organizations benefited from the funds, too. But, the number of organizations that did the real work and spent the money on important projects can be counted on the fingers of two hands.
After 2014, when Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) suspended the fund for the NGOs due to the financial crisis it faced, the NGOs disappeared and many dissolved.
Nevertheless, exploiting the NGO space is not only relevant to the local funds, but they dominated the international funds coming to Kurdistan to humanitarian aid and funds for women organizations. Since 1992, both KDP and PUK established many organizations under the umbrella of NGOs to get shares from the international funds provided to Kurdistan. However, the PUK was more successful in bringing international funds to Sulaymaniyah for women organizations and funds for civil society organizations as local NGOs in Sulaymaniyah enjoyed more liberal environment by working on projects to deepen democratic values and freedom of speech.
Although, Sulaymaniyah received more funds fro projects related to independent media and democracy, the lion share of the international funds is dedicated to the humanitarian crisis, especially after June 2014. According to the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq report, between June to October 2014 over $50 million came to Iraq. From this amount, Duhok and Erbil received $30 million in that period.
The KDP recently thought of establishing new NGOs and dried up the little funds were available to non-partisan NGOs. It established giant NGOs such as the Barzani Charity Foundation (BCF) and the Rwanga Foundation. Both organizations are directly linked to top Barzani clan officials. The BCF reports to the office of Masrour Barzani, son of KDP President Masoud Barzani. The latter is run by Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani’s son, Idris Barzani. These two giant NGOs occupied the vast area of land dedicated to them by the KRG for free while other NGOs are challenging to find an affordable space in the capital city of Erbil.
Both the BCF and Rwanga receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from the KRG under the name of Mustafa Barzani endowment and Idris Barzani endowment. The BCF also took over the Qatar’s fund to the Kurdistan Islamic Association as well.
The PUK’s most famous NGO is the Civil Development Organization (CDO) which is indirectly overseen by the PUK institutions and the directors subject to PUK’s political endorsement. The CDO sits on one of the most valuable piece of land in the heart of Sulaimaniyah by Azadi Park. There is also Kurdistan Save Children which is directly connected to PUK Secretary General Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad. This organization is also given one of the most strategic places in Sulaimaniyah in Rizgari neighborhood. The Three floors building of the Kurdistan Save Children constructed on the public fund as well.
What makes these NGOs attractive to the international organizations is the political leverage and the unlimited access to the public institutions. The BCF and Rwanga have access to every KRG facilities in Erbil and Duhok; they can get into the IDP and refugee camps easily while other local NGOs need to wait for days, if not weeks, to get security clearances. The international NGOs are looking for the local partners that can get along with local authorities easily. Also, the PUK and KDP are monopolizing KRG’s foreign affairs and recommend the NGOs affiliated to themselves.
In my follow up on this issue and how the political parties monopolize the public spaces, I met with leaders of civil society organizations in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. They gave me valuable insight on how they were kept out of the market by the ruling parties. These organizations are still there because they believe in the cause and depend on local funds to sustain their operations. They asked me not to mention their names because they might lose the limited access they have to the public institutions. They don’t get the funds coming to the region as part of the humanitarian crisis which makes up over 90 percent of the foreign aid. The giant NGOs, which we can call them the partisans, collect almost 95 percent of the funds. The international donors and the organizations are aware of that and keep a blind eye on it.
The international organizations may justify their willingness to work with these partisan NGOs during the humanitarian crisis. But, they should also know that while they helping the neediest people, they contribute to the ruling parties efforts to destroy civil society organizations in Kurdistan.