July 5, 2011

Culture of dependency & newly proposed welfare reforms in Kurdistan Region - By Shwan Zulal

Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) or the same group of leaders have been running the northern region of Iraq for over 20 years and it has come a long since. Fratricidal conflicts and petty politics have taken its toll on the region and hindered progress for years.  The government has often been described as an infant and the public has made many concessions for its early stage of development. Meanwhile, more often than not, the main ruling parties of PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) have been making excuses saying that the Kurdish public are not ready for reforms and cultural barriers are in the way of progress.

The cultural factors stalling progress cannot be denied but recent development in the region and the emergence of strong opposition in Kurdistan Region has changed the political landscape and people's expectations. A cultural revolution lead by the younger generation is taking place as people are becoming more affluent and better informed. The availability of information through internet and media has accelerated cultural development. It is still a long way to go to fix the cultural dysfunctionalities in Kurdistan but the cultural revolution has started in earnest.

Government has a crucial role in promoting good ethics and culture by introducing legislation and promoting cultural changes. Take smoking as an example. Only five years ago, smoking in public in the UK was the norm but after legislation banning it, it has now become an anti-social behaviour. Drink driving is another example too.

A good example of moving in the right direction is last week's approval of new legislation banning female genital mutilation by the Kurdish parliament.  The law does also have provision to deal with domestic violence.  The legislation may have its critics by saying that the law would not be implemented fully and enforcing it would give the government a headache, nevertheless, laws like this one needs to be praised as it will slowly lead to cultural changes.

One of the major cultural changes needed is an end to dependency on government in Kurdistan Region and Iraq as a whole. The start of the Ration system and public subsidies in Iraq has exaggerated this cultural phenomenon. The System has continued with Food for Oil program after the gulf war. It is arguable that the program has saved many lives and the poor from starvation but the social and cultural consequences has been devastating too. Now a days, an average person in Iraq only think about what the state can give them in remuneration and salaries rather than thinking about making a difference and contributing to the country's development.

Government needs to take urgent action and introduce policies towards changing the majority of the population's attitude towards the state, otherwise it will only lead to the demise of once energetic and proud nation.

KRG has come up with its own dependency system through patronage and state employments, which works for the ruling parties' best interest. The government and the almighty and rich ruling parties of PUK and KDP have employed many people. The rationale behind the employment spree is to boost support for their political parties and maybe their way of spreading the country's wealth. The policy has lifted many out of poverty but the negative consequence has been cementing the culture of dependency on the state.

The policy of creating jobs in order to buy loyalties and instil a scene of fairness is a red herring, because in the process individuals are encouraged to be paid for doing absolutely nothing and feel they actually doing a job, be it fictional. It may be good for self-esteem, but it is devastating for the future prospect of Kurdistan Region's economy.

In a recent proposal part of the five party talks, the incumbents have proposed to create a welfare system in order to care for the elderly, disabled and those less well of whom cannot find jobs. This is one of the most significant proposals coming out the government so far and it could lead to elimination of poverty once and for all.

However, these reforms must be planned very carefully and should not become another tool to buy loyalty. Otherwise, it will make people more dependent on government, irresponsible and less resourceful.

If the policy drafted properly with good intentions, KRG will have the option of transferring many superfluous employees in the public sector on the benefit system. This will allow the public sector become more efficient and it would highlight the true unemployment figures in the Region. While this policy might appear demining and crude, but it will have the potential to encourage people to become more resourceful and work rather than depend on government handouts. Moreover, when the true numbers of the unemployment becomes apparent,  it should spur government into action and force them to find ways of creating jobs and get the economy going. 

Receiving welfare benefit is not the first option many people opt to take, because generally there is a stigma attached to it. Therefore, switching people from the unproductive work force to the benefit system may put off many that do not need the extra state benefit and stop them being a drain of public recourses. In addition, such changes to the current De facto handout system would inevitably lead to cultural changes and an improvement in work ethics.  Failing to think the policy through and not having the right objectives by rushing it through to win support, can backfire and make the already idle workforce even more indolent.


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