On think tanks in Iraq: Is it viable for think tanks to reform and operate in an unstable environment?

11 October 2021

My first meeting with a number of leaders, pioneers, and experts of Iraqi think tanks, within the DEVE M.E. Think Tanks Initiative, was highly successful and allowed me insight into the real situation of these institutions. Several golden proposals and suggestions have emerged to overcome challenges and crises, to enable reform and healthy operation, and to enter the narrow circle of decision-making processes in Iraq to conduct the most basic role of thinks tanks: participating in the formation of the country’s public policies.

Iraq has suffered successive and severe crises, especially since the US invasion in 2003. The repercussions of these events has ultimately turned Iraq into a failed state on all levels, and in some cases turned it into a vassal one, because of external interference that pitched calm sectarianism into real social chaos. Indeed, the political situation was a prominent reason for the emergence of extremist groups, thus worsening the environment and the chances of improvement in any aspect of success, including the economy, society, academy, and more.

Realities deserved to be studied

Formerly among these aspects of success, civil societies and think tanks in Iraq have been literally destroyed; some of them closed, other moved abroad, and the rest still struggling to survive.

According to my research, most surviving Iraqi think tanks are university-affiliated, as their organisational structure is similar to a fixed governmental structure and helped them to re-open and resume their activities when the pace of conflict decreased.

However, Dr Luqman Al-Nuaimi, Head of the Regional Studies Center at Mosul University told me that surviving think tanks in Iraq are still suffering under the absence of governmental and donor support on all levels, despite the huge efforts of these institutions, and the valuable policy advice provided to the government that sometimes reached the head of the state.

Other types of think tanks were dismantled or fled the country because of sectarian and hostile concerns. Many think tanks, pioneers and experts moved their activities abroad to operate better without political, sectarian, and personal pressures. These think tanks are providing a pioneering professional analysis to the situation in the country and provide neutral recommendations, prioritising the interests of the state above any other affiliation or orientation.

Other think tanks inside Iraq – mostly independent – have been closed forever because of the political transformations and the unstable situation. When revising the directories of think tanks and civil societies at the University of Pennsylvania, it was noted that 12 Iraqi think tanks had closed in 2013–2015 –  a period when ISIS had a firm grasp on the Iraqi territories.

A way to reform and operate

Recently, amid a new boom of public discontent, the Iraqi political elite have been trying to fix the situation and reform crucial aspects of Iraqi foreign policy. From my point of view, and as I discussed with think tankers in Iraq and abroad, this is an excellent opportunity for the government and think tanks to reunite once more.

Think tanks in Iraq can reform their structures and organise their workflow to focus more on these important issues, through holding high-level conferences and workshops and issuing deep-analysis papers. Some may say that these events would cost too much, yet the COVID-19 crisis has shown how institutions can think more about distance activities that save both money and time. Iraqi think tanks can once more reactivate their role among the political elite, showing their capabilities to solve problems through pioneering academic analysis.

Recommendation for a strong return

Iraqi think tanks must:

  • Form a coalition of corporations to cover each other’s shortcomings.
  • Exchange experiences and advice on structural operations and means of analysis and research.
  • Pay more attention to the issue of social discontent and the shaping of foreign policy as two crucial issues for the state to succeed.
  • Build confidence among decision-makers through expanding external communications and partnerships.
  • Contain and restrain any kind of passive competition among think tanks until they have collectively strengthened their positions in the interest of the state.
  • Diversify management and research staff to expand points of view and create a healthy environment of internal dialogue that can be deployed in society.
  • Establish creative means of self-marketing both inside Iraq and abroad.

Overall, Iraqi think tanks have the right ingredients of success, but still exist in a shaky mode due to the unstable situation of the country. The Iraqi government surely know that these institutions can help to overcome crises in a straightforward, guaranteed way.