By Michael Rubin:
Kurdistan’s rise from the ashes of the Anfal demonstrates Kurdish resilience. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein pulled his administration from Iraq’s three northern provinces, he hoped to starve the Kurds into submission; he never believed the Kurds would fill the vacuum and establish a functioning government.
Today, Kurdish officials say that they govern the most stable and democratic region of Iraq. Oil certainly fueled an economic boom, which Kurds are riding nicely. Hawler and Sulaymani now have more of a skyline than Baghdad. But appearances do not always equate with healthy economies. In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, for example, modern facades cover decrepit infrastructure. Kurdistan is no Ashgabat, but a Kurdish government which has only a superficial understanding of its own region will never take Kurdistan to the next level.
When it comes to management and planning, Kurdistan lags behind the Middle East, even if not the rest of Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has 21 cabinet ministers, not including Qubad Talabani’s recent appointment as “Minister for Coordination and Follow-Up.” Five other officials enjoy ministerial rank. Manning ministries does not automatically bestow good governance.
Behind the shiny façade, there is little order to Iraqi Kurdistan’s development. Traffic is chaotic, electricity tenuous, medical care inadequate, education lackluster, and the environment unprotected. Lackluster planning means Kurdistan is one earthquake away from a disaster far worse than that which struck the Kurdish town of Van, in eastern Turkey. Agriculture languishes and, as in many other countries enjoying an oil or commodities boom, the new wealth accentuates an increasing cost-of-living which makes life much harder for the poor or unconnected than it was just a few years ago.
Governments the world over have their faults, but that should not be an excuse for KRG complacency, nor should personality cults and recourse to nationalism become an excuse to avoid policies which can benefit all, from the richest Barzani to the poorest shelgham cart operator. KRG policy is still constructed ad hoc, done more on personal whim than on hard data. Even if Kurdistan wanted to professionalize its planning, it could not at present do so because it lacks a statistics agency.
Every month in the United States, politicians, economists, and the media await release of the latest unemployment figures. Likewise, the government collects and releases data on everything from housing starts to imports and exports. The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a consumer price index. The U.S. Department of Agriculture releases monthly data on crop production. Each of the 50 states produces its own statistics which become the basis for scores of experts and technocrats to calibrate policy.
The United States is not alone. Every European country collects statistics. The Turks do as well, although Turkish budget specialists admit politicians will sometimes falsify the statistics which are based less on hard data and more on interviews. Even the Iranian central bank collects and release statistics showing food inflation from month to month, and comparing prices over the year.
Many Kurdish politicians live in a bubble; they have no idea of market prices. The most well-to-do Kurds have servants and employees who do their shopping and cooking. Neither KRG President Masud Barzani nor Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani eat in restaurants, shop in the bazaar or more modern supermarkets, nor do they warm their own bread or cook their own eggs. The Barzanis are not alone: Parliamentarians, ministers and their deputies, and other senior officials exist in a different society than the people they serve. That is, of course, not a problem exclusive to Kurdistan, although the problem is more pronounced in many Middle Eastern countries than in the West.
If these same politicians wish to make policy to benefit the people they claim to represent, then they should do so on factual basis. They should be able to chart not only the unemployment (and underemployment) rate from month to month, but they should also have at their fingertips the price of rice, meat, fruit, and tea in the market. The real estate bubble has made both developers and those receiving gifts of public land instant millionaires, but it has also raised the price of rent beyond the grasp of pensioners, displaced Kirkukis, laborers, and the unemployed. Accurate statistics could also demonstrate the KRG’s commitment to place merit above party affiliation when it comes to scholarships awarded to Kurdish university students to study overseas. Charting income from oil exports to Iran and Turkey, as well as customs income at Ibrahim Khalil would also promote the transparency nearly every Kurdish politician has said he desires.
Every KRG prime minister enters office promising reforms. Neither Barham Salih nor Nechirvan Barzani delivered substantively, because both maintained a government calibrated more toward personalities than data. No matter how capable Ministers Ali Sindi and Qubad Talabani may be, there can be no professional planning or “follow-up” absent the data upon which to base policy.
An apolitical Kurdistan Statistics Agency not only could professionalize government and improve policy in Iraqi Kurdistan, but it could also become a mechanism to demonstrate inequity and discrimination against Kurds in Turkey and Iran. Both Ankara and Tehran issue often questionable statistics relating to the status of Kurds under their control. Absent an alternative professional service—even if it must remain for diplomatic reasons a surreptitious one—then neither Kurds nor the international community have a mechanism to disprove their lies.
The KRG is now more than 20 years old, older than the independent states of Eritrea, South Sudan, Timor Leste, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Kurdistan may be booming, and the Kurds might rightly be proud. But the era of complacency and ad hoc policy should be consigned to the past so that future generations might also flourish.