On 12 April 2023, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) expressed their renewed collaboration on and dedication to the prevention and eradication of corruption in Iraq. The commitment was solidified through the formal signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which aims to foster a culture of transparency, accountability and ethical conduct in both the public and private domains.
The MoU extends the existing assistance granted by UNDP for Iraq’s anti-corruption initiative. This collaborative initiative entails enhancing the capabilities of anti-corruption organizations and aligning strategic and legal frameworks with the principles of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.
Corruption in the Iraqi government is a pervasive and entrenched problem that has impeded the country’s progress and development for decades. Understanding the causes of this corruption requires a thorough examination of the contributing historical, political, economic and social factors.
A Consistent History of Political Instability
Instability in Iraq over the past two decades has been one of the primary contributors to the country’s corruption. The collapse of a long-standing authoritarian regime in 2003 precipitated a period of uncertainty, which was rapidly filled by competing political factions and sectarian groups. The ensuing conflicts that broke out in Iraq, specifically the sectarian violence, exacerbated the political instability. The intensification of sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia populations resulted in a cycle of violence, reprisals, and retaliation. These conflicts fostered an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility, in which political actors aligned along sectarian lines and struggled for power.
Corruption flourished in this environment. The pursuit of power and influence became intertwined with personal gain as individuals sought to exploit their political positions for financial gain. Political influence evolved into a means of amassing wealth, securing lucrative contracts and seizing control of resources. This environment encouraged officials to use their positions to extract bribes, engage in embezzlement and manipulate public funds for personal gain. In a recent corruption scandal, nicknamed the “heist of the century,” former government officials were implicated in the larceny of $2.5 billion in public funds.
The lack of political stability in Iraq has made it difficult to establish and implement effective anti-corruption measures. Comprehensive anti-corruption policies are impeded by frequent leadership turnover, ineffective governance structures and a lack of institutional stability. In certain instances, corrupt officials have been able to avoid accountability by utilizing their political connections or by taking advantage of the state of confusion in leadership.
Additionally, political instability has undermined the effectiveness of crucial anti-corruption institutions. The judiciary, law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies frequently confront interference, manipulation and intimidation in an unstable political climate. This hinders their ability to prosecute and penalize corrupt individuals, as political considerations frequently influence case outcomes. In addition, political instability has negatively impacted the continuity and efficacy of governance mechanisms. Frequent leadership and government structure changes impede the implementation of anti-corruption policies and institutional reforms. As political priorities have shifted, anti-corruption initiatives have frequently taken a back seat, allowing corrupt practices to persist and even flourish.
What’s more, the prevalence of patronage and nepotism in the Iraqi government has contributed to the spread of corruption. Often, positions of power and influence are filled on the basis of personal connections rather than merit, resulting in a system where loyalty and personal connections take precedence over competence and integrity. This practice undermines the government’s integrity and creates opportunities for corruption to thrive, as individuals in critical positions may place personal gain above the public interest.
Government Institutions Steadily Weakening
The Iraqi institutions charged with upholding transparency, accountability and the rule of law have frequently been undermined by inefficiency, lack of resources and political interference. Corruption within law enforcement agencies hinders their capacity to combat corruption at higher levels. Instances of bribery, nepotism and favoritism within these institutions compromise their integrity and hinder their ability to enforce laws and investigate instances of corruption. Corruption within law enforcement agencies can shield those who engage in corrupt practices, making it difficult to bring them to justice.
The judiciary, which is responsible for adjudicating corruption cases and upholding the rule of law, has also encountered difficulties. Corruption, such as bribery and political interference, has corrupted the judicial system. Corrupt individuals frequently use their connections and resources to manipulate legal proceedings or avoid punishment. This undermines public confidence in the judicial system and discourages individuals from reporting corruption, given that it is likely justice will not be served.
Regulatory bodies and oversight institutions have labored to fulfill their responsibilities effectively. These organizations are responsible for overseeing and regulating various sectors, such as public procurement, finance and public administration, to ensure compliance with legal and ethical standards. However, insufficient institutional capacity, a lack of resources, and political interference have hindered their ability to conduct effective oversight. Inadequate personnel, limited training and inadequate funding are also important factors that promote the spread of corruption.
In Iraq, there have been deficiencies in the anti-corruption safeguarding mechanisms. Among these mechanisms are the auditing of public finances, the monitoring of public contracts and procurement processes, and the enforcement of conduct regulations for public officials. As a result of insufficient oversight, corrupt individuals are able to exploit loopholes and indulge in fraudulent activities with the knowledge that their actions are less likely to be scrutinized and challenged.
In addition to Iraq’s fragile institutions and defective legal system, its lack of security has hampered efforts to combat corruption effectively. Continual terrorism, insurgency and armed conflict have diverted resources, attention and political will from anti-corruption initiatives. Authorities may prioritize security concerns over confronting corruption, thereby fostering an environment conducive to unchecked corruption.
A Widespread Issue With Transparency
Transparency, or the lack thereof, has played a significant role in the perpetuation of corruption in Iraq. Government transparency is a pillar of good governance as it promotes accountability, public trust, and effective supervision. In Iraq, however, access to information has been restricted and disclosure mechanisms are feeble or nonexistent. Transparency International continues to rank Iraq’s public sector among the twenty-five most corrupt in the world.
Citizens and civil society organizations frequently encounter obstacles when pursuing information about government activities, budgets and contracts. This lack of transparency hinders the public’s ability to hold officials accountable and allows corruption to continue unfettered. Individuals are unable to scrutinize government actions, identify irregularities or expose corrupt practices without access to information.
In addition, inadequate disclosure mechanisms exacerbate the lack of transparency. In the absence of comprehensive and effective mechanisms for reporting, monitoring and investigating corruption cases, officials are able to engage in corrupt activities without fear of public exposure and repercussions. Without appropriate channels for reporting corruption or protection for whistleblowers, witnesses of corruption may be dissuaded from coming forward out of fear of retaliation or lack of faith in the system.
Oil and the Economic Struggles of Citizens
Economic factors also contribute to corruption in Iraq. The country’s economy heavily relies on oil exports, which has led to a concentration of wealth and power. Mismanagement and misappropriation of oil revenues have caused corruption in areas including public procurement, contracts, and resource allocation. Lack of economic diversification and excessive reliance on hydrocarbon revenues not only limit the potential for economic growth and development but also increase the likelihood of corruption.
The focus on a single industry leaves other sectors vulnerable to corruption and underdeveloped. When a substantial portion of a nation’s wealth is derived from a single source, those in control can manipulate and exploit the system for their own benefit.
In addition, the absence of a robust and diverse economy increases the likelihood that individuals will engage in corrupt behavior as they seek financial security. This establishes a system in which rent-seeking and illicit practices become the norm, perpetuating a cycle of corruption and stifling efforts to promote transparency, accountability, and good governance.
Lack of Trust in Government
The lack of functioning law enforcement, government credibility and transparency not only shields corrupt officials but also erodes public trust in the government and its institutions. When citizens feel they cannot trust their own government, they become disillusioned and may feel disconnected from the democratic process. This undermines the government’s social contract with its citizens, impeding efforts to promote good governance and accountability.
In the absence of an empowered and active civil society, citizen engagement and accountability are hampered. A robust civil society serves as a watchdog, holding the government accountable and advocating for openness and good governance. In Iraq, civil society faces regular repression, lack of resources and restricted space for participation.
Without an engaged and active populace demanding accountability and transparency, corruption can flourish unchecked. Unfortunately, Iraqi citizens fear speaking out against corruption—particularly after citizens were arrested, tortured and murdered during and after the October 2019 demonstrations.
The Fight Against Corruption
On the whole, corruption has been Iraq’s biggest challenge, and it has far-reaching consequences. Socially, corruption undermines citizens’ faith in the democratic process and erodes public trust in the government. It promotes a culture of impunity and undermines the rule of law. It diverts funds from essential humanitarian programs, public services, and infrastructure development. It restricts economic prospects, discourages foreign investment and perpetuates inequality. Corruption hinders political stability by undermining the legitimacy of the government, exacerbating sectarian tensions and fostering public discontent and unrest.
Combating corruption in Iraq is doubtlessly a complex problem. Without addressing the underlying causes and foundations of corruption, relying solely on memoranda and agendas will yield only marginal and superficial results. To make substantial progress, it is necessary to investigate the root causes of corruption and enact meaningful reforms.
[Lane Gibson edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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