As a Think Tank and Policy Institute, the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) is a part of the still developing, vibrant, local civil society in Kurdistan. It is set apart, noted Former Iraqi MP and VP of SEED Foundation Tanya Gilly, by its access to government officials – without discrimination – at all levels; its ability to work within society; and its independence which allows it to serve as a bridge between the two.
Ms. Gilly, as chair of the roundtable event at MERI, discussing civil society in Kurdistan, lead a conversation among academics, government officials, journalists, activists and local and foreign NGOs about the role of MERI and other civil society organisations in Kurdistan, and how they can interact with each other, society, and government to affect change.
Here, civil society refers to the community of citizens who organize activities aimed at making changes or improvements in their community. While Kurdistan finds itself currently undergoing security and economic crises, the need for an active and engaged civil society overlaps with the nation-building process. Participants at the roundtable relayed Kurdistan’s most vital needs that civil society should address, and gave input and suggestions to how it can be done and what they would like to see from MERI.
MERI is positioned to be the information powerhouse behind the necessary reforms in Kurdistan, and even across the Middle East. As MERI Research Fellow Dave Van Zoonen stated at the roundtable event, “MERI produces evidence – based research to influence policy.” As academic and senior data analyst Javier Brolo of YouGov suggested, think tanks occupy a position between academia, NGOs, and decision-makers; they must study a topic at length, and produce complex solutions to complex problems.
While many of the participants expressed their desire for MERI to take an active role in direct lobbying to the government because of its reputation and access, MERI is best suited to serve as part of the civil society change machine. Direct advocacy is typically not in the scope of a policy institute or think tank; rather analysis of current policies and alternative practices may suggest options to policy makers.
The action part requires MERI to effectively publicize its works, coordinate with different types of organisations, and enable the execution of their ideas. This process was demonstrated by the recent release of MERI’s economic report. After months of researching the structural weaknesses of the Kurdistan economy by surveying key stakeholders, a full report with specific reforms was presented to a room full of economic stakeholders, KRG officials, and officials of foreign missions that have an interest in assisting the KRI. In presenting the report, suggestions made by MERI were debated by decision-makers and business people from the region to come up with suitable goals and policy options.
“I think that research should go both up and down,” stated MERI Research Fellow Nadia Siddiqui. “Eventually, if the public is more informed, it can exert more pressure on the government to change.” In this way, there is a division of labor among civil society that utilizes the strengths of each sector. As Mr. Brolo suggested, the long term information-gathering and analysis comes from an independent institution like MERI; the NGOs have the more rapid action roles; and the general public, with its numbers and democratic representation, can lobby the government to take prescribed actions.
Civil society and the general public in Kurdistan, and even the government, know where reform needs to happen. Despite its status as a region where its abilities are by default constrained to undergo major nation-building processes, it is possible for Kurdistan to find creative ways to make critical improvements. MERI is a resource in this endeavor. As Gaziza Bapiri, a social activist and PR manager, noted in attendance at the roundtable event, MERI can bring people together and make connections, including officials from Baghdad, foreign governments, and international NGOs.
Civil society organisations in Kurdistan should see MERI as a partner, not only willing to provide necessary information and analysis, but to coordinate important goals and objectives with other organisations.
Other requests made at the roundtable event are for assistance in capacity building for smaller, grassroots NGOs in Kurdistan. MERI’s goal is to not be trapped in its ‘think) tank’ as Mr. Brolo suggested – but to be responsive to its environment. A key word often repeated to MERI is impact. Impact is not an independent endeavor. Those that share the same goals should share the burden of change. We hope to see what Salih Fatah – head of gender studies at Soran University – highlighted: “If you engage more with local NGOs, they will be very happy and responsive to your calls because at the grassroots they do make an impact. And they can benefit from MERI”.