Decentralisation in Iraq: Process, Progress & a New Tailor-Made Model

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The Iraqi state has become increasingly fragile for decades and is plagued with instability, social conflicts and wars. Many drivers have contributed to the country’s intractable fragility, one of which relates to its highly centralised and poorly institutionalised governing system, which has failed to manage centre-periphery tensions and integrate local communities into the country’s polities. Rebuilding Iraq’s governance along the lines of its democratic Constitution, which adopts decentralisation at its core, will be a critical step toward stabilisation, reconstruction, and socioeconomic recovery.

The Iraqi Council of Representatives adopted two transformative legislations in 2008, namely Law No. 21 of the Governorate not Incorporated into a Region, and Law No. 36 of the Provincial, District and Subdistrict Council elections. These put Iraq on a decentralisation pathway that is still evolving. However, after more than a decade of experimentation, the decentralisation process has failed to tackle the on-going crises of legitimacy and a lack of trust in government. It has failed to address problems of rampant corruption, inefficiency and an inability to improve the lives of citizens. It is, therefore, paramount to review the existing system and propose ways forward, hence this timely report. Here, Nineveh is used as a representative governorate to review the challenges facing the decentralisation process and explore possible models that can be piloted.

Considering Iraq’s political, demographic and economic nature, there are several models that have been contemplated previously, including:

1. Evolving the current model: gradual devolution and separation of authority.
2. Administrative re-structuring and provincialisation of Nineveh’s Districts.
3. Federalisation of governorates.

However, these options (top-down approaches) have their drawbacks and in effect fail to deliver on key constitutional objectives, including preserving the unity and integrity of the country, empowering local communities and securing legitimacy. Importantly, they fail to trickle down the decentralisation or devolution with separation of authority within the provinces, away from the Governor and Provincial Council (PC) down to District and Subdistrict levels.

Here, a fourth model (bottom-up approach) is therefore proposed that builds on existing culture, history and understanding of decentralisation, and is designed to provide solutions for the numerous challenges and problems that local governments currently face. It is designed to better empower the local government, make it more citizen-focused and implement greater checks and balances to ensure quality. Furthermore, this model is in line with the current decentralisation process and the overall legislative framework that has evolved over the past ten years, including amended Laws No. 21 and 36 of 2008 (which may need further adjustments).

The model consists of using District (not Provincial) Councils as the building blocks of the institutional architecture, upon which the rest of the legislative and executive branches of government are constructed.

a. Constituencies for District Council (DC) elections must be redrawn on the basis of Subdistricts, proportional to their population sizes, to ensure full representation. Preferably, a man and a woman should be elected in each constituency, which renders the quota system unnecessary.

b. Once elected, DCs will oversee the inauguration of the District and Subdistrict level executive directorates, which will become the face of the government and a one-stop-shop for citizens’ needs.

c. DCs send their elected Chairs and Vice-Chairs to the provincial Capital to form the PCs, which will then oversee the inauguration of the Governorate’s executives, including the Governor. Therefore, no election for PCs would be required.

d. Power and authority must be devolved (separated) down to District and Subdistrict level executives, to make them self-sufficient for all public service with no requirement to seek authorisation from officials at the governorate or federal levels.

e. The role of District Mayors (DM) must change from micro-managers to strategic leaders who will provide strategies, planning, coordination and auditing for their constituencies. Day-to-day management and delivery of services to citizens will be managed by directorates, namely Subdistrict Directors and District-level service Directors. The DM should be responsible to the laws, regulations and policies laid down by the legislative bodies (Parliament, PC and DC) and government (at the federal and governorate levels).

f. Similarly, Governors must be protected from day-to-day micro-management, dedicated to leadership at the provincial level and set free to play an ambassadorial role at the national and international stage to attract inward investment to their provinces. Governors would be responsible for providing visions, strategies and plans for the entire province, and ensuring their implementations in each District.

g. Currently, local government executives are overseen by the Parliament, the High Commission for Coordinating among the Provinces, and the courts. However, more robust and comprehensive checks and balances are required where District-level executives are subject to audits and performance appraisals by PCs, Governors, DCs, DMs, relevant ministries, the Financial Audit Department, Public Prosecutors and civil society.

The concept and changes proposed under this model are neither radical nor alien to the Iraqi public, as they are already embedded in the existing culture or can be accommodated within existing legislation.

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Methodological Note: The data for this report were collected from August 2019 to February 2020. To maximise the breadth and depth of the information collected, a mixed qualitative methods approach was adopted, which included: a preliminary desk review of the existing literature and 28 semi-structured interviews with local and national government officials, district and sub-district mayors, community and religious leaders, and subject matter experts. In addition, five Focus Group Discussions were conducted in Erbil and Baghdad for Nineveh representatives, Iraqi government officials, Kurdistan Regional Government leaders, local civil society actors and other key stakeholders. The roadmap, proposed by this report, has been presented, shared and discussed with participants of the FGDs for further verification and contextuality.

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