Middle East

“They Hear Us But They Do Not Listen to Us”: Youth Narratives on Hope and Despair in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

The research paper zooms in on the perspectives of young urban university students across the Kurdistan region of Iraq. We focus on young people (mostly university students) from four urban localities (Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Duhok, and Halabja). Our aim was to understand their perspectives about the purpose and quality of education, and the challenges they face.

Research informing summary:
Journal article: “They Hear Us But They Do Not Listen to Us”: Youth Narratives on Hope and Despair in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (2022)
|
Co-authors:

About:

This research used a qualitative approach and in-depth interviews method.

Our sample included young research participants from different economic backgrounds, localities, and fields of education. We also included both public and private university students, with a gender balance representation. The research participants are aged between 18 to 28 years old.

The paper highlights narratives of hope and despair, but to some extent, the situation of young people in the peripheral towns of these four provinces may be worse. However, we focused on young people in the urban localities since they are the most accessible. We organised interviews and focus group discussions to gather their perspectives on the current political situation in the Kurdistan region, with a specific focus on the political situation after the referendum for independence that took place in September 2017, as well as economic and social dynamics in the region since then.

Our interviews followed a semi-structured approach, where we asked general questions followed by more specific questions. Similarly, our focus group discussions were guided by some questions, but the discussions touched on different issues according to the topics discussed among the research participants themselves. Their answers helped us to guide the discussion.

The limitation of this paper is that it mainly focuses on the urban youth who are university graduates or university students and therefore might not represent the views of young people who live in rural settings. The situation in those far-flung rural towns could even be worse, where the impacts of economic crisis have been more severe.

|

Funding:

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

Additional reading:
  • Publication: "Understanding the Roots of the Younger Generations’ Despair in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq"[Access resource]
  • Publication: "Youth Identity, Politics and Change in Contemporary Kurdistan"[Access resource]

Key points

  • The current university system in the Kurdistan region of Iraq is broken. Students are not studying what they want and the education does not prepare them for life after university – as such there is a sense of dissatisfaction.

Following 2003, the government’s policy was to offer employment in the public sector to provide opportunities for the excess labour. This policy was working until 2014, as the region experienced what can be referred to as a “golden decade.”

While in the rest of Iraq, people’s primary concern was survival due to chaos, sectarian warfare, or civil war. Kurdistan, however, was stable – and was benefitting from Saddam being gone, from being a de jure entity with a parliament and army, and having representation in Baghdad. As engineers of the new era, the Kurds were given revenue sharing from Iraq’s overall revenue, but they were also making their own revenues from the custom borders with Iran and Turkey, but also from oil sales. More and more universities were appearing across Kurdistan, producing more and more graduates. Progress was being made.

However, the government’s policy was only opening up space for economic participation for the graduates in the public sector – two-thirds of the main household income within Kurdistan is from the public sector.

And there was an expectation that because Kurdistan had replaced the impoverishment experienced during Saddam’s rule over the preceding decades – the situation would continue to get better, and could not go backwards.

However, since 2014 the system has come under stress due to the emergence of the Islamic State, plummeting oil prices, and budget cuts from Iraq. This meant the Kurdistan regional government could not deliver its promise. The government had to freeze new employments and promotions and was even struggling to pay its existing employees . It introduced harsh austerity measures – slashing salaries to one third on a so called “salary saving scheme” (which remains unknown if will ever be repaid). These measures impacted or led to the decline of the education, health sector, provision of other services, and so on. While prosperity and employment were experienced during the boom, a sustainable, future-proof plan was not made.

Since then, the labour force has continued to grow, with around 27,000 graduates entering the job market annually, but the labour market has not kept pace with that growth and even shrunk, because the government no longer has the money to keep employing graduates in the public sector, which means that there are not enough jobs for the young graduates of the region. And those with jobs are not being paid in time or in full. The private sector has remained small and unable to absorb the excess labour.

Nevertheless, despite this economic instability, the expectation from students and graduates remains. After 2003, the unspoken deal at the heart of Kurdish politics in Iraq has been that the ruling elite control the political space but, in return, they deliver a better life. This created a sense that public employment is meritocratic and eve part of the social contract. So if one worked hard and graduated from university then there would be a government job waiting for them. But this was a myth – in fact the current system is clientelist and nepotistic. Most employment has been based on patronage. This has subsequently led to the dissatisfaction and delusion among young people. Consequently, dissent and despair have been on the rise. Steady streams are also risking their lives in the pursuit of a better life abroad through illegal routes of migration.

When you look at the population, 60% are under 25 to 30 years old, so the majority of the population has no memory of Saddam Hussein. And so, there is also a divide between generations, and the rulers and the ruled (as the rulers have been ruling for the past 30 years plus) – where the older generation cannot understand the dissatisfaction from the youth: “When we were your age, we were fighting in the mountains. You are not doing that – you’re just unemployed. So, no need to complain.” But the young feel that the older generation have done nothing in the past 20 years.

The ruling elite want total independence from the rest of Iraq, but the youth think if there is no guarantee we can be fully self-sufficient, then maybe it’s better to be part of Iraq and benefit from Iraq’s oil revenues – like in the golden years. They aspire for a middle-class life.

Findings

  • In the words of the young people interviewed, there is a feeling of hopelessness, disaffection, and confusion about their prospects after university.

    This is because they believe that they have a grim prospect of finding what they want or achieving what they want.

  • The current education system did not improve their prospects of finding gainful employment, be it in the public or private sector.

    The education does not help them develop the set of skills and competencies required in the job market or prepares them for the day after university.

  • The current education system emphases and rewards memorisation and rote learning, rather than problem-solving, critical thinking, and scenario testing, which is one aspect of the problem of why the education is not preparing them for work after university.

    It's also related to who's teaching that curriculum. Those who participated in my research found the professors and adjunct professors that are teaching them are out of touch with reality.

  • There is a lack of freedom for young people to select the major of their choice when they finish high school.

    It still continues to be decided by a universal admission system based on a student's average from their baccalaureate exam, which decides which school or discipline they are going to study. So there is not much space for the young people's interest in what fields they want to pursue, particularly in the public sector education.

  • The university is also very politicised, as it acts as an extension to political parties.

    Like media outlets, they parrot the popular narrative and the partisan official line of the political parties.

What it means

Following 2003, the government’s policy was to offer employment in the public sector to provide opportunities for the excess labour. Between 2004 and 2015, this policy was successful, and this can be referred to as the “golden decade.”

While in the rest of Iraq, people’s primary concern was survival due to chaos, sectarian warfare, or civil war. Kurdistan, however, was stable – and was benefitting from Saddam being gone, from being a de facto entity with a parliament and army, and having representation in Baghdad. As engineers of the new era, they were given revenue sharing from Iraq’s overall revenue, but they were also making their own revenues from the custom borders with Iran and Turkey, but also from oil sales. More and more universities were appearing across Kurdistan, producing more and more graduates. Progress was being made.

However, the government’s policy was only opening up space for economic participation for the graduates in the public sector – two-thirds of the main household income within Kurdistan is from the public sector.

And there is an expectation that because Kurdistan had replaced the impoverishment experienced during Saddam’s rule over the preceding decades – the situation would continue to get better, and could not go backwards.

However, in 2015, when there was a shock to that system due to the emergence of the Islamic State, plummeting oil prices, and budget cuts from Iraq. This meant the Erbil government could not deliver its promise. They had to freeze new employments and promotions within government jobs as the Erbil government could not even pay their current employees and harsh austerity measures were introduced – slashing salaries to one third on a so called “salary saving scheme” (which remains unknown if will ever be repaid). These measures impacted or led to the decline of the education, health sector, provision of public utilities, and so on. While prosperity and employment were experienced during the boom, a sustainable, future-proof plan was not made.

So, since 2015, the labour market continues to grow, with around 27,000 graduates entering the job market annually, but the labour market is shrinking, because the government no longer has the money, which means that there are not enough jobs for the young graduates of the region. And those with jobs are not being paid in full.

But despite this economic instability, the expectation from students and graduates remains. Because after 2003, the idea is that meritocracy is part of that implicit deal at the heart of the Kurdish social contract. So if they worked hard and graduated from university then there would be a government job waiting for them. But this was a myth – in fact the current system is clientelist and nepotistic. This has subsequently led to the dissatisfaction and delusion among young people.

When you look at the population, 60% are under 25 to 30 years old, so the majority of the population has no memory of Saddam Hussein. And so, there is also a divide between generations, and the rulers and the ruled (as the rulers have been ruling for the past 30 years plus) – where the older generation cannot understand the dissatisfaction from the youth: “When we were your age, we were fighting in the mountains. You are not doing that – you’re just unemployed. So, no need to complain.” But the young feel that the older generation have done nothing in the past 20 years.

The ruling elite want total independence from the rest of Iraq, but the youth think if there is no guarantee we can be fully self-sufficient, then maybe it’s better to be part of Iraq and benefit from Iraq’s oil revenues – like in the golden years. They aspire for a middle-class life.

How to use

  • Give some freedom to young people in choosing what they would like to study after they finish high school: The admission system should include other measures other than being based on high school average only. People who are good in memorisation could get 100% out of 100, and then the university admission system assigns them to medicine, but do they want to go to medicine? Are they good in that field? At the moment, only their high school average is the determining factor. Memorisation and high school average alone should not determine someones future.
  • Graduates also need help with career orientations where they can have some idea about what they can do and become after graduation, ideally before they select the fields of study they would like to pursue for higher education: It is also important to take into the consideration the requirements of the job market, in terms of the different sectors as well as the skills and competencies required in the job market and help students acquire them.
  • Public sector services need investment and to be reformed to ensure the provision of the basic services that the government is expected to deliver - or they will continue to decline: For health care, Kurdish people can either wait days for a precarious service, or within the same city have access to the best cutting-edge health - if they can afford it. The same applies to education from basic to secondary to tertiary level. This has widened inequalities and growing resentment between the different social classes of the society.
Already have an account? Log in

Or join Acume to share your socially impactful research with policymakers. Publishing research is easy, impactful and free.

Share
Fazil, Shivan. '“They Hear Us But They Do Not Listen to Us”: Youth Narratives on Hope and Despair in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq'. Acume. https://www.acume.org/r/they-hear-us-but-they-do-not-listen-to-us-youth-narratives-on-hope-and-despair-in-the-kurdistan-region-of-iraq/