Iraq's Civil Society in Perspective

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Following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, new realities and challenges emerged in Iraq in relation to restructuring the political system and creating new power-sharing agreements. Within that context, many local and international stakeholders, particularly international donors and international non-governmental organizations (INGO), view Iraqi civil society as a viable actor that is able to contribute to the country’s sustainable recovery and long-term stability.

This report is based on the assumption that at present, there is a present a window of opportunity for Iraqi civil society organizations (CSOs) to influence political processes towards better governance, respect for human rights, rule of law, and more generally the consolidation of a democratic society.

However, there exists a fundamental misunderstanding among `international stakeholders about the capacity of Iraqi civil society, and particularly non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to affect real change. This misunderstanding stems in large part from a poor knowledge of the country's political realities and civil society dynamics over the last decades.

This paper attempts to bridge this knowledge gap by analyzing current Iraqi CSOs in an updated context. It starts by briefly introducing the concept of civil society as discussed within Western thinking and locating this concept within a broader international comparative context, more specifically within the political environment of Arab countries.

The paper then moves on to consider civil society in Iraq since the formation of the modern state in 1921, including the powerful influence of religious and tribal groupings. Discussions regarding civil society in the post-2003 period focus on independence from the state, voluntarism, active participation and representation. Major challenges facing CSOs are examined such as the institutional environment, democratic reforms, human rights, and the ability of the government to ensure the delivery of basic services.

Finally, the paper offers concluding remarks based on lessons learned from past experiences, as well as recommendations for different stakeholders operating in Iraq.