Two decades since the U.S. invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still developing institutions of governance. Century International fellow Sajad Jiyad has worked in Iraq since then, focusing on the policy space since 2014. Along the way, he has established two independent institutions, including Iraq Bridge, the local nonprofit he leads in Baghdad.

Over the last two years, Sajad recruited and trained a cohort of early-career aspiring policymakers and policy analysts from across Iraq in a pilot program supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Here, Sajad discusses with Century International director Thanassis Cambanis the goals and lessons learned from the first cohort, which will present its findings at a conference in Baghdad on March 9.

Thanassis Cambanis: You came up with the idea for the Iraq Bridge Policy Research Training Program because you saw something missing from Iraqi politics and policymaking. What is the gap that you’re trying to address?

Sajad Jiyad: Iraq has deficits in a number of things. One of them is the culture of democracy, not just around elections, but the fact that Iraq’s citizens should have the right to question policy, to understand how policy works. We need to have an environment with more think tanks that are pushing out critical reports. We need more people who are not just academics. We need people who are able to put out good analyses of government performance. And unfortunately, we don’t have that culture yet.

Until regime change in 2003, Iraqis knew one thing: be careful. Be careful of saying too much. Be careful of asking too many questions. Be careful of sharing information. Be careful of ever criticizing the government or the people in charge. That’s the culture everybody grew up with.

Thanassis: Over the last twenty years, how have Iraqi researchers and think tanks grappled with that culture of self-censorship?

Sajad: There are probably about fifteen active think tanks in Iraq, which is not very many at all. Some of them produce smart analysts, but they tend to focus on gathering information and data—nothing very critical.

“We don’t have the right skill sets for young researchers who are not going to be academics.”

There is very little access to information, or critical analysis, and that distorts how the public perceives politics and government performance. I’d like to see researchers and think tanks conduct critical research and push for more access to information, and really change the culture, to investigate government policy and how it works and how to challenge it. First, however, we need to work to build up capabilities: people who could do some research on policy and write critical reports.

We don’t have the right skill sets for young people who are not going to be academics, and maybe in the future would like to work in a think tank environment or become public policy researchers.

The pilot research training program we ran at Bridge aims to begin filling this gap. The idea is to recruit a cohort from across the country that come into a training program that’s going to teach them, not how to gather information and data, but how to write critically, how to analyze, how to focus on a specific area of policy, and then to be able to make that readable and reach a wide audience.

As we refine our approach, I would be glad to see this training replicated elsewhere.

Data without Analysis

Thanassis: So you start with a group of early-career Iraqis, maybe in their twenties, who have some subject matter expertise from university or from jobs they have in the public sector. Then, you’re trying to do two ambitious things.

The first is to inculcate a kind of different critical thinking. The second is to give them policy analysis tools they don’t have, because they’re taught to look at narrow slices of policy problems rather than address the way policy really unfolds and is made.

Sajad: That’s right. Our cohort members were well educated. Some of them had master’s degrees. But they did not have tools for analysis. They could gather information and data, usually from books or academic journals. Some knew how to search online material.

But they lacked the much-needed research skills to try to find out information from sources like the government departments that actually make policy. They did not know how to access it, and then they didn’t know how to analyze it. If given data, they could take the data and put it in written format. But they didn’t have the tools to put an argument forward and back it up.

Many of them, even those with policy jobs in the government, said they were never trained to present solutions. That wasn’t their job. The job was simply to present data.

Thanassis: Who was in the cohort of researchers that you worked with over the last two years in your inaugural training program?

Sajad: We invited applicants from across the country and received more than 120 applications. We interviewed from a short list of 45, and ended up with 15 researchers from all over north, central, and southern Iraq, women and men.

All of them were university graduates. Some had master’s degrees, and some had worked in think tanks in Iraq. A few were part-time lecturers at Iraqi universities.

They had some experience with policy research, but were interested in pushing ahead. They wanted to get out of the routine public sector approach, and wanted the skills to do so. A few of them had good English language skills. They had the potential to do more.

Grassroots Research Agenda

Thanassis: What policy issues did the Iraq Bridge researchers choose to explore?

Sajad: The researchers had diverse views and experiences, and also brought different issues to the table, usually drawing on their personal background or issues facing their governorate.

One person from Nineveh governorate was very much concerned about the future of counter-extremism policy, and how to avoid entangling that with counterterrorism policy. Then we had somebody from Dhi Qar, which is experiencing severe drought, who was really concerned about the situation with water reserves and water supply.

We had somebody coming in from Anbar who wanted to investigate how to create employment by diversifying the economy. He was concerned that there were too many unemployed young people in Anbar without prospects, and that the national economy was too heavily based on oil, whereas Anbar doesn’t have much. How can people find jobs in areas like Anbar that don’t have oil?

Thanassis: So what did you do with this cohort? What kind of exercises or training did you give them? Where did you see the most growth, and what were the hardest new skills to teach?

Sajad: We held daylong sessions one weekend a month, which will culminate with a public conference this March to present the cohort’s research projects.

We brought guest lecturers with serious experience in policy work, inside and outside government.

In the initial stage, we worked on how to conduct research for policy analysis, and how to formulate an argument.

Later, we worked on how to analyze policy creation, and how to write and edit. We did a lot of work to recalibrate expectations about what it looks like to draft a real policy paper—taking comments on board, rewriting, revising, making your draft more readable.

Finally, we worked on how to engage an audience. Who are you writing for? Where will your work go once it is published? And where are you headed, with your career, after you finish these workshops?

Fostering Critical Analysis

Thanassis: And the biggest challenges?

Sajad: It was hard to maintain intensity over more than a year of sessions. But the hardest part was eliciting a critical mindset. We struggled with really getting people to change their way of thinking from data gathering to data analysis. People were so accustomed to the way they’d been trained to just present information, and not to comment on it.

In future iterations of this program, I plan to experiment with different approaches to adopt more critical analysis. I think that is the most important element of the program that I want to improve.

Thanassis: So how does that problem in the program reflect the problem with policymaking in Iraq? This culture you’re describing tracks with how policy gets made at the highest levels.

Sajad: That’s right. I’ve seen lots of high-level memos from inside the Iraqi government—notes to the prime minister, the cabinet, or ministers and the like—and they tend not to include any proposals or recommendations. They tend to just present information.

“It’s something we inherited from Saddam’s regime: leave it up to the person at the top of the pyramid to take responsibility.”

The whole idea is to leave it up to the person at the top of the pyramid to take responsibility for everything. That’s something we inherited from the previous regime, where everyone’s afraid to take responsibility, because they could lose their lives if they make a mistake, and they can’t be critical.

Maybe the culture today in the Iraqi government and policy world is that people are actually not very good at taking initiative to craft a policy or a policy narrative. There are more reactive decisions than systematic thinking.

That’s even reflected in Iraq’s budgets. There are always several problems after a budget is passed because of important omissions, and lawmakers have to make addendums to fix it. Even with financial matters that aren’t pure policy, the criticism-averse culture takes its toll.

Lack of Transparency

Thanassis: Does Iraq have a discernible policymaking process, or is part of the challenge that the policymaking apparatus itself is still under development? Are there established institutions within the government that inform policy?

Sajad: We don’t have the right institutions for making policy or revising it. What exists tends to be partisan and not independent. We don’t have the people with the skill sets to fill those institutions as well.

And such an institution would not be immediately welcome because of the cultural issues I just mentioned. The government is not looking to increase the number of people who have a say in policy. Neither is parliament. Instead, I think they’re trying to reduce the number of people that get involved in policy formation.

There is a deep problem with insufficient transparency. Government departments will not respond to requests for data about most things. We don’t have a freedom of information law. Government is extremely secretive and opaque, even in how they spend public money. We see the budget forecast, but we never see published accounts that tell us how much money was spent. The government doesn’t want to tell people where their money is going.

There has been some progress. Today it’s much easier to convince some Iraqi policymakers of the necessity of critical research. And the top graduates from Iraq’s best universities are eager to work on policy. But they have very few policy research skills. Even those Iraqis who aspire to become analysts and policy researchers and think tankers don’t see a career path. I’m disappointed that, over the last ten years, we haven’t seen more progress.

Thanassis: I sometimes find it hard to fathom the level of secrecy, especially in Iraq, where on some matters there is more freedom of information than in more repressive or less pluralistic countries in the region. Almost everything is treated as a state secret. If you are trying to analyze, let’s say, crop cultivation patterns in farmlands managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, you would discover that it is a state secret how many hectares are cultivated with wheat, or how much water is pumped into irrigation canals, and so forth.

The basis of simple policy analysis vanishes because you simply can’t have this information. We’re not talking about more sensitive issues like counterterrorism or detainee numbers. We’re talking about nuts-and-bolts things one might expect to be easy for researchers to find.

Overcoming Factions and Fiefs

Thanassis: You established one of Iraq’s first autonomous and reputable think tanks, the Bayan Center, and you’ve been working in this space for decades. Many of your peer institutions operate under the umbrella of political parties or powerful figures. What constructive developments do you see in this ecosystem, whether it’s policy programs at Iraqi universities or policy planning divisions within government ministries? I know some ministries, including defense and oil, have set up their own think tanks or study centers. Is there a snowball effect?

Sajad: These new institutions have ambitious aspirations. They’re not yet at the stage of making an impact. But we have, for example, the American University of Baghdad. It’s opening up a different way of teaching programs than traditional Iraqi universities. That’s positive. We have a Baghdad Business School. We have a think tank at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. We have a good number of cultural and academic exchange programs. And there is public interest. People show up to events and talks, and whenever we have a book fair in Iraq it’s always well attended. Iraqis still read, thankfully.

But in terms of institutions, our politics does not encourage critical research. There are some limited initiatives on security, military, and energy, but less in terms of wider policy.

And ministries tend to be dominated by one faction, and they zealously resist outside oversight. I can’t imagine, say, the Ministry of Interior welcoming a think tank to study their policies and propose new policies that undermine the faction in control.

Likewise, there’s no constituency in the government for a whole-of-government approach. Everybody’s only interested in what government policy can do for their party or their group.

For example, the water crisis in Iraq isn’t just the job of the Ministry of Water Resources. It’s a problem for the entire government. We have to look at how we consume water. We need to deal with how much water agriculture uses, and water access for municipal services. Then there’s the foreign policy, with Iran and Turkey, to change the management of reservoirs and rivers. But the lack of a whole-of-government approach means that any initiative in the Ministry of Water Resources to address these issues won’t be effective or realistic.

Thanassis: You’re operating in a context of state fragmentation. The political factions cannibalize the state and divide it into different political factions. And maybe it generates an equally fragmented response by policy researchers. It’s fantastic that you’ve identified one pathway to chip away at this sort of mammoth systematic problem.

Sajad: That’s true. But I’m thankful that there is still some interest in supporting the development of Iraqi policy research in issues beyond security, the military, and counterterrorism.

None of us expect quick results. Democracy is still relatively new in Iraq, and it needs to be developed further. The current system of policymaking is outdated, but we have young people interested in improving it. Our work is part of a community effort. There might not be a huge number of us, but it’s a significant group. If this investment in critical policy research comes to fruition, it will take a generation.

Header Image: Members of the Iraq Bridge program meet in 2023. Source: Iraq Bridge/Century International