Aid to Iraq starts to flow but more help is needed

March 4, 2005

As democracy flickers into life in Iraq, international aid for the country's stricken university system is finally beginning to flow.

But the security issues that have been the principal barrier to direct intervention remain, leaving the field to agencies and institutions that are prepared to risk the dangers or that are able to function at arm's length.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime almost two years ago, USAid put together a $20 million (£10.4 million) strategy based on consortia of US universities and partner universities in Iraq. A few weeks later, Qatar launched a $15 million project as part of a $100 million reconstruction plan.

But progress has been limited because of security issues and the wholesale destruction of the higher education infrastructure in the months of chaos as the US-led coalition struggled to gain control.

Idris Salih, Iraq's deputy minister for higher education, told a conference in Paris last week that 85 per cent of infrastructure was destroyed in that period.

"We were unable to benefit from financial resources from donors because they arrived late or were not paid at all," he said.

One Iraqi university president privately estimated that barely 10 per cent of the resources pledged had materialised.

Some countries, notably the UK through the British Council and Germany through the DAAD, have given direct assistance in the form of intensive training courses for university administrators and updating opportunities for academics in economically and socially strategic fields.

But the Iraqi university presidents and officials in Paris arrived with a daunting shopping list little changed from their first contacts in the second half of 2003.

Unesco has drawn on some of the Qatari $15 million to send medical and engineering laboratory equipment and textbooks needed to plug the knowledge gap created by years of academic isolation and strict economic sanctions.

New pledges were announced from Qatar and South Korea.

Several thousand Iraqi academics fled the country under Saddam's regime.

Several hundred more have left since the end of fighting in search of a safe haven from assassinations and kidnappings.

Salaries are being increased from $150-$400 a month to $1,000-$1,500 in a bid to lure them back. But the most severe disincentive is the security situation.

Baghdad University president Mosa Al-Mosawe said that since the fall of the old regime, 47 academics had been assassinated - 17 of them from his own university. Kidnapping for ransom was rife - "the threats come from lazy students to get some finance, especially near the time of final assessments".

Mr Salih said that more than 2,000 academics left Iraq under the old regime. Since its fall, a further 260 have left for neighbouring states, the US or Western Europe.

"The 19,000 (who remain) are heroes working under difficult conditions," he added.

With the Shias emerging as the dominant party in the new Iraqi Government, there are also questions about the longer-term commitment to secular and co-educational universities in Iraq.

Meanwhile, some experts questioned whether it was sensible to rebuild the system along the lines used by the previous regime, which in its dying days created scarcely viable universities for purely political reasons.

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