Iraq fears for lost generation

August 14, 1998

UNIVERSITY lecturers are heavily represented among the two million professionals officially estimated to have left Iraq since the Gulf war and the imposition of United Nations sanctions. Unofficially the figure is four million.

The lecturers who have left had little incentive to remain. Before sanctions they received good salaries and subsidised housing, food and clothing. They were part of an education system modelled on the West that offered free education up to PhD level and had close ties with universities abroad.Britain was a favourite place to study.

Since 1992, subsidies have gone and the value of lecturers' salaries has plummeted from an average Pounds 800 per month to Pounds 3 per month. Vegetables, fruit, fish and meat have become luxuries. One chicken costs more than half a month's salary and a kilo of vegetables is the equivalent of almost a week's wages. Along with the rest of the population, university lecturers survive on basic government rations, which provide flour, rice, sugar and pulses.

In the universities, facilities have naturally deteriorated, making it very difficult to teach. There are not enough textbooks and the buildings are in a state of disrepair Sanitation now poses a serious problem.

Scientific and medical departments have been hit particularly badly. All contracts to import goods into Iraq have to be approved by the UN 661 Committee. Having made "pay later" arrangements with companies abroad, they are finding approval for their contracts is being held up by the committee, on the grounds that the equipment could be used for both civilian and military purposes. Concern that scientific and medical research could be used to develop biological and chemical weapons has also led to the routine disruption of classes and even examination by Unscom, the UN weapon inspectors.

Mohammed Khalifa, a lecturer at the Nursing College in Baghdad, said: "We cannot guarantee the standards of graduates. Teaching theory is difficult and the practice is virtually impossible. In these conditions, how are we to train new doctors and nurses?" At Mustansariah University in Baghdad, the president, Dr Al-Dabbagh, presents a brave face and does his best to get round such difficulties. He is trying to bring the university into the computer age but he finds his attempts to import computers consistently blocked. He has now reluctantly instituted charges for foreign students to secure enough foreign currency to buy computers from the local market. However, most of the ten or 12 computers bought so far are out of date and unsuitable for the latest software and programming languages.

Dr Al-Ani, head of the once flourishing pharmacology department at Baghdad University, said: "Now we can only afford to buy one textbook and then where possible photocopy it - most are shared between ten or more students. There aren't enough conical flasks, beakers or chemicals for students to carry out their own experiments. Of course it is impossible to carry out new research - instead they are repeating old experiments.

"The closest students and lecturers get to studying new drugs is when they act as guinea pigs for foreign drug companies to make extra money."

Lecturers and students alike complain about their isolation. They are prevented from keeping up to date with new ideas and techniques. Technical journals are not getting into the country. Even paying for subscriptions does not guarantee that magazines will arrive. Dr Al-Ani's department has paid for about 70 journals, including several British ones, but none is coming through. One of Dr Al-Ani's students said: "It is hard not to become demoralised. When we are isolated we become aimless - it is difficult for us to improve ourselves."

Dr Al-Dabbagh is more hopeful. He points to what seems to be a shift in attitude. "France and Germany are keen for us to establish links with their universities, and we are even developing good relations with colleges in the United States. Students and lecturers are now being given grants to study there."

He has heard nothing from universities he has contacted in Britain. As an Anglophile, who studied at London University, this frustrates him. "I don't understand why they are so short-sighted."

Before the current inspection crisis erupted, sanctions were due to be reviewed next month, after the latest Unscom report. But, whatever is decided, critics are already pointing out the long-term consequences of continuing with the embargo. UN officials in Baghdad estimate that it would take ten to 20 years to restore the infrastructure in Iraq if sanctions were lifted now. The greatest fear is that Iraq could lose a whole generation of young people. Denis Halliday, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, warned that "chronic malnutrition has physical and possible mental stunting effects that could impact for decades to come. It is also going to be very difficult to restore teaching capacity, particularly at higher and tertiary levels. The loss of the professional classes, the lecturers, is a long-term problem that will remain once sanctions are lifted".

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