Where 20 years' salary buys a PC

November 6, 1998

As Iraq heads for confrontation with the UN, Susannah Hall and David Olafimihan meet the academics who have to teach with ancient computers and no internet

Walking into one of the computer labs in the engineering college at Mustansariah University, Baghdad, is like stepping back in time. Against the wall there is a stack of broken British Falcon computers that were purchased in 1987, three years before sanctions were imposed on Iraq. In Britain they are obsolete. Here in computer-starved Iraq the university wishes they could be put to use but there are no spare parts available to repair them. The majority of their functioning computers are NEC 6001s, with no hard disc and only 16 kilobytes of RAM. Dr Dhia Al-Mansouri, the assistant dean complains: "they are little more than counting machines".

More up-to-date computers are available in Iraq but they can only be bought for dollars. In an effort to gain the necessary hard currency the university has reversed its policy of providing free places to all foreign students. With the new charges they have been able to buy five Pentiums this year. The university, however, has 6,000 students. The 30 students learning C++ programming in their final year are given priority but even they work in groups of six. Having a computer at home is out of the question. At the equivalent of more than a million Iraqi dinars it would take a university lecturer 20 years saving up his entire annual income to accumulate enough money to buy a PC. Magazines and books are also subject to the United Nations embargo. Dr Al-Hadithi, head of the software engineering department at Mustansariah University told us: "I have written so many letters to the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the British Computer Society begging them to send journals, but I have received no reply."

He said the university also used to get articles from the international photocopy service at the British Library using pre-paid coupons. Now they are dependent on the regional branch of Unesco to provide them with the occasional periodical. They receive none on computing. Back in Britain we asked Roderick Vasery, who manages the Middle East section at the British Library in London, what their policy is on Iraq. He told us that the library is "under instructions not to supply articles until the sanctions are lifted". Until then they are unable to honour the remaining coupons. The Department of Trade and Industry confirmed that "under United Nations regulations no exports are allowed that are not essential for civilian needs. Magazines on technology do not come into that category apart from medical needs".

The government plans to tighten these restrictions. This summer, in response to the Scott report, it published a white paper on strategic export controls that proposes to "introduce a new power to control transfer of technology by intangible means e.g. via fax or email".

Dr Al-Hadithi finds this pariah status hard to deal with. He studied for his PhD on artificial intelligence in Glasgow. He was a founder member of the Scottish section of the British Computer Society and he has fond memories of Britain. Now he feels "so depressed because we are so shut off from the world". Just before our visit, a friend of his from outside Iraq had brought him a copy of the September issue of PC Magazine. In a couple of days 25 people had read it with more still waiting. He explained:

"Magazines are handed round - to us they are like food to feed the brain."

The shortage of books is just as severe. At Mustansariah University library they have only 20 on up-to-date computer software and programming. There is only one book on C++. Buying books is beyond the means of most students. Like computers the books can only be bought with hard currency. A book about the web authoring program FrontPage was priced at Pounds 40, which is just over one years' average salary in the public sector. At Pounds 4 a photocopy of the same book costs more than a month's salary.

University staff are also in short supply. Many computer lecturers have emigrated and there is little incentive to return. For those that remain the standard lecturer's salary of Pounds 3 per month makes it more lucrative for them to work as taxi drivers for western visitors. Dr Al-Hadithi is frustrated. "I want to see students develop software and test its efficiency but they lack not only computers and reference materials but also guidance. I am the only specialist lecturer left in my university."

The standard of teaching that lecturers can provide is fast deteriorating. "We have dropped out of history," says his colleague, Dr Ahmed Al-Mukhtar. "Most students don't realise just how far behind the rest of the world they are. We, their teachers, have fallen behind too."

Ashraf and Salem, third-year students studying computer software and hardware engineering at Mustansariah University, only know about the internet through TV reports. Neither of them has heard of Java or HTML. They have no idea what a browser is. When they first came to university they lacked the most basic computing skills. At the engineering college in Baghdad University, Dr Souad Naji Al-Azawi, the assistant dean explains:

"Basic literacy in the modern age is not only writing and reading but knowing about computers. But we have to spend the first two years teaching computer science undergraduates about software and how to use computers as well as teaching them about hardware. It's such a shame. Our kids don't have a chance to play with computers and PlayStations and games."

Dr Al-Hadithi recently had the chance to lecture in Yemen. There he was able to have his first contact with the internet, as Iraq has been unable to establish even one connection. "Most of the time when I wasn't lecturing I was on the internet. Once you know how to use it, it is terrific! I managed to contact lots of friends and found lots of research papers." For a moment he had broken through his isolation. Now he is back in Iraq.

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