Social cohesion is fundamental to the successful functioning of societies, especially diverse ones such as Iraq. A lack of social cohesion can increase tensions among different social groups, enhance the likelihood of conflict and undermine trust in the State. This report examines the impact of COVID-19 on social cohesion in Iraq. Research conducted between July and September 2020 included a comprehensive literature review and 22 interviews with key stakeholders comprising members of the Government at the national and local levels, international organizations, donors and civil society organizations from different parts of the country.
Without social cohesion, it will be difficult to attain the SDGs or reach the objective of leaving no one behind. In practice, this means taking explicit action to end extreme poverty, curb inequalities, confront discrimination and fast-track progress for the furthest behind. Social cohesion is also vital for achieving SDG 16, with its commitments to building peaceful and inclusive societies, realizing access to justice for all, and establishing effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.2Enhancing social relations among different groups and strengthening the social contract between citizens and the State are prerequisites for all of these ends, especially in post-conflict Iraq.
Definitions of social cohesion
Social cohesion is an elusive and contested concept. Analysts generally identify it as having horizontal and vertical dimensions. The horizontal dimension describes the trust, relationships and interactions among people in a society across divisions such as identity or other social constructs, including race or class. Vertical cohesion entails trust between a government and society. This includes trust in political, economic or social leaders, institutions and processes such as elections, access to justice, taxation, budgeting and the delivery of public services. It is generally agreed that social cohesion has political, economic, social and security aspects.
Social cohesion in Iraq and the impact of COVID-19
Many challenges have disrupted social cohesion in Iraq over the last 20 years. The pandemic came at a time when public trust in the Government was low, the economy was weakened through reductions in revenues from oil sales, protests across the country were a regular occurrence and violent extremist attacks were resurging. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing and sometimes deeply rooted political, economic, social and security challenges.
Its impact on social cohesion represents another point of stress on top of many others afflicting communities across the country.
Popular discontent with the muhasasa system of government and corruption, compounded by high unemployment levels, often poor service delivery, and a lack of social protection and rule of law meant that vertical social cohesion was fragile prior to COVID-19. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi came into power in May. Bridging longfestering gaps has been among his top priorities.
But he has faced numerous challenges, and has thus far only been able to take small and largely symbolic steps. Despite the willingness of the new Government to improve social cohesion, the challenges remain significant, with COVID-19 entrenching old problems even as it creates additional ones. The Government faces a daunting task in addressing structural reform issues while tackling the pandemic.
Prior to COVID-19, 4.1 million people in Iraq required humanitarian support. Extreme poverty and inequality have meant that significant portions of the population are in urgent need of employment, health care, education, sanitation, hygiene and access to justice. Shortfalls have worsened with the oil price drop, which has had a major effect on government revenues and fiscal space. Thousands of jobs are at risk, and while food prices have remained relatively stable, continued reliance on imported food makes the country vulnerable to shortages or major price increases.
The economic impacts of the pandemic have disproportionately affected marginalized groups.
Over 66 percent of people are employed in the informal sector; they were deeply affected by lockdown measures and restrictions on movement.
The IOM reports that between March and April 2020, the number of paid people working in the private sector fell by approximately 40 percent.
Iraq is a diverse country with highly complex and multidimensional social divides spanning generations, religions, rural and urban groups, internally displaced people (IDPs) and host communities, and political interests. Youth activism in different governorates indicates that the new generation is increasingly seeking to break away from the sectarian group thinking of the past, and embrace a citizenship model that is not only more inclusive, but allows greater rights and responsibilities of citizens vis-à-vis the State.
Despite this, sectarian identities still damage social cohesion in specific locations. COVID-19’s effect on these tensions appears mixed. Existing grievances could be further aggravated, as pressure on services, the economy and communal relations intensifies. At the same time, COVID-19 has fostered a common narrative that could unite the population, in a way similar to Iraq’s response to the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL).
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected marginalized and vulnerable groups, including women, IDPs and young people. Cases of genderbased violence have reportedly increased in many locations. Restrictions on movement have hampered the return of IDPs. Many tribal councils and local fora for dialogue between returnees and host communities have been unable to meet, and key partners could not support such processes. As a result, reconciliation activities have paused.
The multiplicity of armed groups in Iraq poses significant challenges to social cohesion, both horizontally between different communities, and vertically between citizens and the State. Trust in the Iraqi security sector was low in the lead up to COVID-19, in part due to violent responses to the popular protests. There was also evidence of an increase in ISIL-associated threats. The security situation has further deteriorated under COVID-19 as tension has at times escalated between security forces and the population, particularly regarding the implementation of lockdowns.
Without social cohesion, it will be difficult to attain the Sustainable Development Goals or achieve the central objective of leaving no one behind.
With evidence that the pandemic is exacerbating a number of existing political, economic, social and security issues key to social cohesion, it is vital to identify mitigating measures to prevent further negative effects. There are also opportunities to develop a more comprehensive approach to social cohesion that acts on both horizontal and vertical challenges. The report makes several policy recommendations to the Government, civil society and international partners.
At the national level, a more strategic national approach to social cohesion should be developed alongside immediate and short-term responses to COVID-19 and its effects on relations within society. Long-term strategic partnerships between the Government of Iraq and the international community could cultivate an environment enabling an inclusive national approach to social cohesion.
A strategic approach requires covering all parts of the country and leaving no one behind, as well as maintaining special attention to areas formerly occupied by ISIL.