Supporting Entrepreneurship in Iraq – The Challenge of Translating Mandates to Action

By T. Keyzom Ngodup, co-founder and Executive Director at Ideas sYnergy, an Iraq based private sector development consulting company.

Most development agendas for Iraq putatively support entrepreneurship and the need to support private sector development through its focus on the growing number of unemployed youth in the country. UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) recently released its Iraq operational plan for 2011-2012, and it was welcoming to note that DFID will emphasize the centrality of women through “empowerment of women and girls by identifying and addressing the constraints that female entrepreneurs face” as well as DFID’s plans, through the British Council, to build partnerships between Iraqi universities and global knowledge centers abroad. Yet, how will these plans and those of well-meaning donors, translate from mandate to action, to achieve the unfortunately not so inevitable results.

Certainly, Iraq is different in that security presents unique circumstances and constraints. I refer not only to the high security costs but also in development practitioners’ inability to entrench themselves firmly on the ground across Iraq, operating mainly through implementers’ implementers and finally Iraqi locals who by then are rarely meaningfully included in the feedback system necessary to re-adjust policy-level strategies to achieve not just optimal results (in terms of numbers) but also sustainable and inclusive results. Having spoken to different expatriate development practitioners in Iraq, the sense of waning commitment, a finitude feeling, is high. And thereafter, the opportunity to earn high incomes often becomes the only motivator.

I plan to write about this perplexing ‘condition’ in my next couple posts, where donors and implementers congratulate each other on their ‘alleged’ successes while much of Iraq still remains barren and its people unskilled. And for some initial successes achieved the inability of donors to innovative and re-adjust remains an avoidable challenge. Most critical to this quagmire is the lack of strong and committed national platforms through which local practitioners and stakeholders can voice their concerns and redirect efforts. This is particularly important because donors are inherently willing to listen and achieve value for money, as pointed out by DFID’s operational plan.

Coming back to DFID’s 2011/2012 plans, I applaud them. I also present some thoughts that Ideas sYnergy and our partner Development Iraq are jointly working on. Entrepreneurship is best supported through venture capital financing and investors targeting women in conservative communities can achieve it better through Shari’a compliant Musharaka venture funds. Grants, as the only financing scheme, are detrimental to the entrepreneurial spirit – almost a tempting devil to fail. Standalone loans are mainly short-term in nature when entrepreneurs need long-term financing. What venture capital financing brings in is not just the seed capital that enterprises needs with a long gestation period, but also committed and efficient involvement from investors on operational, strategy and networking support that will ultimately define the success of enterprises.

I also congratulate DFID on being one of the few donors focused on addressing Iraq’s skilled labor shortages through linking Iraqi universities to universities abroad in order to facilitate knowledge and skills transfer. Iraq is already seeing a tremendous influx of private sector companies into the country, be it Basra, Baghdad or Erbil. Ideas sYnergy is working on an initiative to launch regional job fairs connecting upcoming graduates to companies focused on Iraq, with a gamut of services to graduates on resume building, interviewing tips among others.

There is nothing unique in my ideas, except that it may be unique in Iraq. The novelty is not that we are addressing market asymmetries in Iraq but in our belief that Iraq needs market based approach in donors’ implementation of their mandates.

T. Keyzom Ngodup is co-founder and Executive Director at Ideas sYnergy, an Iraq based development consulting company committed to economic and social development through market-based solutions that help build and scale innovative businesses for sustainable and inclusive private sector development.

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