Most Iraqis rely on relatives and friends to borrow money. But obviously this can cause social problems. There are also small organizations that provide loans for start up businesses but the amount that these schemes can lend is usually minimal.
There is also the issue of trust in the banking system. In a recent banking scandal in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, local businessmen, most of them based in the city of Sulaymaniyah, lost around US$500 million. This was due to the drop in value of Iranian currency, after US and European sanctions were imposed, which led to the failure of a small but active Iranian “bank”. The so-called bank had been operating as a middleman transferring funds to and from Iraqi Kurdistan, Dubai and Iran.
Incidents like this do not reinforce public trust in the banking sector; most Iraqis remain very sceptical about local banks due to a lack of rigorous regulation. And the weak banking culture simply encourages the current cash economy. All of which has stalled foreign and local investment needed to rebuild the country. It has also encouraged local businesses to be apathetic about taxation or social responsibility.
Another major issue plaguing Iraq’s banking sector, and for that matter, the private sector too, is the prevailing ideology of top-down politics and big government. Many Iraqi politicians, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ruling party, are suspicious of the private sector; they prefer to stick to what they know best, which is having the state control almost all economic activities – including the banks.
Looking around the world, it is clear that a strong banking sector is essential to a successful economy. Apart from helping the private sector and small business grow by providing financing, the government can also measure and quantify economic activity. Once the banking sector flourishes, and transactions are recorded and regulated, money laundering and corruption is automatically reduced.