Social Protection: A Solution for Iraq's Education Crisis

By Dr Rebean Al-Silefanee, Researcher and University lecturer, University of Kurdistan Hewlêr. Twitter: @R_Alsilefanee. Any opinions expressed are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iraq's education system has faced incredible challenges as a result of long-standing socio-economic and political turmoil, ranging from the Iran-Iraq war to the US invasion, the emergence of ISIS, and ongoing internal conflicts.

These hardships have left Iraq's education sector desperately needing support, further aggravating an already critical situation. Education is truly the cornerstone of sustainable development and a vital tool for breaking the cycle of poverty.

In Iraq, far too many children are unable to access quality education, which hampers their prospects and the nation's growth. A new ILO working paper by Rabi & Both (2023) titled "Cost of Inaction: Education Deprivation in Iraq and the Potential of Social Protection to Reverse it" emphasizes the potential of social protection programs to tackle this urgent problem.

Currently, Iraq has a population of approximately 42 million and faces a unique challenge in addressing its education crisis. Over the past decade, the country's population has grown at an annual rate of 2.97 percent, which is considerably higher than that of Middle-Income Countries and West Asia. This growth is due to falling fertility rates and improved mortality rates. Since 1950, the Total Fertility Rate has dropped by 60 percent, the under-five mortality rate has significantly improved, and life expectancy has doubled, reaching 70.8 years.

Additionally, migration patterns, such as the recent return of many Iraqis, have influenced the nation's demographics. Despite these changes, young people still make up a large portion of Iraq's population, highlighting the urgent need for effective social protection programs that can guarantee access to quality education for this growing generation. Social protection has a crucial role to play in mitigating the negative impact of Iraq's education crisis. By adopting thoughtfully planned and targeted social protection strategies, Iraq can address the education crisis and tap into the full potential of its most precious resource: its people.

The working paper investigates the role of social protection in reducing poverty, enhancing access to education, and mitigating the prevalence of child labour in Iraq. According to UNICEF, out of 8.1 million school-aged children in the country, around 3.2 million do not attend school, and of those who do attend, only 55% complete primary education. Well-designed social protection programs can address the root causes of education deprivation and ignite positive change in Iraq.

A crucial lesson drawn from the paper is the significance of social protection program design. Programs with higher transfer amounts, broader coverage, and regular payments tend to have stronger impacts on children's education and a reduction in child labour. For instance, the Female Secondary School Assistance Program (FFSAP) in Bangladesh led to short-term results like increased secondary-school enrolment among girls, extended education by two years, and a rise in age at first marriage. Long-term results indicated an increased probability of self-employment and non-farm employment among recipients.

Another lesson underscores the effectiveness of social protection in keeping secondary-school-aged girls in school. Targeted interventions such as conditional cash transfers and cash-plus programs have shown promising results in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Malawi. With a gender-focused approach, these programs have been successful in narrowing the gender gap and enhancing girls' educational outcomes.

Moreover, social protection programs can be designed to directly tackle child labour, as evidenced by Brazil's Child Labour Elimination Program (PETI). Combining conditional cash transfers with after­­-school programs, PETI achieved success in decreasing child labour while increasing school attendance. An evaluation found that participation in the program reduced the time spent in economic activities among children by between 4.5 and 25 percentage points, depending on the location, while also increasing school attendance by between 5 and 50 percentage points.

Lastly, adopting a life-cycle approach that ensures the well-being and income security of families is vital. Comprehensive social protection systems, encompassing benefits for working-age adults, older persons, and pre-school-aged children, can have far-reaching, positive effects on education in Iraq.

To leverage the potential of social protection in combating educational deprivation in Iraq, the following recommendations should be considered:

  1. Design social protection programs with a focus on children's education, targeting vulnerable populations and addressing non-financial barriers to education in Iraq.
  2. Implement gender-specific interventions to support girls' education and address gender-based issues, such as early marriage, in the Iraqi context.
  3. Develop programs aimed at reducing child labour and promoting school attendance in Iraq, learning from successful models like Brazil's PETI.
  4. Adopt a life-cycle approach, ensuring comprehensive social protection for Iraqi families and strengthening linkages with complementary services, such as healthcare and employment support.

By implementing well-designed social protection programs that prioritize education and adopting a life-cycle approach, Iraq can turn the page on educational deprivation. This investment in future generations will not only improve individual lives but also contribute to the sustainable development of the nation as a whole.

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