Bilateral foreign aid rarely prioritizes governance, opting instead to invest more in expensive military initiatives. But good governance—reflected in citizens’ voices, responsiveness and accountability, and justice—matters enormously, as our new study from Iraq confirms. The study provides compelling evidence for why governance is critically important—not just as a social good, but also for stability and conflict prevention objectives that closely align with donors’ foreign policy interests.

Conventional wisdom holds that sectarianism is the main driver behind the chaos plaguing the Iraqi state. But data from three national surveys (conducted from 2013-2015 through Mercy Corp’s civil society program in Iraq) indicates that the conventional wisdom is overly simplistic. Put bluntly: Iraq’s sectarian and extremist violence is often the outcome of bad politics, not vice versa.

Iraq is a unique case; nonetheless, its situation parallels those in other states, including Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Essentially, wherever governments fail to be responsive, accountable, and just toward citizens, insurgent groups can gain traction.

In particular, our research indicates that Sunni sympathy for armed opposition groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an outcome of government repression. For years leading up to the emergence of ISIS, discriminatory policies such as the de-Baathification and anti-terrorism laws systematically marginalized Sunni communities. Sunnis were harassed by security forces, and deprived of functioning public services, and ISIS offered an alternative to the status quo. Even those who did not support the extremists—and most did not—were unlikely to resist on Baghdad’s behalf.

Not Simply a Sectarian Story

If this were simply a sectarian story, then Prime Minister Maliki’s resignation in August 2014 would have had little impact on Sunni support for armed opposition. Maliki was, after all, replaced by another Shia. But, in fact, our analysis of surveys from that summer showed that the resignation announcement nearly halved support for armed groups amongst Sunnis: from 49 percent to 26 percent.

How was this possible? Maliki’s resignation appeased the frustrations of marginalized Sunnis, who reported higher expectations that governance would improve. Survey data shows that after the resignation, Sunnis saw the federal government more favorably and became more confident that the government would effectively provide important public goods (such as security, jobs, and electricity). This is not a story of opposition rooted in immutable sectarian differences; it is a case of a state sidelining its people and catalyzing a reaction.

Corruption, routine abuses by security forces, systematic marginalization of certain groups, and a failure to provide services equitably are at the root of Iraq’s fragmentation. As such, Iraq’s current and future stability does not hinge on sectarian differences, but on improving governance.

This should be welcome news. Pressuring Baghdad to improve is an easier lift than shifting deeply ingrained sectarian attitudes.

Levers for Improvement

What’s more, youth activists, and the spirit of civil society they represent, may prove to be an important counterweight to the growing power of the country’s sectarian armed groups. Civic activism is growing throughout the country. Take, for example, last summer’s peaceful demonstrations against corruption and poor services. Consider, too, programs (such as those offered through Mercy Corps), which have helped civil society organizations identify local needs and strengthen their ability to organize and act. These groups have worked with government, the media, and the private sector to improve life for Iraqi citizens. And as a result, public trust in civil society is on the rise. In 2013, according to Mercy Corps’ surveys, 39 percent of Iraqis surveyed believed that civil society could make a positive difference in their lives. By 2015, that number had jumped to 50 percent.

A Window of Opportunity for Donors

Unfortunately, there appears to be little appetite among international donors to increase their support for good governance. Since the military draw-down, US spending on democracy and governance programs in Iraq has shrunk dramatically, from $229.5 million in 2011 to roughly $75 million in 2015.  Similarly, multilateral funding for governance through the International Reconstruction Fund for Iraq (IRFFI) dried up in 2010. These days, many donors, including some European philanthropists, have shifted funding toward humanitarian assistance. This is despite the fact that funding for governance programming has helped strengthen non-governmental and activist groups that have advocated effectively for change both at the local and national levels.

Timing is important. If governance and accountability do not improve, overall confidence in the Iraqi government will continue to slide. From 2013 to 2015, despite their increased confidence in civil society, the percentage of Iraqi citizens who believe they can influence government decisions has dropped from 33 percent to 26 percent. Interestingly, though, Iraqis are also becoming more politically active: In 2015, 68 percent of the population believed that being involved in politics is a civic responsibility—an 8 percent increase from the previous year.

High levels of disillusionment and high levels of engagement make for a combustible political environment. If the government does not address public grievances, the recent, youth-led protests may provide the fodder for Iraq’s next insurgency. That’s what happened when the Maliki government ignored the demands of peaceful Sunni protestors in 2011, opting instead for the brutal crackdown that drove many disillusioned Sunnis into the hands of ISIS.

Iraq and its donors today face a critical choice: support the youth protesters and civil society activists who want to transform their country through nonviolent activism and engagement with the government, or allow the heavily armed, sectarian militiamen and extremists that seek to rule by the gun rather than by the law have their way.

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