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A trip to the deep South

Before virtually embarking on a trip to deep South of Iraq, let me introduce myself: my name is Chiara Fumagalli and I am the Director of the Protection and Human Rights Department at Mercy Hands. Despite being in Iraq for more than one year, I had never visited the southern Governorates of Maysan and Muthanna, two of most geographically remote areas of the country.

Chiara at the Corniche, the riverside walk in Basraـ
Chiara at the Corniche, the riverside walk in Basraـ

The occasion was given to me and my team by UNICEF’s invitation to attend two workshops organised by the local Departments of Education. Apart for providing me with the opportunity to explore the area, the workshops presented an invaluable opportunity for Mercy Hands to better understand the educational and social challenges faced by youth living in the two governorates.

On 18th of May, 2023, Mercy Hands team attended a dissemination workshop in the city of Amara, Maysan Governorate, and during the event organised by Maysan Directorate of Education (DoE), the team was presented with the first 3-year Governorate Education Sector Plan (2023-2025), a strategy to improve the entire education system, from kindergarden to university. UNICEF and the European Union (EU) have provided financial and technical support to Maysan DoE in developing the strategy, from data collection, to definition of the outcomes and outputs, budget formulation and setting up a monitoring and evaluation framework.

On 21st of May, 2023, Mercy Hands team attended a similar workshop, in Samawah, Muthanna Governorate, this time to attend the presentation of the first 3-year Governorate Education Sector Plan for Muthanna.

Mercy Hands’ attendance to the two workshops attested once again its commitment to the two Southern Governorates’ development and growth. Until last year, Mercy Hands (MH) has been the World Food Programme (WFP) partner in the School Feeding Programme (SF), providing daily meals to 23,000 primary school children in 77 schools in Muthanna in 4 years and to 19,000 schoolchildren in Maysan in 2 years. One of the schools targeted through the SF programme in Muthanna was rehabilitated by Mercy Hands with its own financial resources. In 2021-2022, MH has partnered with the WFP also in a urban livelihood project, to provide 700 young men and women living in Maysan with vocational training and toolkits.

Mercy Hands’ team came from mildly hot headquarters in Baghdad to the piping hot Southern Governorates (average May temperature of 43°) in order to attend the two workshops. From Mercy Hands’ office in Basra the team travelled in the early morning hours along wide high-speed roads where the sight gets lost in endless strips of desert. On the way to the two governorates’ capitals, the horizon line was occasionally interrupted by spare groups of dromedary camels and the impressive and fearsome flames of open oil wells.

Once reached the two governorates’ capitals, the view did not change much, with clusters of flat, sand-colored brick houses interspersed with few eye-catching infrastructural projects, like suspended speedway bridges and modern cafes and hotels. The different development stage of Maysan governorate is evident from the presence of foreign investment in the private sector, especially in hospitality, restaurants and cafes.

Turkey-owned Kurmick hotel, Amarah, Maysan Governorate.

Nonetheless, the governorates of Maysan and Muthanna are two of the poorest governorates in Iraq. According to the World Bank, although 2.9 percent of Iraqis are from Maysan, 5.8 percent of Iraq’s poor are from this governorate[1]. On the contrary, Muthanna is Iraq’s smallest governorate by population, although being one of the largest by size. Governmental neglect of Muthanna governorate has anyway led to currently high rates of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment.

Poverty and unemployment and many protection issues including violence against women and children, early marriage and child labour affect the inhabitants of the two governorates’ districts. Violent behaviour, sexual abuses, illegal activities, like the use of drugs, and conservative and harmful practices are quite spread due to economic vulnerability and lack of opportunities.

Historically, both governorates have acted as battlefields in some of the conflicts that Iraq witnessed in the recent years, like the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the first Gulf war (1990), the Shiite uprisings in 1991 and the US invasion in 2003. Similar to other governorates in the South, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein Maysan and Muthanna became a hotbed for a number of Shia groups and militias, whose in-fighting for power and influence has been the cause for instability and clashes with government and security forces.

Compared to other regions of the country, the Southern governorates of Maysan and Muthanna have seen little interest from international humanitarian organisations, with UNICEF starting to implement projects in Muthanna in 2003. Nowadays, Maysan and Muthanna present the lowest number of registered NGOs, with 96 and 56 organisations registered respectively[2]. Low interest and support from international organisations has further declined after the war with ISIS ended and reconstruction needs arose in Northern and Western Iraq and after the October Protest Movement of 2019, which saw large support from the Southern governorates’ inhabitants but contributed to a widespread perception of lack of stability in the area in the eyes of international donors.

Difficulty in accessing foreign developmental funding for the two Southern governorates is compounded by a scarce interest from the federal government. The DoE officers speaking during the Dissemination Workshops highlighted lack of funding and infrastructure investment from the central government, resulting in shortage of educational materials (books, IT and sports equipment), inadequate number and conditions of existing educational facilities, lack of training and availability of teaching staff. Overcrowding of schools, with multiple daily shifts, poor aligment of school managers and teachers’ with MoE guidelines and curricula changes, buckpassing of financial responsibilities from the MoE to the DoEs, poor planning, monitoring and accountability of both MoE and DoEs’ activities, affect the quality of education at all levels. As a consequence, schools turn into unappealing institutions, hard to reach due to transportation challenges and where it is hard to stay due to poor infrastructural conditions, lack of engaging activities (library, arts and sports classes) and where the complex learning and behavioural needs of the students are not catered for.

Despite the several issues brought to the fore, the DoE officers intervening are hopeful in the future of education in the two governorates and expressed their faith in the potential of IT technology and new media to encourage engagement and curiosity in students. DoE representatives jointly appealed for the need to broaden access and offer of university education, through meritocratic and comprehensive enrolment procedures with the goal of giving deserving students from undeserving backgrounds the opportunity to improve their lives and influence their communities.

The speakers urged the audience to link development and humanitarian programmes with the needs on the ground and they urged for a system-wide change in governmental policies, where the real fortunes of the country, its people, are put at the forefront, and young Iraqis are developed and formed to lead and guide their communities.


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