Postwar development of civil society in Iraq’s mid-Euphrates region

Protesters demand that the pensions of parliamentarians be cancelled during a demonstration in Kerbala, 110 km (68 miles) south of Baghdad, August 31, 2013. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq on Saturday against generous pension payments to lawmakers in a county where many are still struggling to get jobs and basic services.  REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed (IRAQ - Tags - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT SOCIETY CIVIL UNREST)


Although relatively prosperous and stable, the mid-Euphrates region of Iraq has not been successful in producing a civil society that promotes and produces democratic growth. The presumed association between civil society and democratization has been studied extensively at the national level in the Middle East. This report, by contrast, proposes a subnational study of civil society development, arguing that the conditions that foster civil society organizations’ (CSOs) development and that mechanisms linking civil society to democratization are not constant throughout Iraq. By relying on novel data collected through fieldwork and interviews conducted with activists and international aid workers, this report argues that subnational and provincial-level political and social dynamics influenced the differential development of civil society.

The report provides a bird’s-eye view of civil society development in southern Iraq, then focuses on the cases of Karbala and Hillah, which despite sharing many commonalities, have developed different types of CSOs. For example, Hillah has more organizations involved in advocacy and Karbala has more organizations that are involved in charity. This is a result of donor patterns in the two cities, where Karbala has tapped into local networks and is responsive to local perceptions of what civil society should look like, while Hillah has been influenced by the role of international organizations in the early 2000s. The two cities, as well as the rest of the country, are plagued by the issue of “ghost organizations” which are registered only to be eligible for available funding, and then disappear after funding has dried up.

Ghost organizations represent one of the many challenges that the international donor communities face when dealing with civil society in Iraq, in addition to the challenges of identifying and providing training for smaller organizations. There are many challenges that Iraqi activists and local organizations share, and the cases of Karbala and Hillah demonstrate how the path from civil society development to democratization is paved with roadblocks. Even in areas that are relatively safe and wealthy, social and economic relics of war and authoritarianism shape how people interact with and view associational life.

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The author is grateful for support from many individuals. Within Brookings, Ted Reinert edited this report and Rachel Slattery provided layout. Members of the Center for Middle East Policy — including Madiha Afzal, Dan Byman, Jeffrey Feltman, Sharan Grewal, Shadi Hamid, Suzanne Maloney, Natan Sachs, and Tamara Cofman Wittes — provided extensive feedback and support. The author is also grateful to an external peer reviewer and to the Iraqi NGO Directorate for data and to Iraqi organizations and activists for their participation in this research.