Zuhair Humadi is busy plotting alternative means of defeating Islamic State, sitting in his secluded office tucked behind rows of blast walls in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
He acknowledged that the situation is pretty critical right now. He added, “What we really need is to get back to the tradition of excellence, and of getting our best and brightest to boost the country.”
It is to this end that his organization, the Higher Commission for Education Development (HCED), has been playing a leading role in trying to re-staff Iraq’s ailing educational establishments and rebuild the country’s rotten public sector.
Since 2009, the HCED has dispatched more than 4,000 young Iraqis abroad to study for master’s degrees and doctorates at universities in the US, UK, and Australia. With funding secured for several thousand more, Humadi believes they are well on their way to creating a new cadre of academics and civil servants.
Humadi also said, “Already, the students [who have returned] are boosting the ministries. They need quality people, and we are giving them quality people.”
Certainly, many of his students are excelling at foreign universities. Forty-two Iraqi scholars were recently recognized at a London event for publishing work in UK science journals, while others have been offered tenure after finishing their degrees. More important, all but 10 of the 300 students who have graduated so far have returned home to work (as their scholarship demands), confounding the program’s sponsors, who had feared a bigger brain drain.
However, questions remain as to whether the HCED, with a budget of $125m (£79m) for 2015 alone, ought to be an immediate priority at a time of war, collapsing public services, and a budget squeeze inflicted by the reduced price of oil, which accounts for about 97% of the government revenues.
The healthcare system is in such serious disarray that the World Health Organization recently warned that 84% of medical projects catering for the roughly 3 million people displaced by Isis will be forced to close if they don’t receive additional funds by the end of June. A 2013 analysis of Iraq’s budget by the UN’s Joint Analysis Policy Unit found that the government was investing roughly twice as much – about 13 trillion Iraqi dinars – in its energy sector as it was on health, education, environment, culture, youth, water, and sanitation put together.
But with memories still fresh of the successful scholarship programs of the 1960s and 70s, which supposedly kept Iraq well-staffed with competent bureaucrats during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Humadi is adamant his country has little chance of emerging from its current crisis if it does not train another generation of professionals.
He also said, “This [money] is easy to justify because education is the key to development and progress. We have many thousands of people with Iraqi degrees, but Iraqi education had been going downhill for decades. This is just the first step to reviving it.”
Analysts maintain that diverting funds from the scholarship program to overwhelmed services would lead to little tangible improvement in other sectors.
Sajad Jiyad, a senior researcher at Baghdad’s Al-Bayan Center for Studies and Planning, stated, “The healthcare system is certainly underfunded, but even if you gave it more money, I’m not sure you’d see an improvement in results. It’s just badly structured.” He notes that fuel subsidies, which cost the government up to $10bn a year, might make a more appropriate target.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the HCED, which answers directly to the prime minister, has avoided most of the problems that have haunted other government higher education schemes.
Many students say they were attracted by the transparency and efficiency of the scheme, as well as the apparent lack of the alleged sectarianism that has tainted the higher education ministry’s rival scheme.
“I wasn’t tempted by the ministry,” said Zeyad Yousif Al-Shibaany, who last year received a second HCED scholarship to complete a PhD in mechanical and systems engineering at Newcastle University in the UK. “The selection criteria are not clear, the application takes about a year, and it seems to depend not on your marks, but on how long you’ve been at that university.”
Nevertheless, some elements of the program remain to be ironed out. Only 25% of applicants and successful scholars are women (a disparity possibly made worse by some fathers or husbands refusing their daughters and wives permission to study abroad), while applications from some poorer, rural governorates continue to flag, perhaps because they are unable to win over officials to guarantee their financial grants in the event they fail to return to Iraq.
But the addition of a rule that requires scholars to have lived in Iraq for at least two years prior to applying, thereby excluding the jet-setting children of the elite, suggests that HCED is on the right track to success in a system where favoritism and corruption are usually pervasive.
Humadi, for one, insists he is not at all surprised that his program is emerging as one of the few positives in Iraq amid the current crisis.
He said that Iraqis, rich and poor, believe that education is everything. They are ready to sacrifice everything for healthy education. For this reason, the country possesses rich cultural background.