Breaking out of Fragility: How Iraq Can Turn Economic Diversification into Growth and Stability

Nearly two decades after the 2003 war, Iraq finds itself at a crossroads: caught in a fragility trap and faced with increasing instability and multiple crises, Iraq is projected to have the worst annual GDP growth performance since the fall of the Saddam regime. Yet even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an oil price shock, and recent protests, Iraq can take the path toward sustainable growth, peace, and stability and improve living standards for its people.

These are the findings of the World Bank’s new Iraq Country Economic Memorandum, titled Breaking Out of Fragility. The report examines why Iraq has not managed to escape the fragility trap. It details what the country can do to turn crises into opportunity, diversify its economy away from the oil sector, and sustain future growth. The report highlights nonetheless that the path will demand persistence, and Iraq will face much uncertainty as it tries to address its long-lasting challenges and change the status quo.

“Economic diversification, through reforms and developing the private sector, is critical to reduce the continuous challenges Iraq is facing,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director. “This Country Economic Memorandum provides a roadmap to help Iraq and the Iraqi people re-think the existing economic model, build a more diversified economy that creates opportunities for all Iraqis, and rebuild the social contract. The World Bank will be a committed partner in helping Iraq move down the path of reform to ensure peace and stability and give all Iraqis a chance to fulfill their highest aspirations.”

Breaking out of Fragility details how, for decades, Iraq’s oil wealth allowed the country to obtain upper income status, while in many ways the country’s institutions and social and economic outcomes resembled a low-income fragile country. Oil revenues eroded the country’s economic competitiveness, reduced the need for taxation, weakened the accountability link between citizens and the state, and fueled corruption.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price shock have thrown into stark relief how much Iraqis have lost in the last two decades. The education system, which once ranked near the top of the MENA region, is now near the bottom. Iraq’s labor force participation is mired at 42%. Combined with one of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the world, Iraq faces low levels of human capital, deteriorating business conditions, and one of the highest poverty rates among upper middle-income countries.

Breaking out of Fragility outlines key pathways for Iraq to achieve sustainable growth after closely considering the country’s complex political economy. The report highlights that Iraq’s priority should be to refocus the country’s political settlement on development, and improve transparency in the management and allocation of its oil wealth and public resources. The report also underlines the urgent need for Iraq to rebuild the confidence between citizens and the government by strengthening citizen engagement and government accountability in the delivery of priority services and infrastructure, responding to youth demand for jobs and tackling socioeconomic inequalities.

Despite Iraq’s current political and economic challenges, three areas of focus can help lead to economic diversification, growth, and stability:

First, maintaining peace can, by itself, be a strong driver of growth. Iraq’s per capita GDP was about one fifth lower in 2018 than it would have been if not for the conflict that began in 2014, while non-oil GDP was one-third lower. In countries that have undergone a vicious cycle of violence and fragility, coordinated policies from a broad coalition of actors are critical to maintaining “peaceful pathways” and kickstarting a virtuous cycle. The report finds that, in the short term, Iraq should focus on reforms that expand social safety nets for the poor and most vulnerable, improve delivery of basic services such as education and health, and ensure greater transparency in the functioning of the government institutions.

Second, tapping into Iraq’s export potential to help diversify the economy away from oil production and toward trade and integration. Iraq’s geographical position has the potential to make the country a regional logistics hub; however, Iraq’s logistical performance lags behind its peers so much that it is instead a regional bottleneck.

Third, reviving Iraq’s agriculture sector to serve as a key pillar of a more diversified, private sector-led economy. Agriculture production; food processing; and related services including logistics, finance, manufacturing, and technology have large potential to expand and create jobs. The agri-food sector has not been subject to the same level of government control as other sectors, so it is well positioned to develop new methods and adopt the latest technologies to maximize its competitive potential.

The latest Country Economic Memorandum builds on two previous reports, from 2006 and 2012, which noted the need for Iraq to move from conflict to rehabilitation; from state dominance to market orientation; from oil dependence to diversification; and from isolation to regional and global integration.

Breaking out of Fragility builds on those recommendations by 1) conducting a close analysis of Iraq’s underlying fragility and political economy challenges and their implications for a diversified growth model; 2) analyzing Iraq’s growth characteristics and the country’s potential for and benefits from economic diversification; 3) assessing Iraq’s potential for trade and regional integration to create growth; and 4) reviewing Iraq’s agriculture sector and its potential to support economic diversification.

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