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Beyond Internet Freedoms: E-Governance in Iraq

Recently, marking World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD 2011), the Kurdistan Regional Government Information Technology Department (KRGIT) and IREX hosted a conference called “Beyond Internet Freedoms: E-Governance in Iraq”, to discuss Iraqi government responses to the global transparency imperative.

The conference took place against a backdrop of unrest in Iraq and the Arab world as citizens demand more inclusive, transparent, and effective governance.

IREX Iraq country director Jacky Sutton pointed out that new technologies mean that transparency is no longer a choice for governments. It is happening whether they embrace it or oppose it.

As she also noted, “Iraq is one of the few countries in the region where the

recent demonstrations have not called for regime change, but asked instead for government to do its job. People in Iraq want democracy to work and we hope that this conference will provide practical examples, as well as policy insights, to help this process.”

The conference targeted law and policy makers, local government, media and civil society. It aimed to show stakeholders that the relationship between technology and transparency is one that is the subject of international debate at all levels of society and that in general democracies function better and national economies are stronger when the policy of government supports internet freedoms and transparency. However it is also a reminder that Internet freedom as a principle is unattainable and e-governance impossible unless officials understand the principles and tools of digital communication technology.

The promotion of “read-write”, i.e.: the public actively engaged in decision-making processes, rather than “read-only” government where citizens are passive subjects, is also critical, argued keynote speaker, Professor Lawrence Lessig. Opening speaker, Minister for Transport and Communications, Mohamed Tawfiq Allawi, pointed out that embracing E-Governance is not easy for a war-torn country. Although Iraq is oil-rich, the inability to actually spend allotted budgets is the biggest challenge hindering progress of Iraq’s IT infrastructure. “Our infrastructures have been damaged through wars,” said Minister Allawi. “That’s why our progress is going slow. But we are doing our best to enhance technologies, mobile phones, landline phones, and the Internet.”

Internet influence on governments has been in the spotlight following the pro-democracy protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. “Internet is genuinely a revolutionary technology,” said US Embassy representative, Kenneth Fairfax, which even in America “is changing the relationship between the government and the people. One of the most important revolutionary aspects of the Internet is that it empowers ordinary citizens.”

Yet E-Governance “is not as easy as pushing the red button, said KRG-IT manager, Botan Osman. “We have some serious problems… the lack of skills, administrative and legislative problems. The biggest problem in Iraq and Kurdistan when it comes to pushing for E-Government is the budget.”

A hands-on training for government officials and civil society organizations on using information technology to promote efficient, transparent and accountable government followed the conference. Participants were taught how to use social media tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Flickr; how to create a Gmail account; use search engines; and access free materials on-line such as books.

The conference also featured a keynote address by Frank Domoney, an expert in rural connectivity and economic growth and an opening address by Minister of Transport & Communications for the Kurdistan Region, Anwar Jabali Sabo. Held at Erbil’s newly-built KRG-IT Academy, and thanks to Kurdistan’s installation and use of fiber optic Internet and 3G systems, modern communications technologies were in use by the more than 100 activists, politicians, Information Technology (IT) experts, journalists, and foreign officials and representatives who attended the conference. A few days later Minister Allawi initiated a project inspired by Mr. Domoney, to e-link local communities to increase internet penetration.

At the end of the conference, attendees agreed on a set of recommendations, including a drive to increase “e-education,” increasing the use of electronic archiving and communication inside governmental departments, implementing trainings on Internet use for government, and the establishment of a committee to look at e-governance issues, consisting of KRG-IT, Iraq Ministry of Transport and Communication, the KRG Ministry of Transport and Communication, and IREX.

The Media and Civil Society for Transparent Governance Project is funded by the United States Department of State, Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).

Story by Namo Abdulla and Yahya Razzaq