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RIYADH: Iraq has one of the youngest populations in the world, with seven million people between 14 and 29, but the country cannot put them to work.

The nation is faced with a significant youth bulge, which successive administrations have failed to harness to boost its weak economy.

Over 60 percent of Iraq’s population is under 25, and the youth population is projected to jump from seven to ten million between 2015 and 2030, according to a Save The Children report.

“This means that the government urgently needs to create jobs at an impossible rate, specifically in the private sector,” said Massaab Alousi, an Iraqi analyst in an interview with Arab News.

He added: “This leaves young people unprepared to compete for jobs regionally or internationally, because they do not have the necessary skills that private
firms want.”

The Iraqi government is faced with huge challenges to prepare the country for its rising population on a range of fronts, such as food security, economic diversification and infrastructure development, commentators note.

Feeding the country is already a major issue, despite its large swaths of farming land.

Between 2014 and 2017, farming revenue fell by almost half from around $15 billion to about $7.6 billion, due to Iraq and its allies’ war with Daesh, according to a report by US research body Atlantic Council. Agriculture’s value to the Iraq economy as a percentage of gross domestic product tumbled from around 20 percent before 2003 to 3.3 percent in 2019, according to the think tank. “There has also been a decline in fertile land, we have over 3 million dunum, or acres, of farming land that has been neglected that could produce food for the Iraq population,” said Hussein Thagab, an Iraqi journalist who specializes in economic issues, in an interview with Arab News.

This state of affairs has led to 4.1 million people needing humanitarian assistance in the country, according to UN reports.

Years of fighting in the country has left it awash with guns and many armed militias, which makes it hard for Iraq’s weak state to
put together a credible reconstruction plan.

The Iraqi economy is heavily dependent on oil, accounting for 96 percent of Iraq’s exports, 92 percent of government revenue, and 43 percent of GDP in 2019, according to Alousy.

The fact that Iraq’s rentier economy is based on oil, is unhealthy and unconstructive, noted Thagab. A rentier economy is one organized around income-generating assets, where overall incomes are dominated by rents and those that control them.

Thagab said: “Iraq has failed to organize, and diversify its exports and tap in its many resources such as gas and minerals and oil fields that are yet to come on stream.

“The legal system does not facilitate re-export, which hinders Iraq’s capabilities in being a transfer platform for the region.”

The Iraqi government has also been unable to prepare its population for the digital revolution that has rolled across the world over the last two decades adding to joblessness. “The most threatening aspect of the youth bulge is the high unemployment rate, which is 36 percent for this part of society,” added Alousi. There are close to 3.2 million school-aged Iraqi children that are not in education, according to Unicef.

The situation is chronic in conflict-affected governorates such as Salah Al-Din and Diyala, where more than 90 percent of children do not attend classes.

“As Iraq’s population grows while its conditions deteriorate the gap between the demands of the society and the ability of the government to respond to them is widening,” Alousy noted.

A rising population also piles further pressure onto Iraq’s dilapidated Iraqi infrastructure.

Over the past four decades, war, internal conflict and international economic sanctions have laid waste to the country’s infrastructure. The health sector has suffered not only during times
of conflict but also through a lack of funding during periods of relative stability.

Baghdad alone is estimated to need 70 new hospitals to cope with the capital’s expected population rise. The number of additional hospitals needed will be much higher in other less developed regions, experts note.

Roads are a little better. With the exception of the airport road, Baghdad highways look very much the same as they did 20 years ago under President Saddam Hussein, locals point out.

“The government should put in place a short-term plan of mass reconstruction that would employ many young people,” said Alousy.

A rising population is adding pressure on an already strained Iraqi economy, which has plenty of young people but is unable to give them the skills to find work.

Thagab added: “We lack training centers that can allow our youth to learn new technologies and increase their capabilities. Youth cannot be ignored, there should be plans to prepare them for future employment.”

Instead, hiring in the public sector has become an inefficient way the government has tackled the problem while not properly supporting the growth of private firms, Thagab noted.

He said: “The government has failed to promote laws that can make the private sector more efficient.”

Alousy said that the first steps Iraqi governments need to take are to address the rampant corruption in the country and dissolve its militias.

He added: “This would allow for more private investment in the country, implementing necessary reforms and long-term planning.”

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