Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On the problems of an Iraqi census

I've recently written about how the gutting of Statistics Canada's long-form census is an act of little value. Just recently, I came across an argument that made something of a case that it was a very good thing Iraq's unable to undertake a census at all. Reuters described the situation this January.

The long-delayed count, which may shut down the country for two days in October, is also expected to determine how many Iraqis live abroad and how many have been forced to move within Iraq in seven years of war, census chief Mehdi al-Alak said.

The census was postponed for a year over worries it was being politicized. Ethnic groups in contested areas like the northern city of Kirkuk, home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and a valuable part of Iraq's oil fields, opposed it because it might reveal demographics that would undermine political ambitions.

The count could provide answers or create more squabbles in a diverse nation riven by sectarian violence following the U.S. invasion in 2003 and now trying to bolster fragile security gains while deciding how to share out its vast oil wealth. Iraq has the world's 3rd largest crude oil reserves.

The autonomous Kurdish region in the north claims Kirkuk as its own. The census will determine whether Kurds are the biggest ethnic bloc in the city, which could bolster that claim.

It will also find out how many people live in Iraqi Kurdistan, which will define its slice of central government revenues, currently 17 percent. If the census finds Kurds are a greater percentage of the total population, the constitution says the region gets more money, and retroactive payments.

What it won't do, Alak said, is attempt to determine which of the hotly disputed areas belong to whom.

"It is not our business to decide their destiny," Alak, the head of the Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT), said in an interview this week. "We count the people in the province where they live. Deciding the destiny of the areas is the business of the politicians."

The census will be the first to include the Kurdish region since 1987. A 1997 census counted 19 million Iraqis and officials estimated there were another 3 million in the Kurdish north.

The current national population is believed to be "not less than 30 million," Alak said.

The census didn't happen, actually, for the reasons of ethnopolitical rivalry that Joel Wing described at his blog as well as the state's bureaucracy. Foreign Policy's Joost Hiltermann argued that, notwithstanding the census' importance in national planning, the census' failure was good inasmuch questions on ethnicity and language would be too polarizing.

The Iraqi census stands to play a critical role in the country's development. Its data will help in drawing electoral districts, allocating funds, projecting future population growth, and planning education, public health, housing, transportation, and other essential elements of a well-regulated state. Particularly in Iraq, which has witnessed several false starts in reconstruction following the 2003 invasion, having accurate socioeconomic data will be indispensable to sound economic planning.

But there's reason to believe that this census, as it is currently designed, will polarize rather than unify Iraqi society. The problem lies in a question that asks Iraqis to define their ethnicity, aiming to get a sense of how big the country's various ethnic groups are. Although such a question will no doubt provide interesting information for academics and analysts, it is not in Iraq's national interest and risks destabilizing some of Iraq's most sensitive hot spots.

The ethnicity question is particularly likely to inflame passions in areas that Kurdish leaders have said they want to incorporate into the federal Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. Along with Kurds, these areas are home to a diverse population of Arabs, Turkmens, and smaller minorities, all of which have been engaged in a tense standoff over Kurdish aspirations, which they resist almost unanimously. The situation holds the potential for violent conflict. Several incidents in these disputed areas over the past two years required U.S. commanders to establish joint military checkpoints along the so-called trigger line dividing Iraqi Army troops from Kurdish regional guards. Finding a negotiated solution to the tug of war over these areas, with the city of Kirkuk at their center, will be critical for Iraq's future.

All sides see the census's ethnicity question as a proto-referendum on these areas status. Everyone assumes that in a referendum Kurds would vote in favor of accession to the Kurdistan region while the vast majority of non-Kurds would vote against. If the population in a given area is found to be majority Kurdish, the political case for linking this area to the Kurdistan region will be greatly strengthened -- regardless of the wishes of the area's non-Kurdish population, whatever its size. The census, in other words, would increase the momentum toward a non-negotiated solution of these areas' status via an ethnically driven, zero-sum-game plebiscite. Going forward with the ethnicity question intact, then, would almost certainly lead to an Arab and Turkmen boycott, as well as popular protests in disputed territories, likely culminating in violence.

Even questions of language, obviously relevant for the provision of government services like education, should be dropped else the exercise create too many disputes for Iraq to survive.

There may be something to this argument. In Yugoslavia, the various republican and national censuses in the Communist era provided ample data for disputes over the direction of demographic changes and their import, helping to fuel various conflicts until, fittingly, the outbreak of war made the 1991 census a
partial one that excluded Kosovo and other parts of Yugoslavia on account of boycotts and conflict. I can't help but feel this parallel doesn't say good things about the survivability of Iraq, mind.


Anonymous said...

Interensting post.

The French state doesn't allow questions on language. One result of this has been to make it impossible to determine the number of speakers of indigenous languages of the French state - especially Breton, Basque and Catalan. This subsequently has made it difficult to formulate policies and press for recognition and services in these languages within the state - education and media in particular - which of course is the whole point! The lack of the language question is therefore a significant contributor in the tragic decline of these indigenous European languages.

The continual drop in the number and percentage of Welsh speakers in the UK by comparison - from just over half the Welsh population and a million speakers in 1891 (the first time the language question was asked) to about 20% and 500,000 in 2001 has had a galvanising effect of 1) recognising the Welsh-speakers as a community 2) alerting Welsh-speakers of the threat to the language 3) making plain that there is a constituency of people who speak a language and wish to have services and rights for that language. So, althoug the language has declined the linguistic community, or a part of it at least, has been able to recognise the problem and campaign for their rights.

So, not asking questions about language and ethnicity may have some merit in Iraq but the down side is that it also contributes towards the death of other languages and cultures in places like France, Turkey and Greece.

Considering the hundreds of thousands of Bretons, Basques and Catalans who've fought wars for the French state this is very unfair. It's also a negation of a person's human right as a speakers of a language to have recognition of that language within the state.


yoav said...

The question is how good a track record does ignoring the truth have in politics?

If ignoring or hiding the facts can truly resolve conflicts peacefully then go ahead.

I suspect, however, that delays in dealing with the truth usually just make matters worse down the line.

I wonder what the historical record is on this.