Recently I visited a primary school in Basra as part of a UNICEF team. As our plane landed at Basra airport by night, I could see flames shooting out of the oil wells that dot the landscape. Basra, which used to be best known for its port – Sinbad the Sailor journeyed from there – is now synonymous with oil.
Basra has the largest oil reserves in Iraq, and production is increasing. Unfortunately, this wealth is not evident in the infrastructure of the city. Driving through the town, I saw poorly maintained roads and garbage piled in the streets. Many small fruit and vegetable shops were run by children.
The school is located in a middle-income neighbourhood. It also caters to displaced children, mostly from the north. We visited a temporary classroom provided by UNICEF and met children who were active, engaged and responsive.
Hamida Ramadhani, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Iraq, asked students what they want to be when they grow up. Ten-year-old Abbas was first to respond: “I want to be a soccer player,” he said. Hamida asked Abbas which player he liked the most.
It was sad to see the school infrastructure worn out, the bathrooms without running water and sanitation facilities. There was an open waste-water tank, and we were told that a student had fallen in and died. There was a football pitch – but it was just a barren field surrounded by trash.
The school is one of 419 schools across Iraq that will pilot a UNICEF and Ministry of Education project to allocate resources directly to schools and to involve parents in school management. The transition into a schools-based management system aims to improve the school environment and children’s learning outcomes.
Iraq had been on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for school enrolment, infant mortality, and safe drinking water by 2015, but due to war and conflict and political instability, it missed most of them. Despite their oil, the southern governorates, such as Missan and Basra, have high rates of child poverty – Basra’s is around 19 per cent, according to a government study conducted in 2012. These child poverty rates are worse than in the northern regions of the country, and due to recent conflict and economic downturn, have probably increased.
In Iraq, one in four children suffer from stunted growth, four out of five children face violent forms of discipline, and only 44 per cent of children complete primary education on time. The transition rates from primary to secondary school are low, and the majority of students who don’t reach secondary level are girls. Only half of all secondary school-aged children are in school.
Historically, education has been a high priority for Iraqis. The Bait al-Hikmah, or ‘House of Wisdom’ established under Abbasid rule in the 8th century, during the Islamic Golden Age, was a beacon for scholars across the known world, like al-Khwarizimi, father of algebra. Yet while many children at the school we visited had an abstract sense of what they want to be when they grow up, there is sadly no modern equivalent of the ‘House of Wisdom’ to inspire them.
In order for Iraq to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy, it must make education its top priority. It’s time for Iraq to look to its rich educational heritage, translate its oil wealth into tangible results, and develop much-needed human capital – for its children and the entire country’s future.
Atif Khurshid is Head of Social Policy at UNICEF Iraq.