If not oil, then what?
Last week I approached the notion of tourism as a secondary or tertiary industry capable of attracting investment and income to the Kurdistan region. Of course it’s unlikely that it would become so large as to expect any private sector worker not involved in oil to be wearing an animal costume while goofing for photos or selling tickets and dreams. A sound economy will require diversity through innovation and entrepreneurship. With such a heavy reliance on imported products, one would hope that the opportunities are legion and that those in a position to seize the chances are ready. Surely, with so many returnees bringing skills, wealth and understanding back with them, businesses should be springing up to serve a myriad of sectors. However, outside of the more curious such as ostrich farming and the completely essential like the dairy equivalent, it’s not obvious if there is much bubbling away under the surface. However, as a teacher, there is one ray of hope that I encounter almost daily. The best graduates from the best universities in the region are able to apply for the Human Capacity Development Program (HCDP) grant, a generous scholarship that sends the best minds to universities all around the world – to places you’d expect like the UK, USA, Malaysia and Australia as well as some less immediately apparent countries; China and Korea amongst many others. My job in the process is to teach students English up to the required level of their university offer (and coach them in exam preparation), whilst the Erbil Ministry of Higher Education financially assists in the development of ‘a highly skilled young generation in various fields of science and technology without whom Kurdistan cannot progress.’
This is not as simple as it at first seems. Foreign institutions will take only those qualified into their Masters or Doctorate courses, and Kurdistan’s universities have had to step up to the mark in providing adequate education in Bachelor’s programs. This has been achieved with the help of various universities consulting in the region, and of course major international universities establishing themselves, notably the American University in Iraq (Sulamaniyah) or AUI-S. Naturally, once students have completed their further (social and academic) education abroad, they are expected to return and contribute to the Kurdish economy. And there’s the rub. Without a continuation and extension of the current policy of trade shows and missions to encourage a vibrant, strong and growing private sector, there simply won’t be the jobs here to retain the very best of the best. It can’t be expected of every new Masters graduate to become an entrepreneur. But there are seeds from which a strong tree can grow, given the correct incentives for business.