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Socio Economic Context
  • Socio Economic Context

    AL BEIT AL IRAQI

  • Socio Economic Context

    AL BEIT AL IRAQI

Needs Analysis Background

Iraq is a country that is rich in history, cultural diversity and tradition. It is also rich in its geographic diversity. This by itself provides a promising yet challenging opportunity for economic growth ensuring better economic opportunities for everyone. However, this promise was never translated into real opportunity.
Historical process of tangible culture/crafts
Culture has traditionallybeen oral and local where there was a direct relationship among the people and their social and geographic environment. As a result of this close bond, an integrated social system emerged. Crafts moved from one generation to another through oral communication and localized informal training. This liberated the craftsmen throughout the stages of work, creating harmony with the environment in terms of supply and demand. As a result, crafts remained local, candid and based on direct relationship between the producer and consumer.
Over time, Iraqi society moved from this traditional setting to modernity without properly maturing through the stages experienced by other societies. This order was negatively impacted by modernity and changes in methods of production and marketing. In addition, the availability of higher paying industrialized and office jobs shifted the society from this economic traditional model, offering a serious challenge to the sustainability of traditional crafts. The impact was further exacerbated by openness to outside markets providing cheaper imported products from the outside world. Furthermore, the presence of oil as the main driver of the economy, with opportunities for quick growth, meant that the society as whole overly relied on it. This resulted in ignoring other opportunities for micro-economic advancement. Without trade unions or institutions protecting the craftsmen in the face of these challenges, traditional crafts became endangered, and sometimes completely forgotten.
The fast growth of Baghdad and other major urban centers in Iraq, as result the sudden availability of economic opportunities, pushed the urban communities outside historical Baghdad to newly built suburbs. The old city extended from South Gate (Bab Al Sharqi) to Bab Al Muadham along the river, and extending to Bab Al Sheikh, . Figure 1 below illustrates the historical area surrounded in a red line, with the outflux of its original urban inhabitants. Instead, the historical city was occupied by rural communities from the under-developed countryside, seeking better economic means, and replacing the original urban inhabitants. This was a natural organic shift that faced all societies during socio-economic change. However, the lack of a strategic vision and will of successive governments since the late 1950s, meant that this historical center gradually transferred into slums and lost its cultural identity. Similar destiny faced other historical urban centers like Basrah, Irbil, Karkuk and Mosul.
There have been many studies for master plans to revive the historical center of Baggdad. Two major studies worth of noting are Ihsan Fethi and John Warren in 1982 and a more comprehensive plan by Taghlub Al-Waily in 2017 . However, both studies require large government investment in master plans. Circumstances at the time and now are not suitable for such investments. Our proposal is to encourage the private sector, through micro-initiatives to build and sustain a vision for reviving smaller areas and allowing them to grow organically. This will provide short term wins building a momentum for expansion.

Figure 1: A map of Baghdad, with the area encircled in red representing the historical Risafa side of Baghdad, with the movement of urban inhabitants outside historical Baghdad.

In the 1970s there were governmental led initiatives to sustain and create awareness of national heritage in Iraq. These can be manifested by the Folklore Centre for Crafts and Heritage, the National Group for Folk Arts, the Iraqi Fashion House, the Heritage Periodic and the Center for Gulf Studies and Archives. However, the centralized top down economic structure, and lack of serious government-private partnership at the time meant that these initiatives remained lacked coherence and failed on the grass-root level. Additionally, there was neither a well-defined vision for crafts and craftsmen, nor a serious recognition for their role and importance in society, which would enable sustainable development in terms of quality, production, and marketing in the face of the challenges of globalization and modernization.
The years of the war with Iran shifted the government support efforts from privately sustained entrepreneurship eco-systems to the war effort. The war also meant most of the male Iraqi population was driven into the fronts, away from their environment. The last years of the war, however, provided a window of opportunity to empower women at home, and soldiers returning from the battlefield working from home and workshops on reviving Iraqi traditional crafts. The original vision of Al Beit Al Iraqi, which was established in 1986, was to become the “pioneer centre within the private sector to encourage, support, and sustain Iraqi crafts, as well as reveal its distinguished aspects, and find contemporary uses and channels for the craftsman”. Its vision was restrained within the limitations provided by the political and economic circumstances of the time. After 1990 the original project continued to serve as a center for culture and heritage with the following mission:
• to embrace the variety of Iraqi crafts within one centre abridging the relation between craftsman and his environment;
• to record, examine, revive and develop forgotten crafts;
• to act as a cultural memory by introducing forgotten heritage to newer generations that had disowned the past;
• to liaise between different classes of society: rural and urban, local and global;
• to create, by renovating the old house where Al Beit Al Iraqi is located, a challenge for architectural forms alien to the Iraqi environment, and a pioneering experience that acted as a case study for many young students of architecture;
• to find renewed and sustainable applications and avenues for traditional crafts and technologies;
• to revive the use of traditional technologies as substitutes to fulfil daily needs due to lack of modern technologies during the sanctions imposed on Iraq at the time, and;
• to find new economic opportunities for people with lower income (soldiers returning from the front with no jobs, families losing their breadwinners and those who severely affected by the sanctions).
The years of war, corruption and civil conflict that followed 2003 had a dreadful impact on all of the achievements in the areas of encouraging and protecting craftsmanship and heritage, which went into a total collapse. This is similar to what happened to other areas of creativity.
The change in the socio-economic system, conflict and systematic corruption that followed 2003 to date means that the government of Iraq is incapable of sustaining initiatives for employment of the millions of young graduates or for support of millions of families of limited income. The challenge is even more exacerbated with the drop in oil prices, currently the only driver of economy in Iraq, and the futuristic socio-economic outlooks after the Covit19 global outbreak.

This urgently necessitates self-sustainable micro-economic initiatives to address current and futuristic needs in economic growth, and to participate in recreating the socio-cultural fabric in Iraq.

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