widespread negligence on part of government officials and institutional corruption have led to significant waste of public funds in Iraq, with social security salaries being a primary target. Despite the vast network of beneficiaries – which currently encompasses millions and is set to expand by nearly two million more – linked to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, there has been a disquieting lack of measures to check misappropriation of these funds.

This neglect gains further relevance in light of the absence of an efficient information cross-checking system between different government departments. While the concept of electronic governance and checks and balance procedures is not new and has been lauded as an essential aspect of modern state management, it is yet to be implemented in Iraq due to long standing bureaucratic inefficiencies and bottlenecks.

The importance of such a system becomes apparent when we consider a worrying pattern. Unconfirmed reports indicate the existence of several employees and freelancers illegitimately drawing social security benefits . In a system where effective checks are absent, these breaches, unfortunately, continue undetected.

Dhikra Abdul Rahim, the Director-General of the Social Security Department at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, acknowledges the problem. Speaking to The Red Line, she admitted that violations continue unabated, attributing it to the lack of inter-ministerial coordination and failure to maintain a comprehensive national number system (akin to a unified card) for all Iraqis. She also emphasised the absence of any accurate census of private-sector workers which further complicates the situation.

More worrying are the cases of individuals employed in the private sector such as blacksmithing, trade, and construction , who recieve social security salaries reserved to public servants, due to inadequate labour market data held by the Ministry of PlanningThis issue is amplified by the lack of any unified pension and insurance system for private sector workers.

While striving to follow up and restrict violations, the authorities, , are hampered by the inconsistent data across different ministries. Mrs. Rahim points out that the process of information cross-checking is obsolete, leading to difficulties in identifying and addressing violations.

Payback time

In a system riddled with such inconsistencies, the Social Security Department still whitnesses g numerous infractions. As per law, anyone found undeserving is required to repay the funds obtained during the period of violation.

Recently, the Social Security Authority in the Babel Governorate made headlines by reclaiming nearly one billion dinars from social security salary violators. The Authority also highlighted its legal power to seize both movable and immovable assets of the violators until their debts are paid, indicating a more assertive approach towards tackling this issue.

However, the path to rectifying these systemic issues is long and riddled with challenges. Until there is a concerted effort from the authorities to enforce efficient data management, transparency, and stringent checks, the problem of misappropriated social security funds seems likely to persist.

In 2020, an eye-opening incident within the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs shed some light on a concerning issue regarding Iraq’s social security system. It was discovered that a staggering 6,814 individuals were drawing double salaries from the social security network while simultaneously receiving a separate income. Furthermore, it was found that an additional 1,578 people were collecting salaries from the Special Needs Authority.

Addressing this alarming revelation, Hussein Arab, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Labor and Social Affairs, has pointed to systemic shortcomings rather than individual failings. Speaking with The Red Line, Mr. Arab emphasized that the misuse of the social security network, attributed primarily to undeserving recipients, was subsequently depriving a substantial number of rightful beneficiaries. Arab believes the root of the problem and its ultimate solution lies in the successful implementation of electronic governance. Such a system could bring an end to these discrepancies and ensure rightful distribution.

Mr. Arab further explained how an accurate, interconnected data network spanning all ministries and state departments could deter exploitation of the social security network. He stressed that it’s an issue of systemic transparency, not individual dishonesty, and it should be the authorities’ responsibility to ensure data accuracy. Mr. Arab also underlined the importance of incorporating private sector employers into the social security network, thereby guaranteeing pension salaries to their employees. This action could be a pivotal step in addressing these systemic issues, allowing for a more reliable registration of private sector workers and easier detection of any discrepancies.

It’s worth noting that the prospect of electronic governance has been on Iraq’s agenda since 2014. As of the beginning of this year, the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers announced the completion of the project’s first phase, which included linking and managing official documents, introducing more than 85 services, and implementing a real estate registration system. These steps hint at progress, but the unfolding of the social security issue reveals that there is still a long way to go.

The initiative known as the “Citizen’s Electronic Government” was supposed to be a cooperative venture with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Yet, bureaucratic hurdles persistently obstructed the project, preventing it from reaching fruition.

Government obstruction

The earlier government led by Adel Abdul Mahdi surprisingly stalled the operations of the project’s committees in the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, leaving the initiative in limbo. The reasoning behind this abrupt halt remains unclear, indicating possible mismanagement at the administrative level.

According to Aswan Salem, a member of the Parliamentary Communications Committee, despite these impediments, the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers remains committed to the transition towards electronic governance. Salem, in an interview with the “Red Line” website, conceded that the shift to an electronic system is fraught with difficulties, but he insisted that steps must be accelerated to finalize this critical project. He confidently stated, “Implementing an electronic governance system will bring about a resolution to numerous issues plaguing Iraq, ranging from security to economic sectors. It will also assist in detecting any tampering with official documents and identify any illicit receipt of multiple state salaries or undue social security benefits.”

Under the helm of Mohammad Shia’ Al Sudani, the incumbent government has taken on the task of examining more than two million new applications for inclusion in the social security system. In a positive move, it has pledged an additional 30% allowance for the personnel engaged in the analysis of these applications and conducting field verifications.

Iraqi economic expert Abdul Rahman Al-Mashhadani,  expressed his concern in his discussion with The Red Line, stating that Iraq is caught in a whirlwind of confusion, primarily due to the lack of a comprehensive population census.  “[This] matter that has been our demand for many years. Most of the country’s statistics, such as poverty and unemployment rates, social security benefits, and even the count of state employees, are merely approximations.” Mr. Al-Mashhadani noted that former finance and planning ministers confessed not having precise employee figures. He proposed that a large fraction of those inappropriately drawing social security benefits could be State employees. This issue could be solved through an accurate population census and the successful execution of the electronic governance system.

Mr. Al-Mashhadani cited a anecdote from Salah al-Din governorate, where an inspection found more than 300 State employees, including teachers, were unlawfully receiving social security benefits. Alarmingly, it was also discovered that certain relatives of the provincial council members were unduly receiving social security benefits, some of them registered as security personnel for council members. This narrative adds weight to the urgent need for the implementation of electronic governance and a thorough census to uphold the integrity of Iraq’s social security system.

The journey towards a transparent and efficient electronic governance system in Iraq has been marred by delays, complications, and questionable administrative decisions. Yet, the need for such a system is greater than ever. Accurate and reliable data are essential for tackling a range of problems, from economic to security issues. Moreover, it is a key factor in ensuring that social security benefits are distributed fairly, without being syphoned off through illicit practices.

VIA Nabaa Mushreq, Sam Mahmood Mohammed, Shiaa ALZAIDAWI