Years of demographic engineering, conflict and displacement continue to transform the demographic makeup of the Nineveh Plains, resulting in growing tensions between different ethnoreligious groups. The fact that this region is part of a larger territory that remains disputed between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments has furthermore contributed to creating and accentuating community divisions by maintaining political rivalries in an unstable environment dominated by continuous competition over resources and loyalties. More recently, relations between the Plains’ different communities were negatively affected by IS rule from 2014 to 2017. This has further weakened institutional capacities and prevented the area’s communities from mobilising collectively to demand better representation, services and livelihoods from both Baghdad and Erbil. The result is impoverished and marginalised communities riddled with fractures that create competition, discrimination and violence.

This has several implications for the work of international organisations and donors wishing to engage in development activities in the Nineveh Plains. The table below produces a brief risk analysis of each of the (in)stability factors analysed above.

Table 1
Engagement risks for international organisations associated with each factor of (in)stability

(1) Administrative vacuum

Difficult access, contradictory compliance and protocols for different areas and by different groups

The cumbersome need to manage central government bureaucracy and corruption

Limited availability of local governance partners with sufficient capacity and authority

Divided governance structures and service infrastructure between KRG and GoI-linked territories

(2) Security polarisation

Increased security threats to (I)NGO staff

Limited and disrupted access to strategic sites

Service infrastructure controlled by armed actors and services selectively redistributed to constituents

Projects that delegitimise and/or threaten armed groups’ influence are purposefully disrupted (e.g. empowering local communities and improving agency)

(3) Chronic displacement

Discrepancies in reconstruction support to different areas and to different ethnoreligious groups produces re-displacement and demographic changes

Closure of camps and ‘forced’ return of migrants increases social strains and will augment both individual vulnerability and community tensions in the Nineveh Plains

(4) Social fragmentation

Marginalisation of Sunni communities and limited access to justice will encourage future violence

The lack of a national reconciliation strategy embedded in reconstruction programmes will leave existing community divisions unaltered and, combined with the presence of armed groups, likely worsen them over time

Limited stabilisation and development funds will also increase vulnerability and resource competition

Based on our analysis, our recommendations centre on supporting the process of post-conflict recovery via improving livelihoods, better integrating of marginalised communities and bringing about greater social cohesion. Practically, five issues deserve urgent attention:

First, medium to long-term support programmes should strengthen capacities of local governance structures and push them to lead the recovery and reconstruction process in a more professional and institutionalised framework. For example, local crisis management and recovery committees could be established in each district to administer the reconstruction process and coordinate the efforts of different formal and informal actors and groups. With the right incentives and support from central governments, such committees could bridge the gap between the central and Kurdish administrations, monitor the work of armed groups and streamline the process.

Second, the process of reconstruction should provide opportunities for joint projects and cooperation between the different communities of the Nineveh Plains. Working together in the pursuit of shared outcomes increases inter-group contact, builds trust and opens up new channels of communication. Although the establishment of district centres such as Bazwaya may lead to the building of new schools and hospitals in Shabak areas, it fails to help transform the relationship between different communities in Nineveh. Rather than building a new hospital or education centre in each pocket housing a different community, it would be more constructive in the long-run to ensure that Shabaks can safely access public education and hospitals in places like Mosul, Bartalla, and Al-Hamdaniya.

Third, development projects and humanitarian aid require a more detailed local mapping and needs assessment of communities, displaced populations, returnees and armed groups in order to ensure that operations are conflict sensitive and contribute to bridging existing differences rather than (inadvertently) strengthening them. The legacy of demographic engineering and the disputed status of many of Nineveh’s rural areas pose a continuous threat for stability and reconstruction. Disputes over land and property need to be addressed through transparent legal mechanisms in which all groups in rural areas feel represented. In this regard, it is vital that local institutions and law enforcement capacities are improved and extended into rural areas.

Fourth, greater focus on restarting businesses, strengthening institutions and rehabilitating agricultural land and capital (specifically in rural areas) is necessary to improve agency and productivity. Reconstruction efforts so far have overly emphasized rehabilitation of shelter and homes none of which have, however, improved residents’ livelihoods or incentivised return of displaced families. In addition, the majority of reconstruction is done in urban centers, which has promoted large-scale migration and contributed to the already existing urban-rural ethnoreligious divide.

Fifth, service delivery and service infrastructure should extend to Sunni detention and displacement camps, including legal aid, as their residents await justice. International organisations like the UN and human rights organisations should strongly advocate for such support as part of a broader strategy to prevent future grievances, or even extremism, from developing. Such support could be closely supervised by Iraqi forces and government representatives but must be co-led by international donors due to current biases and negative perceptions, and preferably undertaken by international organisations because of their greater neutrality.