The Nahrein Network has announced a new round of research grants of up to £100,000 ($137,125) for Iraqi-led research projects on the sustainable development of Iraq’s history and cultural heritage.
Prof Eleanor Robson, the director of the University College London-led group, said the focus has always been “what matters locally” and what Iraqi experts believe will make a difference to communities in the country.
The Nahrein Network was established in 2017 and has been funded by the UK government since. But it was announced this year that an anonymous philanthropist had given more than £11m to support its work over the next decade.
“Our whole aim is for us not to have in London a list of priorities. Priorities are set in Iraq by people that come forward,” Prof Robson said.
She said there were layers of Iraq’s history and heritage that have been missed by big international funders, but remain hugely important to the country.
“They matter at a very local level and might not ever have been researched and published in English or German or any of the big international research languages," she said.
“So, what we've been doing all along is prioritising what matters locally and saying to experts on the ground, 'you tell us what you what you think is important. Tell us what would make a difference to your community'.
“The idea is really a very good one – that people closest to the problem are best placed to identify what the problems are and then with the support of the research infrastructures that the UK has, to develop a solution together.”
The Nahrein Network also works to help Iraqi universities and ministries provide better support for researchers.
Prof Robson said the Nahrein Network is involved in post-conflict work that focuses not only on Mosul but also Diyala, Anbar, Samara and Tikrit, as many Iraqis return home after years of displacement and see significant changes in their communities.
“To see people who live in these areas researching and talking to their local communities about those sorts of issues and helping then feed that into local government decisions about social and economic priorities, that's incredibly empowering.
Local history and identity matters, she says. Prof Robson points to Nahrein-backed projects on dialect, such as the disappearing Marsh Arab tongue.
“If you want to develop solutions to Iraq to problems that have any chance of having a lasting impact, they have to be embedded in the way Iraq works and the way Iraq doesn't work," she said. "We have to trust local experts to see that and they have to trust us to give them the intellectual tools and the financial tools to deliver that. So, it's very much a partnership."
Unexpected success has been achieved through video call platforms such as Zoom, the use of which rose sharply during the pandemic, as seminars and panels went from being hosted in major Western cities to taking place virtually.
Prof Robson said those platforms allowed Iraqi voices to be heard internationally. “That's never been done before. We've had a series of webinars on the threats to cultural heritage in Iraq and possible solutions.
"All sorts of people that are in our network, literally and metaphorically, whose voices have never been heard internationally before … we had serious decision-makers joining those calls and listening in,” she said.