Indiana State University Newsroom

Iraq must address void created by exodus of middle class, professionals

March 2, 2011

For conditions in Iraq to improve, the nation's leaders must address the void left from millions of Iraqis fleeing the country during the past 20 years, an Indiana State University professor said.

Starting in the 1990s and continuing into the years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, professionals and others in the middle class have sought safety away from the Middle Eastern country, said Bassam Yousif, ISU associate professor of economics. Since people are a vital resource for economic development, Yousif explained, the departure of so many people left a void in society. The middle class, he said, is the group that's most concerned about democratic rights.

"It's actually quite terrible because that means you lose that segment of society more or less forever, unless they return, and there are very, very few people who have returned," Yousif said. "I mean, the current leadership returned from their exiles, but they won't even take their families into Iraq. They leave their families overseas because of the security situation."

It's a situation Yousif understands beyond studying the country's economics. Born in Baghdad, he emigrated from Iraq to the United Kingdom in 1982, when he was 14 years old. During the next three decades, his career took him from the U.K. to the U.S., and he became one among millions of his countrymen to depart the nation they once called home.

"So anyone that can leave the country has left the country, and so you end up with a situation where the country's sort of hollowed out, and this is sort of a country that bears very little resemblance to the country that I grew up in, for example," Yousif said.

Some estimates have put the number of Iraqis that left the country in the 1980s and 1990s at four million people, with several million more departing the country after 2003, Yousif said. The violence in Iraq, coupled with the better employment prospects in other parts of the world, have factored into people's decisions to leave the country in recent years.

Reopened borders have also made it much easier for people to leave the nation.

"It's very difficult finding a country that'll accept you if you're Iraqi, that is the problem," Yousif said. "But it's easier to leave at least."

Yousif has studied and written extensively on economic development in Iraq. While some economists may use analysis of gross domestic product, or GDP, as a barometer of economic development, Yousif stresses that other social aspects must be analyzed as well. In Iraq during the 1980s, the country experienced improvements in areas such as literacy and infant mortality rates despite the Iran-Iraq War and stagnant GDP, Yousif said.

Even as Iraq experienced social improvements from the 1950s to 1990, it also faced political difficulties when the Baath Party gaining political power in 1968. Repression from the Baath Party, which also included former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, against dissenting opinions left Iraqi society more vulnerable to hardship, Yousif said.

"If you think of political rights and human rights as an aspect of development that has to be taken into account, then that really does color your view of what's been happening in Iraq," Yousif said. "So alongside these material improvements in 1950 to 1990, you have a much more restrictive political structure, and very high levels of political oppression."

The United Nations banned imports and exports out of Iraq in 1990, which by just two years later caused many of the social advances gained in the previous decades to be lost, Yousif said.

"If you would ask the average Iraqi in the 1970s or the 1980s that they would think that this was going to happen to their country, they would say that you must be absolutely insane," Yousif said. "Nothing like this is going to happen to Iraq."

"But," he added, "political economies are fragile. Societies are fragile."

To strengthen Iraq's tenuous society, law and order need to be established before Iraq can fully address the issue of people leaving the country, Yousif said. He added that the only people who have returned are politicians and people looking to exploit the country.

"I don't see any long-term swing of people actually returning from years and years of exile to Iraq," Yousif said. "What I see is people who are returning for short periods of time, to make money or gain something, and then leave, and it's unfortunate. You cannot have long-term development under those conditions."

Bassam Yousif

Contact: Bassam Yousif, associate professor of economics, Indiana State University, 812-237-8628 or

Writer: Austin Arceo, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or