We were in the Kurdish region, Sulymaniyah, making a stop at a regional branch of one of Iraq’s most modern banks in the Sulymaniyah Mall. We had been advised beforehand that in order to open an account as an NGO we needed a slew of documentation, beginning with a copy of CIPE’s registration as an NGO with the central government, and since we were in the north, a copy of CIPE’s NGO registration with the Kurdish Regional Government. That’s two separate registrations with two separate approval processes. Each of CIPE’s Iraqi staff had to bring color copies of their national ID, their ration card, their citizenship card, their residency card and their passport. We had to bring a stamped letter from the DC headquarters authorizing the account, along with the actual stamp. In addition, we needed two passport sized photos each and a minimum deposit. For good measure, we had with us a personal referral from the bank’s Baghdad branch. It was a little before 10am.
We first met with the Assistant Manager of the Branch. She told us that in order to open an account we would need the approval of the Branch Manager himself. Moving onward to a leather sofa in the manager’s spacious office, we showed him our documentation, mentioned the referral from the Baghdad branch and awaited his approval. After a few minutes of reviewing our papers, he gave our account his blessing and sent us downstairs with the Assistant Manager to the Current Accounts department to open our account. Or so we thought.
Downstairs, a young woman, let’s call her Clerk Number One, was dressed in khaki capris and a black T-shirt with gold text proclaiming that she was “in love with Tweety” (the Looney Tunes cartoon bird). Clerk Number One asked us to sit down and pulled out a few pieces of paper. Before we could start, however, she asked her colleague, Clerk Number Two, wearing tight black jeans and a T-shirt paying homage to the cartoon character Lisa Simpson with a description of her as “The Brain Queen,” to fetch someone to take minutes of the meeting.
When the woman returned, we began the process. Clerk Number One began meticulously filling out the information from our documents by hand. She took the addresses and mobile phone numbers of our employees, the address of our office, identification numbers, and all sorts of other information to fill in the paper booklet that would form the beginning of our bank file. Though she had a computer at her station, she did not touch it during this process. Once she was done filling out the paperwork, she began to fill out all the same information again, in order to have duplicate original copies. Our employees responsible for the account then signed each copy. Around 11 a.m., as she was stapling the photos onto the new file, she informed us that our file was incomplete. We needed four passport photos each, and had only brought two, as advised by the Baghdad branch. Clerk Number Two assured us that we could finish opening the account then.
Having turned that corner in a serpentine road, we found yet a major roadblock. We needed to transfer money in US dollars to the account, to be withdrawn in Iraqi dinar for office expenses. Unfortunately, the bank is unable at this time to convert currencies. Clerk Number Two informed us that in order to wire in US dollars we would need to open a US dollar account. In order to spend Iraqi dinar, we would need to open a separate Iraqi dinar account. What was more, the bank could not transfer money from one account to the other. That is to say, in order to pay expenses in Iraqi dinar, our Iraqi staff would have to withdraw US dollars from its US dollar account, go somewhere else and exchange it for Iraqi dinar and then deposit that Iraqi dinar in the Iraqi dinar account.
We decided just to open a US dollar account. Once that was settled, Clerk Number One gave the papers to the Clerk Number Two in order to enter the information in her computer. A few minutes later, Clerk Number Two received a call from her father and abruptly got up and left. At first we thought there had been a medical emergency. But no, Clerk Number One told us, the Clerk Number Two’s father needed her to run an errand and she couldn’t keep her father waiting. Another man came in to finish entering information into the Clerk Number Two’s computer.
Clerk Number One then went to the back of the bank and got a new checkbook for CIPE’s account. In order to validate the account, she stamped into each check the number of the account with a hand stamp. At 11:25, or an hour and a half after we had initially arrived, I had to leave for a meeting. Our account was not yet open. We still needed to deposit the minimum balance in the account, which required going to another department and waiting in a queue. At 12:30pm, or two and a half hours and four departments later, our Iraq staff called to let me know that they had just completed opening the account. They had to go back later that day to show the CIPE stamp (which we had forgotten but somehow hadn’t been a problem until late in the process) and to drop off more passport photos. Almost all transactions in Iraq are cash based. Our shiny new checkbook will most likely go unused.
Believe it or not, the fact that we are able to establish an account, even though it took half a day, is a sign of progress in Iraq. While the banking sector is still underdeveloped, and the costs of utilizing it are still high, it is becoming easier to access banking services in Iraq. The central government registration that we needed to open the account was almost impossible to obtain before last year, because of the slow pace of the government bureaucracy in issuing registrations to international NGOs. This year, it only took about two months. With a new NGO law reaching completion, registration could take even less time next year. Perhaps we’ll also be saying the same for opening a bank account.