Building an Innovative Society in Iraq

05/17/2010 01:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In October 2009, Secretary Clinton announced the Iraq Information Technology (IT) Intern Exchange Program at the U.S.-Iraq Business and Investment Conference. This provided an opportunity for six of some of the brightest information technology minds from across Iraq to come to the United States for a three-month internship in the technology sector. The first group of interns has just wrapped up their internships at AT&T, Howcast, Mercy Corps (IT Development), Engine Yard, and Blue State Digital. During their twelve-week internships, they focused on gaining new IT and entrepreneurial skills, which will help them to expand the IT sector in Iraq.

Earlier this month, six interns stopped by the State Department on their way back to Iraq. I had a great conversation with them about their experiences in the United States, and their thoughts on what Iraq needs to do to become a society of innovators and entrepreneurs. The interns identified electricity sector privatization as a top priority. Without a steady supply of electricity, they explained that the Internet infrastructure and Internet penetration could not grow. They also emphasized that an upgraded internet infrastructure available to everyone is the best way to foster innovation. Sharing information and ideas and connecting with the outside world to develop capabilities and human potential are keys to progress for Iraq. As a case in point, most of the interns found out about the Iraq IT Interns Program on the U.S. Embassy Baghdad's Facebook page! The interns identified other areas where their government needs to make progress to promote innovation, particularly increasing protection for intellectual property rights and tackling corruption. But the Internet, they explained, could make government more accountable and transparent to the Iraqi population, and ensure that the voice of the average citizen is heard.

They hit the nail on the head. Developing a society of innovators and entrepreneurs is not an easy task, and fostering a culture of collaboration and risk taking is not done overnight. But mindset changes and culture shifts can be accelerated with increased access to international technology. And increasingly, innovation cuts across borders are dependent on free, unfettered communication. In addition, no country should discount the importance of intellectual property rights protection and rule of law in creating the right environment for capitalizing on great ideas.

These young interns -- imaginative, dedicated people who want to contribute to the prospects and dynamism of Iraq -- are very likely to go on to do great things for their country's future. And I will be sure to share some of their ideas with Iraqi officials during my next round of bilateral meetings with the Iraqi government. I congratulate them on the completion of their internships, and encourage other young Iraqis to take part in future iterations of this important program.