Life on the margin: Iraqis grapple with poverty

An Iraqi woman walks through a refuse dump in Zafaraniyah, east Baghdad. (PHOTO: Prashant Rao)

by Prashant Rao

Note: This article was originally published by AFP on February 22, 2011. It can be found here.

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Faleha Hassan lives in a tiny house in central Baghdad with 11 other family members and, like thousands of protesters across Iraq, does not believe her leaders have done anything to make her life better.

“The politicians and the officials and the leadership, they don’t care about us – they have a lot of money but they don’t think about others,” laments the 67-year-old, surrounded by her grandchildren, sitting on the floor of the home in which she has lived for decades. “No one thinks about us. Not the officials.”

Hassan, her children and her grandchildren suffer from what has proved a persistent problem in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein: poverty.

The elderly woman’s only surviving son, Wissam, sells food to visitors entering the nearby Abdul Qader al-Gailani shrine in the center of the capital, but usually earns a meager 5,000 Iraqi dinars a day, or about $4. An Iraqi MP, by contrast, makes more than 80 times as much.

Her husband has become too frail to continue helping Wissam, and another son, Mohammad, was killed in a suicide bombing at the shrine in January 2007. A ration program, which during the Saddam-era included so many goods that Hassan said the family would sell the excess, has since been dramatically reduced.

That puts the family firmly below the government-defined poverty line of $2.2 per person per day, along with more than a fifth of all Iraqis, an estimated seven million people, a number that would rise were it not for the ration program received by about six million families.

And while ministers have ambitious plans to slash that figure in the coming years, experts and, crucially, the people affected, are unconvinced.

“Poverty in Iraq is shallow,” Deputy Planning Minister Mehdi al-Alak says during an interview in his office on the banks of the Tigris river. “Most people are close to the poverty line … so if policies and procedures are followed, the rate will decline.”

“It is not very difficult [to reduce poverty] in Iraq.”

On paper, he would seem to be correct: the country’s vast energy stores – Iraq has the fourth-highest level of proven oil reserves in the world – all but guarantee it will have a steady and increasing source of income for decades to come.

The country was not always grappling with such a problem.

A U.N. report released at the beginning of the year notes that, “In the past, Iraq was regarded as one of the most developed countries in the Middle East,” but the organization’s Arab Human Development Report rated Iraq 17th out of 21 regional countries in terms of human development in 2005.

“Wars and sanctions have contributed to a marked deterioration in Iraqis’ standard of living in recent years,” this year’s U.N. report noted.

But experts lament that Iraq still has glaring problems that make it difficult to envision poverty levels declining at the rate the government hopes, from 22 percent now to 16 percent by 2015.

“Even though it is shallow and a wide segment of the population could be brought out of the poverty margin, unless there are sustainable measures, they will easily fall back,” says Khalid Mohammad Khalid, an Amman-based Iraq programme analyst with the United Nations Development Program.

Khalid notes widespread graft – Transparency International rates Iraq as the world’s fourth-most corrupt country – and insufficient expertise among officials, especially at local and provincial levels, mean poverty alleviation could take longer than expected.

He adds that wider reforms will be needed rather than simply increasing people’s incomes to better combat poverty. “If you do not provide proper health, education and infrastructure services, then what is the meaning of more money?” he asks.

The U.N.’s Iraq Briefing Book, for its part, calls for greater economic diversification, noting that the oil sector accounts for 65 percent of the economy, but just one percent of jobs.

Iraq has made some progress, with the government adopting a “National Strategy for Poverty Reduction” in late 2009, though Alak concedes that the plan pays scant attention to budgetary issues, and ministries are responsible for implementing recommendations, with little oversight yet carried out.

That plan outlines six key goals, from raising incomes by creating jobs for the needy, to reducing inequality between men and women, and improving health and education levels.

Alak says it is unclear if the recommendations have been adopted by officials in other ministries or not, but a preliminary report on the plan’s effectiveness due in May will provide insight.

The issue has been brought to the fore by protests in recent weeks across the country against high levels of unemployment and poor basic services such as clean water and electricity.

In response, the government has pledged to delay the implementation of a law that would raise tariffs on imports, and thereby increase prices of goods at markets, while MPs have cut politicians’ pay and upped funding for the ration card program by $1 billion, a 25 percent increase.

Like Hassan, however, few of Baghdad’s poor are convinced by government assurances that it is tackling the issue.

“We don’t have hope,” says Sabiha Umm Ali, or Sabiha mother of Ali, who lives in a make-shift house in the middle of a waste dump in Zafaraniyah, east Baghdad. “I don’t have hope.”

“It has been like this for many years. There is no water, no electricity, no schools. I don’t have confidence (in the government), it is impossible to trust them — they care only for themselves, they live in their houses and villas, and forget about us.”

As she speaks, another woman, Nehad Shalah begins to accost an Iraqi soldier assigned to guard the refuse site. “Why don’t you help us?” she shouts at him. “Why don’t you help us? Look at me! Am I a dog?”

Sabiha, a 60-year-old mother of eight children, only one of whom has a job, adds: “Don’t we live in a country of oil and of wealth? Why, then, do we live like this?”

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