Ravaged by war … and poverty

Whatever the two GBs have been saying to each other at Camp David about Iraq today and yesterday, one surge is already having dramatic results. The war has produced a huge rise in poverty, disease, and malnutrition, in addition to the death and maiming which capture most of the headlines.

Some 43% of Iraqis live in absolute poverty. A third of the population depends on emergency aid, but over 30% of the people who have been displaced by fighting or sectarian murder have lost access to the subsidised food rations on which they used to rely.


The figures are contained in a new report by Oxfam and a network of aid agencies, though they are culled mainly from United Nations agencies, the International Commitee of the Red Cross, and other high-level sources.


One response is to throw up one’s hands. Appalling as it all is, what can be done, since insecurity makes it impossible to deliver help anyway? Not true, says Oxfam. First of all, the Iraqi government can do much better. It can increase the size of the welfare payments it already makes to widows with children and other poverty- stricken households In other words, the system is in place. Just pump more money into it.


The same goes for the food ration system, a long- established network of local warehouses which was set up under Saddam Hussein. Everyone is registered and knows where to go. The problem is that if you are displaced you drop out of the benefits.


Oxfam says the Iraqi government ought to give displaced people new food-rationing identity cards which would allow them to get help in the camps where they are rather than in their home areas which have become too dangerous to stay in.


The United States and Britain as the main war-fighting governments should also step up their humanitarian aid. The big infrastructure projects which were the hallmark of the invasion’s first year have either been completed (a few) or abandoned (mainly) because of corruption, insecurity, or sabotage.


It would be better now to think small and get personal. Giving families cash is not as glamorous a form of aid as opening a new power station or water plant. It also does not look so good for two governments which still try to portray their intervention in Iraq as a mission which has enhanced the quality of Iraqi life. But this Oxfam report shows that the reality does not bear that out. Iraqi families need help directly, and they need it now.


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