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Food and the Politics of Humanitarian Access in Iraq

Authors: Arthur C. Helton, and Gil Loescher
May 7, 2003
OpenDemocracy.com

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Before the Iraq war, around 60% of the country’s people depended on the World Food Programme. The UN and other agencies need to make huge and sustained efforts to meet their needs in the post-conflict situation. Food assistance, long the subject of high politics in Iraq, is likely to remain a key area of dispute as nation-building evolves.

The so-called ‘food basket’ provided to Iraqi families by international agencies before the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime was calibrated to have an appropriate measure of calories, but it has also been particularly high in political content.

Before the war on Iraq was launched in late March 2003, the World Food Programme (WFP) calculated that the reserves of food distributed to Iraqis would run out in May. The WFP also estimated that 60% of Iraq’s people depended upon the UN oil-for-food programme for their entire food supply.

Indeed, every family in Iraq has food ration cards, and an elaborate system had evolved for food distribution, using some 45,000 ‘food agents’. Recent WFP missions have verified that at least some of those agents, and the agency’s interlocutors at the Ministry of Trade, are still present in post-war Iraq and ready to continue distributing food.

Food assistance in Iraq operates in the unique political context of the oil-for-food Programme, which was established by the UN Security Council in December 1996 to mitigate the adverse impacts of economic sanctions on the Iraqi people (see our earlier article Preparing for Unpleasant Surprises). According to Torben Due, WFP regional coordinator for Iraq, pre-war interviews by the agency at the household level in Iraq found that some families bartered or sold part of their food allotments in order to obtain the cash needed to buy services and goods. The majority of Iraq’s people simply did not have sufficient income in that devastated country to buy food in the markets. Food assistance became an essential feature of the economy.

According to Due, whom Arthur Helton interviewed in Larnaca (Cyprus) by telephone, Iraq will be the subject of the largest food assistance programme ever undertaken by the WFP. Due – a Danish national who has worked in food assistance efforts in Nicaragua, the Sudan, and Mexico – said that the effort in Iraq will involve the delivery of upwards of 480,000 tons of food per month (Torben Due is currently in Iraq as part of a UN team). This compares to a high point of about 100,000 tons of food per month in Afghanistan.

But this blanket distribution programme, where food is given out without assessments of individual need, is only one of the unique features of the programme in Iraq.

When the war started on 19-20 March, international agency personnel were withdrawn and oil-for-food suspended. At a time when it was still unclear whether the programme would be reactivated, the UN appealed on 28 March for $1.3 billion to provide food assistance to Iraq for the next six months. The Security Council simultaneously extended oil-for-food (until 3 June 2003), and this measure caused some consternation among governmental donors who were unsure how the ‘flash appeal’ relates to the revived oil export programme. Nevertheless, WFP reports that some $500 million in contributions have now been received as a result of the appeal, with the United States and the United Kingdom leading the way.

WFP international staff has now returned to the northern ‘governorates’ in Iraq (those provinces controlled by the Kurdish factions), but so far the agency has only been able to send day missions into southern Iraq. Like other UN agencies, WFP has to follow the dictates of the UN Security Coordinator regarding re-deployment. (see our article Lurching Toward Recovery). But a sustained presence in Iraq will be critical to developing longer-term strategies, for example, to help revive the country’s degraded agriculture.

One feature of the Security Council resolution that extended the validity of oil-for-food was to enable WFP to buy locally locally-grown wheat. Local procurement could encourage production in this badly deteriorated agricultural sector and have a substantial impact on the domestic economy. But it will be difficult to formulate a precise plan until WFP staff persons are able to remain in the country. And time is short; the harvest comes in at the end of June.

Military analysts are fond of invoking a famous shibboleth – in the conduct of war, amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics. In fact, the reverse can be said to be true in the conduct of humanitarian action. Agencies are preoccupied by logistics, and they foreswear strategizing even in a highly politicised context like Iraq.

Food assistance is only the key feature of a larger problem relating to humanitarian access in Iraq, according to Poul Nielson, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, who spoke last week at the New York headquarters of a major humanitarian NGO. According to Nielson, the European Commission – the principal multilateral funding aid mechanism for European Union member states – has identified approximately €100 million for humanitarian assistance in Iraq. But he says that the US-led military occupation has shunted aside “other donors and citizens of the world”. The Commission had a plane ready to fly to Baghdad with medicines and hospital equipment, but as of 28 April was still waiting for landing clearance from the US military. The basic issue, says Nielson, is “who owns Iraq?” Nielson himself insists that the UN must coordinate humanitarian assistance; it is simply “not possible” for donors to coordinate otherwise.

Food assistance has been and is the subject of high politics in Iraq. If anything, this reality is likely to be reinforced as nation-building evolves there. An agitated and uncoordinated assemblage of western military and civilian humanitarian entities will compete with what one UN diplomat recently called “the mosques”, to deliver humanitarian services and gain adherents. The future of Iraq and the well-being of its people hangs in the balance.

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