Iraq: Development on the Backburner

By Bernhard Schell – Baghdad

Iraq has undergone drastic changes in the last ten years since the ‘regime change’, but the transition to democracy has failed to pave the way for development. Though the government announced a strategy for poverty reduction in 2009, the efforts, resources and follow-up measures have not been fetched noticeable results on the ground, according to the Iraqi Al Amal Association.

The reason, says the organization in a contribution to the Social Watch Report 2013, is that political disputes and security challenges have hindered the stability required for development. It states: “Quality of life has fallen: poverty stays firmly, the educational system draws back and women are becoming more and more vulnerable. The inequities persist between cities and rural areas and between men and women. To get on the right track, the Iraqi government must conduct the census that has been delayed since in 2007, to collect reliable information for the design of comprehensive, effective and appropriately funded development plans.”

The report’s main author Manal J. Putros Behnam points out that though Iraq is not a poor nation, much of its population suffers poverty. “The standard of living of this middle-income country declined over the last 25 years. There is a wide gap between the economics at a national level and the social reality experienced by Iraqi citizens.”

Between the 1980s and 2006, the gross domestic product per person declined by a third between, from about USD 3,000 to USD 2,000, according to the World Bank. But the most “striking” data “is not just the decline, but also that reversal in growth stands in contrast to every other country in the Middle East and North Africa region,” remarks the World Bank report “Confronting poverty in Iraq”. As an example of this decline, the study also notes that “primary school enrolment, an area in which Iraq once led the region, declined over the past 25 years in Iraq while rising in every other countries of the region.”

The National Strategy for Poverty Reduction (NSPRI) issued in 2009 at the same time as the National Development Plan covers crucial points of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is aimed to promote the well-being of the Iraqi poor, with the general goal of reducing poverty rate from the current 22.9% to 16% in 2014 by (1) achieving a higher income from work for the poor, (2) improving the health standard of the poor, (3) dissemination and improving education of the poor, (4) achieving a better housing environment for the poor, (5) effective social protection for the poor, and (6) less inequality between poor women and men.

But the government institutions failed to implement appropriate policies and measures to reach those goals, says Putros Behnam.

NSPRI planners stated that although two-third of the population live in cities, half of the poor people reside in rural areas. There are other relevant gaps between governorates, notes the NSPRI: over 40% of the inhabitants of some of them are poor (Muthanna, 49%; Babil, 41%; Salahuddin, 40%), while the proportion falls to 10% in the Kurdistan Region. Disparities in expenditure are lower than disparities in income: the richer quintile of households gets 43% of the total national income and the poorer quintile gets 7%, while the richer households spend 39% of the total expenditure and the poorest spend 9%.

The planners also noted a weak correlation between poverty and unemployment. Poverty rate has reached 39% in rural areas and 16% in urban areas, but unemployment gets to 11% in the countryside and to 12% in the cities. This gap can respond to the links between poverty and low salaries, because of the fact that workers constitute 89% of the labour force in rural areas due to the drop in productivity.


One out of five Iraqis between 10 and 49 years old cannot read or write, according to the Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit established by the UN to improve the impact of the humanitarian and development response in Iraq. “Literacy impacts every facet of life”, and affects critically “employment, health, civic participation and social attitudes,” reads a report issued by the Unit in 2010.

There are also “significant disparities” between women and men (24% to 11%) and between rural and urban areas (25% to 14%), and in the countryside the gender gap is even wider.

Decades of wars and years of humiliating blockade against Iraqi citizens (not against Saddam Hussein’s regime), followed after that for the persistent political instability, insecurity, low standards of living and corruption have made up an accumulated process of decline that feeds illiteracy, says the Al Amal Association.

UN agencies and the government run various programs to promote literacy among children, young and adult persons, as well as other schemes that offer training for working and life skills. But those programs need follow-up and sustained support from the Iraqi educational institutions to achieve a visible decline in illiteracy rates. Local NGOs have also implemented many programs all over Iraq, but they are pilot projects, poorly funded or lacking of a proper networking.

Women’s Vulnerability

The number of female headed household increased after 2003, and the women who run those families, around 90% of them widows, are highly vulnerable, as well as their members. Exact figures are not available but the estimates are close to one out of ten Iraqi households, or approximately 450,000.

The statistics of government institutions, international agencies and civil society organizations defer. This unclearness makes the national census a very important task to evaluate women’s conditions of living. The International Organization for Migration confirmed in 2011 critical situations related to the access to work, food security, and housing conditions which make women headed households vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit stated in 2012 that early marriages “remain prevalent”, although they are illegal under 15 years of age and require special authorization from a judge between 15 and 18. But many girls between 11 and 15 years of age enter into marriages outside the court in religious communities. Those girls sink into an illegal status that deprives them of education and health. On the other hand, tribal leaders justify the usual practice of forced marriages on traditional and cultural grounds.

Reliable Information Lacking

The lack of reliable information about the living conditions of the population put a brake on the development process, but the national census has been postponed four times since 2007 under the pretext of security concerns. The government and its supporters have been delaying indefinitely the survey, although it is required by the article 140 of the Constitution to reach a settlement to the dispute over the internal Kurdish-Iraqi boundaries.

The conflict is not only over the territories claimed by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region that are held by four governorates controlled by the central government in Bagdad, but also over the Kurdish share in the national budget, that must be determined by the percentage of the population of each province and governorate.

The census will ascertain whether the territories under dispute have a Kurdish or an Arab majority and will resolve the budgetary confrontation too. But the delay has prevented an accurate assessment of the numbers of orphans and widows who need urgent help. Even so, there is no date scheduled for conducting the survey.

(This article was provided by IDN-InDepthNews – December 14, 2012. Visit:

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