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That's no way to say goodbye

Iraq, April 7, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The United Kingdom's bilateral aid to Iraq through the Department for International Development (DFID) is ending, but it is not time to walk away from the needs of millions of Iraqis who are struggling for a better life. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps

As unrest throughout North Africa and the Middle East dominates the headlines and underlines the problems of lack of democracy, civic participation and unemployment, it’s a surprising time for the United Kingdom (UK) to be ending development assistance to Iraq.

It is often argued that Iraq, a middle-income Country, should be able to support its own people and that international donors including the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) have already provided millions of pounds of development and humanitarian aid since 2003. In some ways this is right, but Iraq still lacks the capacity to deliver essential basic services in an efficient and transparent way.

The chronic insecurity that affects Iraq is very well known but less discussed is the great extent of chronic poverty in this nominally rich country:

  • 55 percent of Iraqis still lack access to safe water.
  • One million are food insecure, with 6.4 million dependent on food rations from the public distribution system.
  • There is a huge need for employment, basic infrastructure in water and electricity, better access to education, and durable solutions for the 2.7 million internally-displaced people.

A long period of stalemate followed Iraq’s March 2010 parliamentary elections, with a workable government formed only after 249 days: a world record at the time. Meanwhile Transparency International’s corruption’s perceptions index for 2010 ranked Iraq 175th of 178 countries; almost the worst in the world.

As part of the Bilateral Aid Review, DFID examined assistance to all countries where the UK has had ongoing bilateral development aid programs. The Review assessed a combination of need and the likelihood of UK aid being effective. DFID took into account a range of measures including the Human Development Index and number of people living under $2 a day, as well as factors related to the environment in which aid would be administered, such as the strength of local institutions and corruption.

This means that countries sometimes came out of the analysis with a different ranking than would be suggested by need alone. For example Somalia, in desperate poverty, is ranked quite low because it is such a difficult place to work.

In the Review, it was decided that bilateral aid for Iraq would be halved to £5 million for the coming year, and then it would be ended completely in April 2012. DFID will close their office in Baghdad that month and hand over responsibility for the UK’s engagement in Iraq’s development to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The FCO has a welcome engagement on the issue of human rights but naturally lacks DFID’s mandate to address pressing humanitarian and development issues.

Of the 27 countries to which the UK is continuing to provide bilateral aid, five had a lower ranking than Iraq on their measure of combined need and aid effectiveness. Each of those five countries has considerable needs so Iraq’s ranking shows that a strong case could be made for the continuation of assistance there as well. All the same, DFID can still add considerable value even without program funding. With Iraq’s continued and complex problems of poor governance, lack of accountability and human insecurity, there is still a great need for DFID expertise and longer term staff engagement.

DFID should not hand over all oversight of the continuing needs of Iraqis to the FCO but continue to invest dedicated staff time beyond April 2012 to influence other donors and to work through multilateral forums to make sure that the assistance to Iraq from the UN, EU and others is being planned and used in the most effective way.

Britain’s engagement should not be limited to the Foreign Office — it is not time to walk away from the basic needs of ordinary Iraqi people.