Unemployment and violence increase poverty

Mounir Zeid, 32, says he likes to remember the good old days before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then, most people were employed and his income was enough to afford holidays abroad. Today, however, poverty has struck and he finds himself sharing one room with his four brothers.

“We were having a good life in Iraq [before 2003] - good food, nice clothes and we enjoyed travelling - but everything went out with the occupation,” Zeid said.

“I and my parents lost our jobs in the government so we started to use our savings. Today, we are living in a ghetto and sometimes even breakfast has to be forgotten because there is no money for that,” he added.

Zeid is typical of millions of Iraqis struggling to cope with rising levels of poverty, largely as a result of unemployment.

“Every day you can see families searching for houses in the ghetto areas because they have lost what they had and are joining the new Iraq truth,” Zeid said.

Tuesday is the United Nations International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The UN General Assembly declared 17 October for this purpose in a resolution passed on 22 December 1992. It invited all governments and NGOs to “devote the day to presenting and promoting, as appropriate in the national context, concrete activities on the eradication of poverty and destitution”.

The theme for the international day for poverty eradication in 2006 is ‘Working Together out of Poverty’.

In Iraq, despite the government working hard to fight poverty in the country, the situation has not changed. Indeed, the opposite is happening. Unemployment is rising and more and more children are leaving school to work and supplement their parents’ income.

"Nearly 5.6 millions Iraqis are living below the poverty line, according to our most recent studies. At least 40 percent of this number is living in absolute and desperate deteriorated conditions," said Sinan Youssef, a senior official in the strategy department of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, adding that this level of poverty is a 35 percent increase over the level before 2003.

Unemployment and inflation

According to Youssef, there are a number of factors causing this downward spiral of living conditions countrywide, the most important being unemployment, which has lead to more violence and terrorism.

"When people find that they cannot support their family with food and other supplies, they search desperately for any kind of job. Insurgents use this weakness. They use these guys for terrorist activities in exchange for the promise of good money," Youssef said.

Local officials and NGOs put the unemployment rate countrywide to be more than 60 percent. In particularly troubled areas such as Anbar Governorate, this rate could be much higher.

Compounding the unemployment problem is the fact that the price of basic necessities in Iraq has skyrocketed over the past year. A report by Iraq's central office for statistics cited by NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) suggests a 70 percent rate of inflation from July 2005 to July 2006.

"When prices are increasing and people do not get more money, poverty is also increasing," said Cedric Turlan, information officer for the NCCI.

"The main need for Iraqis today is the same for all people: the right to live. It means to stop the very high level of violence, it means more security, but fighting poverty means also more job creation," Turlan added.

In addition to unemployment, violence and new economic measures causing rising inflation, the NCCI attributes several other factors to the rise in poverty in Iraq over the past three years: reconstruction money being lost to corruption, an exodus from the country of skilled workers and a decrease of investment in the country.

"Most of these reasons are directly linked with the security situation. Indeed, in such an unsecured context, all these problems are increasing," Turlan said.

Last May, the World Food Programme (WFP) released a report entitled ‘Food Security and Vulnerability in Iraq’ which warned that if the situation in Iraq was not controlled, a further 8.3 million people [31 percent of Iraq’s population] would be rendered ‘food insecure’ if they were not provided with Public Distribution System (PDS) rations.

WFP defines food insecurity as “when people must live in hunger and fear starvation”.

PDS rations are monthly food rations distributed by the government and funded by various donor countries and agencies. WFP said that if these are discontinued without a careful reassessment of the needs of the population, an estimated 47 percent of Iraq’s 28 million inhabitants will face real difficulties finding food.

"If poverty in Iraq is not controlled soon, we are going to have a country that will be compared to Africa in poverty levels," said Fatah Ahmed, vice-president for local NGO Iraq Aid Association.

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