Food Insecurity in Iraq
Decades of conflict in Iraq have effectively destroyed what was once the center of human civilization. Many view Iraq as a country very costly to the U.S.—another war from which the U.S. must recover. However, the international community’s job is not done. Today, millions of Iraqis are displaced and suffer from food insecurity, a problem that the government has struggled to control. This article will delve into the background of food insecurity in Iraq and what various groups are doing to combat it.

Governance Issues

The oil industry accounts for 90% of Iraqi government revenue. The crash of oil prices caused a $40 billion deficit in the Iraqi budget, cutting this revenue in half. Iraq’s government has been unable to properly fund various institutions. Combined with a 66% rise in population since 2000, this has placed immense stress on the country’s food supply. Constant conflict and the corrupt management of resources have hindered any ability to keep up with this population boom. USAID labels just under one million Iraqis as food insecure. The World Food Program, however, estimates that this number is closer to two million.

While much focus is on obtaining aid from the international community, Iraq has not necessarily focused as much on reforming its own institutions governing agricultural industry networks. Iraq’s State-Owned Enterprises are involved in every step of food production, processing and distribution. The government attempts to distribute food products and support the industry through its bloated Public Distribution System (PDS), which in 2019 cost $1.43 billion, and its yearly $1.25 billion effort to buy wheat and barley from Iraqi farmers at double the international price. Despite these expensive programs, Iraq still ends up importing 50% of its food supply.

Inefficient growth, processing and distribution methods and a reliance on food imports place Iraq in a delicate position. They are susceptible to global food chain supply network failures and the threat of a budget collapse due to the crash of oil prices. Such an occurrence would likely cause the food system to implode without the current level of government intervention. These governance issues, on top of decades of conflict and displacement, have exacerbated food insecurity in Iraq.

The Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the aforementioned issues confronting the Iraqi food supply. Cases in Iraq have skyrocketed during May and June as Iraqis faced the decision of staying home without reliable state support and suffering from lack of income or holding onto their jobs and risking infection.

The pandemic has worsened the already pervasive levels of poverty and food insecurity. Inefficient state institutions and bureaucracy have combined with the pandemic to display the fragility of the Iraqi food supply. There have already been severe shocks in the global supply chain. For a government that relies on imports for 50% of its food supply, this pandemic could cause the crisis of food insecurity in Iraq to spiral. The Iraqi government has faced issues of governance for decades. The pandemic has only emphasized these issues while placing millions of Iraqis at further risk of conflict and disaster.

Humanitarian Efforts

The stark problem of food insecurity in Iraq has caught the eye of many different aid organizations, both in the U.S. government and the intergovernmental level. USAID, the primary U.S. foreign aid organization, has spent years trying to help meet Iraqis’ basic humanitarian needs, especially in the face of seemingly endless conflict. USAID has provided almost $240 million in emergency food assistance to Iraqis since FY 2014. This money goes toward food vouchers, food baskets and cash for food, all under the coordination of the World Food Program (WFP), which the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) established with the UN General Assembly.

USAID has also supported WFP efforts to create an electronic distribution platform for Iraq’s PDS, which would allow Iraqis to update their locations, use biometrics for identification and improve overall access to food supplies. The WFP, in turn, supports 280,000 internally displaced Iraqis and 76,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, providing monthly food support mainly through cash transfers. It also provides local, healthy food for over 324,000 schoolchildren in Iraq. The organization is currently looking to expand cash transfers and food access to over 35,000 refugees and 10,000 internally displaced people in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FAO has worked with the WFP in Iraq by focusing on agricultural sustainability. To improve food security and Iraqi self-reliance, the FAO has supported livestock production through capital, seeds, fertilizer and resources to counter disease. It also uses “cash-for-work activities” to enhance local markets and support infrastructure in addition to its efforts to promote labor-saving technology to counteract food insecurity in Iraq.

Looking Forward

Poor food access has been an issue for many years, but the pandemic is making the situation worse. Constant conflict and a lack of effective governance are both serious obstacles to creating a stable food environment for Iraqis, but there is a significant commitment from the international community to shore up Iraqi agricultural sustainability and provide support to individual Iraqis. While many are still in dire need of access to food, organizations like these provide hope for the fight against food insecurity in Iraq.

Connor Bradbury
Photo: Flickr

Poverty in Iraq
Poverty in Iraq? Many countries in the Middle East are dominated by oil production and exporting, and Iraq is no different. 95% of its exports are from oil. Like other resource-rich countries, however, this abundance of profit potential has not translated to a higher standard of living for the average Iraqi citizen. Furthermore, economic progress and social development has been hindered by ethnosectarian violence, severe setbacks in infrastructure, and poor educational quality. A number of complex challenges face Iraq today.


3 Main Causes of Poverty in Iraq


  1. Social and political instability by civil war. The occupation of Iraqi territory beginning in 2003 removed some of the barriers to outright sectarian violence by the institution of democracy. Iraq has traditionally been separated into three regions associated with people groups who took residency within: Kurds (15% of the population) in the north, Shia Arabs (45-55%) in the south, and Sunni Arabs (30%) in the region in between and to the west. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the five years following the invasion of Iraq, but sectarian violence — usually in the form of terrorist attacks — persists today. Not only has this endangered Iraqi civilians to the extent of displacing up to 2.2 million people since 2003, but it also makes trade and business incredibly dangerous. The simple act of moving goods about the country is disrupted by armed violence.
  2. Degradation and destruction of infrastructure. Both the ongoing civil war and the invasion of 2003 significantly damaged communication and transportation means. While the International Reconstruction Fund for Iraq asserts that Iraq’s infrastructure was among the best in the Middle East before the 1990s, today for most Iraqis there is limited access to electricity, sanitation, and clean water supply. An Oxfam briefing from 2007 reported that most homes in Baghdad and major cities receive only two hours of electricity per day. Furthermore, where there may be working roads and aid to be given, armed groups and Iraqi security forces may abruptly surround an area during military operations: “Sudden changes in access to towns and cities … pose major constraints on NGOs’ ability to deliver a humanitarian response.”
  3. Destabilized education system. Like infrastructure, the education system in Iraq was an example to other countries in the region before 1990s. However, with the displacement that followed the invasion, the state of education administration suffered. According to Oxfam, 92% of children surveyed had learning impediments “largely attributable to the current climate of fear.” Save the Children UK reported that over 800,000 children were not in school, an increase of 200,000 students in 2004. Displacement not only removed much-needed teachers from schools, but also brought large amounts of internally displaced refugees to seek shelter in school facilities in some communities. While the regime change has sparked an overhaul in curriculum and gender equality, the accompanying instability has undermined those improvements.

The situation in Iraq has been discussed by a number of NGOs, focusing on reform of programs already in place. For example, the Public Distribution System (PDS) is a universal ration program, but its main obstacle lies in targeting and distribution. It does not effectively target those who are at greatest risk for slipping into absolute poverty. A number of reports assert that if the Iraqi government used funds available to it from oil exports, these difficulties could be addressed. However, until ethnosectarian violence can be resolved and security restored, steps forward will be accompanied by backward steps as well.

– Naomi Doraisamy

Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress, Oxfam/NCCI, World Bank,
Photo: AlTahreer News

India Experiments With Cash Assistance Program

With social programs across the world, corruption and inefficiency are always an issue. In India, the Public Distribution System, or PDS, is the largest network that provides food and other necessities to the 350 million who live below the poverty line. Economists have recently begun to formulate an experiment to get aid directly to the hands of recipients in the form of checks that they can spend as they choose.

PDS currently uses ration cards which allow people to buy grains at a cheaper price. However, there are quite a few middlemen and illegal happenings which can end up leaving anywhere from five percent to 15 percent of the original amount to the ration cardholder. With this new proposition, however, the government must deal with many theories and statistics of failure and the possibility of biting off more than they can chew.

The cash system would require recipients to open bank accounts. Only 40 percent of Indians currently have a bank account due to the impracticality of it for rural dwellers who either do not have close access to a bank or are not able to pay the fees required to have one. The idea of banking correspondents has been suggested to counter this issue. These correspondents can be explained as human ATMs who physically go to villages and customers, allowing them to withdraw money.

Reetika Khera, an economist from the Indian Institute of Technology conducted a survey asking PDS users their preference for food vs. cash. Although two-thirds said they preferred food, Paul Niehaus of GiveDirectly (an NPO that works to transfer donations electronically to poor Kenyans) warns that surveys are not the best way to test the theories. Most people who are a part of PDS have been living in a paternalistic system, as Indian economists say, where they have become comfortable and accustomed to the ration cards and are told how to spend their benefits.

These cash systems have been implemented in Mexico and Brazil where families must meet certain benchmarks and goals in order to receive their benefits. Although India’s population is significantly larger, certain states which have already put this new system to use have noticed an improvement in the distribution of funds and a decrease in corruption.

– Deena Dulgerian

Source: Co.EXIST, NY Times