The independent iguacu investigation to identify effective charities and actions for the public where the needs are critical, involves one to one interviewing with an extensive network of experts close to what is happening on the ground. Nathanael Chouraqui, iguacu’s Lead Researcher for Iraq and Syria, shares the warnings from the field about the closing window in Iraq to avert a future crisis.
“We must now help Iraqis get back on their feet”, an aid worker urged — a sentence that was unthinkable to hear six months ago, in the chaos of the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS).
The recent territorial defeat of IS means that for the first time in years, perhaps decades, Iraq has a chance to rebuild and achieve an enduring peace. The courage and determination of many Iraqis to make that happen has been evident in the last six months. But the challenges are huge and the government and civil society need comprehensive support from the international community.
There lies the potentially tragic irony of the situation. Whilst IS’ power wanes from the country, so does international attention, and with it much-needed aid, leaving the country at risk of falling back into crisis.
“We are expecting much less funding next year” revealed a UN agency source in Erbil. This fear is shared by dozens of humanitarian workers working on the ground in Iraq interviewed by iguacu.
The secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Jan Egeland recently captured this sentiment:
There’s one thing we should have learned in Iraq — it is that we cannot spend countless billions of dollars on military campaigns and then not spend the smaller sums needed to make it safe for people in the future.
No room for half-measures
The reason for high anxiety is a strong feeling in the humanitarian community that the window for positive action is narrowing by the day and that Iraq’s situation can’t afford to be met with half-measures. All aspects of Iraq’s recovery are interlinked, and failing to deal with those issues as one, would sow the seed of a new significant crisis. As it is, the current level of funding only allows partial, temporary, or as some have said, ‘cosmetic’ solutions.
More than 3 million internally displaced people need to return safely to a secure home. Communities, basic services and infrastructure need to be rebuilt, the economy reinvigorated. As the country is plagued with sectarianism, an enduring reconciliation process is critical. One dimension cannot be addressed without the others.
“Do you want to return to your home next to a family that belongs to the community that perpetrated atrocities against yours?” a humanitarian worker based in Baghdad said. Many families are staying in camps in fear of armed groups, in particular of shia militias. The lack of protection is a widespread issue. Militants are sometimes “forcibly stopping people from returning home”, especially in war-ravaged Mosul, a senior local aid worker on the ground confirmed.
Allowing people to return also means simultaneously restoring basic services and infrastructure. “Families can’t settle in destroyed neighborhoods without water, electricity, and health services” a specialist of displacements in Iraq told iguacu. If this is not done consistently, new displacements will inevitably occur, and the crisis goes on.
Enabling Iraqis to hope again
Crucially, most experts are issuing similar warnings about the longer term, with respect to both economic opportunities and the provision of education. As a relief health worker in a Baghdad NGO said, even if people can return, “the prolonged lack of livelihood opportunities will lead to violence, sectarianism and crime”.
Ambitious actions towards economic recovery must be launched concomitantly with rehabilitation. “Otherwise crime and fear will consume the efforts of the government. This further vulnerability can cause new crises” a civil society activist warns, from Erbil.
“The psychological situation is key. These are intangible things that range from neighbourhood relationships to a national football game — the climate we create has a massive impact”, he adds. And now the mood is delicate, with huge psychological trauma still unaddressed due to lack of funding. “With the current fragile psychological state of our society, the situation can lead to disaster”.
Yet, many aid workers remain hopeful. “It used to be a horrible situation some years ago” another medical relief expert told us. “Now people have a chance at gaining control over their own lives... but we have to create the conditions for hope”.
Despite armed groups hindering humanitarian access, bureaucratic constraints and ongoing tension between Baghdad and Erbil, local and international charities, Iraqi civil society and governmental organisations are working hard to create the foundations for a more secure, harmonious, prosperous and hopeful future. And they know that the interwovenness of issues can be turned into a virtuous circle of solutions.
They are however running against the clock, as the country’s old demons loom. This is not the moment to let them down.