Aid work in Iraq has always had a bumpy ride, from the restrictions imposed under former president Saddam Hussein to the corruption associated with the Oil-for-Food Programme. But it has arguably never been as challenging as in the last decade.
Aid work was tightly controlled under Hussein’s rule, according to Yaseen Ahmed Abbas, president of the Iraq Red Crescent Society. “The Society was managed by the government - completely,” he told IRIN. “We have much more freedom now. You can’t compare.”
But aid work in the post-2003 era takes place in a more “dangerous and volatile operating environment”, according to the UN. Just a few months after the US-led invasion in 2003, a truck bomb targeting UN headquarters in the capital, Baghdad, killed 22 UN staff, including the special representative of the UN Secretary-General in Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello.
Between 2003 and 2007, an estimated 94 aid workers in the country died and 248 were injured. In response, aid agencies largely managed their operations remotely from Jordan, at a cost to the quality of the services, aid workers say.
Aid throughout the past decade “was mainly limited to the provision of supplies and training from abroad, without direct population contact and the ability to provide prompt and targeted adjustment to the support,” Gustavo Fernandez, who headed Médecins sans Frontières’s mission in Iraq from 2008 to 2010, wrote in a recent article in the Lancet.
Since 2009, security has improved, but aid workers are still exposed to considerable risk, the UN says. In January 2010, for example, a bomb devastated a hotel in Baghdad containing the offices of the International Rescue Committee, injuring staff and destroying assets.
Local aid workers also face challenges operating in the high-security context of Iraq. For example, it can take an hour and a half every morning for Iraqis working with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Baghdad to get past all the checkpoints and into the fortified Green Zone, where the US embassy is located.
And many Iraqis continue to hide their employment with USAID or the UN from neighbours, friends and even family to protect themselves in case widespread violence resumes.
Mohamed, a UN driver, told IRIN he leaves his house before 6am so that no one sees where he is headed. He lies to friends about his employer and only his family knows the truth. “You never know how things will change here. It could go back to how it was before.
Working with the UN is perceived as working with the US.” While the dangers of association have diminished in recent years (USAID has doubled the number of local staff it employs), many local aid workers still refuse to travel to field sites in UN vehicles, preferring to arrive in their personal vehicles, and choose to wear UN-marked clothing only under specific circumstances.
“Humanitarian aid workers in Iraq live with the daily fear of being targeted by militias,” the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs wrote in a 2010 fact-sheet. “Lack of access to beneficiaries, corruption, underfunding and poor information on humanitarian needs are just some of the other problems faced by aid workers on a daily basis.”