Poverty in Iraq dramatically rises
Baghdad - Twelve-year-old Dunia hurries towards the cars when the traffic light turns red at an intersection in Baghdad’s Al- Wathek neighbourhood. She carries several packs of tissue paper that she hopes to sell.
She refuses to say she is begging for money. “I am selling napkins to help my family’s livelihood. My father’s salary as a guard is hardly enough to feed us,” Dunia insists.
Not far away, Haidar, 9, whose face and arms show bruises caused by beatings, says he has developed techniques to evade police chasing street children and to draw the compassion of passersby. “Sometimes, I pretend to be ill or to have a handicap and it works,” he said. “People have empathy for children. Lots of beggars make acceptable money.”
Begging has become common on the streets of Baghdad, an indicator of widespread poverty in Iraq, which sits on the world’s fifth largest oil reserves.
Decades of conflicts and economic sanctions, paralysis of the Iraqi economy, the sharp decline in oil prices, runaway spending on the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), in addition to the absence of strategic planning and rampant financial and administrative corruption, have left the Iraqi treasury nearly empty.
Officials say poverty levels reached unprecedented levels in the past few years.
“The poverty rate hit an unseen high of up to 22.5%, according to the ministry’s statistics for 2016,” said Abdul Zahra al-Hindawi, the spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Planning.
“The rate has shot up significantly after ISIS took control of the provinces in the north, raising the numbers of displaced people, and the fall in oil prices, which stressed the economy and the state budget that relies on oil as a main source of income. Within a span of two years, the poverty rate increased dramatically from 16% in 2014 to the current 22.5%.”
The percentage is even higher in governorates under ISIS control where the poverty rate was 41%. In Kirkuk and Diyala, it is estimated that 31% of people live in poverty; Baghdad has the lowest rate with 12%; the oil-rich southern provinces stand at 31% while the rate is 17% in the central governorates and 13% in Kurdistan.
In addition to large numbers of beggars, shantytowns and complexes taken over by squatters are visible across Baghdad. According to Baghdad’s provincial council, there are more than 249 complexes, each with 17,500-20,000 squatters living in poverty.
The prevalence of squatters’ compounds significantly increased in 2006-07 when sectarian violence broke out. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed and millions of others moved to other areas to escape death.
There has been a spike in shanty neighbourhoods since June 2014 when the war against ISIS began. ISIS, which controls vast areas in the northern and western parts of Iraq, has deepened Iraq’s poverty crisis, creating another wave of Iraqis homeless fleeing to safety.
“The phenomena of begging and squatters are the main indicators of widespread poverty which the government is striving to reduce with the help of UN-Habitat to find suitable housing for some 2.5 million (squatters) in Baghdad,” Hindawi said.
The terrorism crisis that gripped Iraq since the US invasion in 2003 compounded with political friction and economic slump is largely blamed for the poverty of Iraqis.
“Terrorism has caused thousands of victims, including orphans, widows, impaired people and mass displacement that left scores in deep poverty, forcing many to resort to begging to make a living,” argued social researcher Wathek Sadek.
“Poverty is a main handicap for social development in the absence of solutions,” Sadek said, noting that in addition to income, poverty indicators include quality of life, public services, education, health, job opportunities and employment.
Based on those indicators, Iraq is considered a poor country.
Deputy Director of Baghdad provincial council Atwan al-Atwani admits the government failed to devise a clear policy to fight poverty after 2003. “The local government has no data on the numbers of beggars and street children although this phenomenon has increased in an unusual and alarming way lately,” he said, warning that rampant poverty increased the numbers of those dropping out of school, delinquency rates and prostitution among young girls.
Baghdad and several cities in the south were sites of massive demonstrations in the summer of 2015. Protesters denounced corruption and the political bankruptcy of the ruling sectarian political parties, deteriorating public services and increasing social inequalities.
In the meantime, beggars roam the streets to make a living.
“Compelling circumstances pushed me into the street,” says the middle-aged woman beggar who asked to be identified as Leila. “It was a difficult decision for me but it was the only option left when my husband lost his job after a car accident.
“The Ministry of Social Affairs rejected my application for assistance on the grounds that my husband has a retirement income, which is hardly sufficient to pay the rent. The government does not care about the poor. Officials are only concerned to remain in their posts and steal the country’s wealth.”