First Published: 2012-11-12

 

Iraq ration card programme: Efforts to reform end in controversy

 

Government backs down, says it will now allow Iraqis to choose between monthly cash payment, regular allocation of food items.

 

Middle East Online

By Guillaume Decamme BAGHDAD

Economic reform should take place

Armed with a key reform touted by economists but angrily opposed by many voters, Iraq's government is mired in controversy over its now-withdrawn plans to cancel the country's biggest social programme.

Ministers had decided last week to scrap the ration card programme, a food distribution system inaugurated by Saddam Hussein after Iraq was slapped with an embargo, a decision lauded by analysts who have long described it as inefficient and riven with corruption.

Faced with vociferous opposition from clerics, MPs and many of the country's citizens, however, the government backed down and now says it will now allow Iraqis to choose -- they can opt either for a monthly cash payment of 25,000 dinars, about $20, or the regular allocation of a handful of food items.

"This is ridiculous," said Kamal al-Basri, an economist with the Baghdad-based Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform (IIER). "This is a measure we have been waiting for since 2004."

"This is a very important economic reform and it should take place."

Basri complained of corruption and leakages in the ration card programme noting that the long process of getting food from government warehouses into the hands of citizens was "not straightforward."

"At every step, there are some leaks."

He added that it also "prevents the development of a private sector."

The programme was first implemented in 1991 with dozens of critical food items, serving as a way for Iraqis to survive as the country dealt with the international embargo.

It has since been scaled back, but Iraqis still receive flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil and baby milk at government-appointed shops.

Despite the reduction in the number of items, the programme still accounts for seven percent of the country's budget according to the United Nations, greater than both the health and education budgets.

It is this financial burden that troubles many who have advocated its reform.

A report by the International Monetary Fund in February 2010 described the system as "an inefficient generalised benefit that distorts private sector activity."

It called for high-earners to be barred from being able to claim the food, and said the number and the volume of goods should be reduced.

By comparison, a direct cash transfer into the hands of Iraqis would serve as "a way to empower people," according to one Western diplomat posted in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But pointing to provincial elections next year and parliamentary polls due in 2014, the diplomat said it would be any major reform of Iraq's food distribution programme was unlikely in the coming years.

"No one will have the stomach to tackle this now, unless they want to make a big political issue out of it."

"It is toxic," the diplomat noted.

This despite some early evidence that indicates poor Iraqis would prefer a cash handout to an allocation of food that is often of low quality.

According to an IIER survey of 400 families in the poor Baghdad neighbourhoods of Sadr City and Hai al-Tareq, two-thirds of respondents said they would prefer to receive money rather than food.

Regardless, the diplomat noted, in a country where an estimated 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to figures compiled by the Planning Ministry, cancelling or even transforming a two-decade-old programme on which many voters depend has a "political cost".

For proof, one only needs to visit neighbourhoods like Camp Sara, a largely Christian area of east Baghdad, where many residents barely survive -- sidewalks are in disrepair, visitors can see young girls digging through garbage, and electrical wires dangle within arm's reach.

Since 1991, residents of Camp Sara have depended on the monthly allocation to at least provide them with the bare essentials, a list that though much less generous than in years past, still helps the poor eke out an existence.

So, if given a choice, Amira Ismail said she would cling to the ration card programme at all costs.

"My husband is a taxi driver," she said. "How will we make ends meet if the ration card is taken away? This would be a disaster."

"What will he do? Will he become a terrorist to make a living?"

 

Russia mulls supplying S-300 missile systems to Syria

Bashir fires Sudan foreign minister

Washington: Assad still has 'limited' chemical capability

US has 'concerns' about Turkey holding fair vote under state of emergency

Saudi women embrace sports headscarves

Turkey in shock after violent Istanbul derby

Iraq pays first war reparations to Kuwait since 2014

Fiery kites adopted as new tactic by Gaza protesters

Romanian president slams plan to move Israel embassy

Western strikes on Syria bring no change whatsoever

Trump criticises OPEC for high oil prices

Syria says rebels south of capital surrender

Market has capacity to absorb higher oil prices: Saudi minister

Putin 'ready' for Trump summit

Saudi Arabia to host first public film screening

HRW criticises Lebanon for evicting Syria refugees

Saudi says intercepted ballistic missile from Yemen

European MPs urge US not to scrap Iran deal

Oil price soars to highest level in years

Two more pro-Kurdish MPs stripped of Turkey seats

Oil theft 'costing Libya over $750 million annually'

Turkey's snap polls: bold gambit or checkmate for Erdogan?

Iran arrests senior official over public concert

Bahrain sentences 24 to jail, strips citizenship

UN experts urge Iran to cancel Kurd's death sentence

Moderate quake strikes near Iran nuclear power plant

Syria regime forces caught in surprise IS attack

Turkey sentences 18 to life for killing ‘hero’ coup soldier

Exxon faces setback in Iraq as oil and water mix

Libya to clamp down on fuel smuggling

Yemen to arrest colonel for overlooking African migrant rape

Erdogan sends Turkey to snap polls on June 24

Qatar joins Gulf military exercise in apparent compromise

Saudi-Russia oil alliance likely to undercut OPEC

UN in security talks with Syria on chemical probe

Riyadh says two al Qaeda militants killed in Yemen

Record of women candidates in Lebanon, but you can't tell from TV

Sudan protests to UN over Egypt voting in disputed area

Erdogan calls Turkey snap polls for June 24

Rights watchdog say African migrants face rape, torture in Yemen

Nine years since last vote, Lebanon in election fever

Israeli fire neat Gaza border injures five Palestinian

Egypt army says killed jihadist leader in Sinai

Iraq sentences over 300 people to death for IS links

Syria chemical weapons visit delayed after gunfire