Trump administration's Iraq aid plan risks doing harm

Trump administration's Iraq aid plan risks doing harm

This month United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Mark Green co-led a delegation to Iraq to assess how to streamline aid to persecuted ethnic and religious communities - namely Christians and Yezidis. While perhaps well intentioned, the Trump Administration’s plan to target assistance toward specific religious or ethnic groups in Iraq risks doing more harm than good.

While the Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq have indeed suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS, the impact of the conflict crosses ethnic and religious lines. ISIS inflicted terrible abuses on any who opposed their rule and the military operation to retake territory from the group devastated civilian lives and infrastructure without discrimination. The scale of ongoing humanitarian need is massive in Iraq, where 8.7 million people continue to require aid.

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Deciding in advance who deserves aid and who doesn’t undermines the very principles of humanitarian action, including the basic tenet that assistance is provided solely on need and is not used as a tool to advance political, military, or security objectives. For aid organizations working in conflict settings around the world, our ability to effectively demonstrate that our limited resources are allocated based on prioritized needs, free from external influence, is vital to building trust with communities and cultivating a reputation for independence and impartiality with authorities that allows us to safely and effectively reach the people most in need.

 

Pre-determining aid recipients in Iraq would also make aid less effective and efficient by constraining our ability to adapt programming to evolving conflict dynamics and thus maintain optimal responsiveness. It could also do unintended harm by exacerbating social tensions and putting minority groups at risk of targeted violence within their communities for their preferential treatment.

Focusing on specific religious or ethnic groups from the outset fails to acknowledge that the humanitarian, political, and security context in Iraq is constantly shifting.  One group may be the most vulnerable today, but another may be in dire conditions tomorrow. Aid must be flexible to allow humanitarian organizations to adapt to changing circumstances by responding quickly.

International Rescue Committee has worked in Iraq since 2003 and we have witnessed these dynamics firsthand.  Just last year in Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk, Sunni Arab residents in pockets of the city endured violence, property destruction, and forced displacement from their homes.  However after the Kurdish independence referendum in the fall of 2017, Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias re-took control of disputed territories and 183,000 Kurds living in Kirkuk and other nearby disputed areas fled their homes. Those people most in need of humanitarian aid had shifted almost overnight, and access to donor resources that prioritized consideration of humanitarian need allowed International Rescue Committee to respond appropriately.

Humanitarian aid earmarked by religion or ethnicity can also have negative consequences for the very people it intends to help. Iraq’s persistent conflict is rooted in part in the unequal distribution of power and resources along religious and sectarian lines, and privileging certain groups with aid can reinforce and exacerbate social tensions. Particularly when the selected group is easily identifiable and marginalized because of their religion, ethnicity, or other status-based characteristics, special treatment can put them at increased risk of violence and harm from other groups resentful of their ‘advantage’.

USAID’s Administrator, Mark Green has called on Congress for more flexible budgets and easing of regulations to make U.S. funding more effective in fulfilling its mission. International Rescue Committee in turn asks for USAID’s partners in Iraq to be allowed the same flexibility to respond in real-time to evolving needs on the ground. Taking an evidence-based approach to resource allocation would go a long way to realizing the commitments the U.S. made alongside dozens of donors at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian aid by reducing funding earmarks.

As Iraq continues to face an uncertain political future following the parliamentary elections and subsequent ballot recount, equitable access to assistance and services is as necessary as equal representation in the political system. The U.S. can best support vulnerable Iraqis by sustaining humanitarian assistance allocated solely on need and increasing funding for the development and peacebuilding programs that help to prevent recurrent crises and promote conflict-sensitive recovery and reconciliation.

Finally, the U.S. can also follow-through on their commitment to help the most vulnerable Iraqis by reinstating a robust refugee admissions program that offers a path to safety for Iraqis whose only option is resettlement. Unfortunately, so far this fiscal year only 122 Iraqi refugees have arrived to the United States, compared to over 6,800 who arrived last year. Globally, at a time when millions of individuals have been forced from their homes, including religious minorities, refugee admissions have plummeted to the lowest in U.S. history. Overall, U.S. admissions of Christians have dropped over 60% - with only 5 Iraqi Yezidis admitted into the country, and Muslim admissions are down 80% compared to the same period last year. As the United States prepares to host the first ever ministerial-level conference to advance religious freedom at the end of July, preserving this historic and vital lifeline the U.S. has offered to refugees is a crucial action the Trump Administration can take to deliver on its commitments to Iraq’s ancient faith communities and all those fleeing violence and persecution.

Wendy Taeuber is the Iraq Country Director for the International Rescue Committee, an international aid organization that responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises. It is led by former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom David Miliband. It has been assisting the people of Iraq with humanitarian aid since 2003.