International aid workers in Iraq are preparing for the worst

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Gregor Mayer
Baghdad (dpa) - One standard comment precedes all others when the representatives of the United Nations aid organizations in Baghdad are asked about their current situation: "We do not want to give the impression that we have given up hope that the war can be avoided.''

Nonetheless, the aid workers in Iraq are bracing themselves for the worst and preparations have long been under way.

"This is simply a matter of acting responsibly,'' says Carel de Rooy, who heads the U.N. children's fund UNICEF in Baghdad.

The organization's main concern in Iraq has been the fight to reduce the chronic malnutrition of young children and infants. They have also conducted vaccination campaigns against polio and measles.

The children's malnutrition is at least partly due to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations, UNICEF says. Other factors are the general poverty of Iraqis, the overpopulation in the country's slums and the fact that people follow an unbalanced diet, de Rooys says.

The lack of protein-rich food among the poor led to anaemia in women which again caused babies to be born underweight. The infants' chances of recovery were also slim as families could not afford the vital foodstuffs. As a result the children continue to suffer from chronic malnutrition.

In 1991, at the end of the last Gulf War, 18.7 per cent of all children under the age of five were suffering from malnutrition, de Rooy says. Only five years later, before the effects of sanctions were softened by the United Nations' oil-for-food programme, numbers rose to 32 per cent.

UNICEF initiated a scheme under which families in need were provided with specially-adapted milk and high-protein biscuits via a network of local childcare centres.

The extra income from the oil-for-food programme has also enabled the government to buy food and distribute it by means of ration cards. The number of chronically underfed children went down to 24 per cent as a result.

Carel de Rooy sketches out what war would mean for Iraq's humanitarian situation. The rate of malnutrition could quickly soar past 30 per cent again, he says.

One could also expect that all foreign aid workers would leave the country, he adds and explains that the organizations were already reducing the number of people working in the country.

Rather than returning to Iraq after their holidays some expatriate colleagues chose to stay in their home countries. Others, whose contracts were running out, would not be replaced, he says.

The Iraqi colleagues had to step in to prevent the aid efforts from collapsing, and "our Iraqi colleagues are well prepared for this situation,'' he says.

"They have been involved in all essential planning processes for months now and know what needs to be done,'' he adds.

However, what is needed is simply money to forward the aid materials into the right direction.

"We are working against the clock here'', he says. "If I had another five weeks I would feel a lot happier about it - that is, if you can describe it in those terms in the first place.''

The small charity organizations that work independently from government backing are also struggling for funds. "Our infrastructure is up and running,'' says Alexander Christof from Munich, who heads the operations of Architects for People in Need, and adds: "I can put about 80 per cent of what I have planned into practise.''

His organization repairs water treatment plants, looks after hospitals and carries out training programmes. In a case of emergency, they can distribute aid. Planning, however, is restricted to the area of Baghdad, where Christof is expecting "the biggest humanitarian need''.

"But the money is not coming in yet,'' says Christof, who only moved to Baghdad a year and a half ago.

"The international donors will only react when the first bombs are falling on Baghdad,'' he explains.

Nonetheless, the aid activities will have to be in place by then, he says. Experience with former wars and crises has shown that this will only be possible because of quick and spontaneous help from private donors.

dpa gm abc emc sc AP-NY-02-25-03 1036EST

Copyright (c) 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 02/25/2003 10:37:13

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