Iraq - High Frequency Phone Survey (IHFPS) to Monitor Socioeconomic Trends during COVID-19

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Executive summary

This report presents results from socioeconomic observational data collected by phone in four rounds from October 2020 through January 2021 focusing extensively on the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and returnees (here referring solely to returning IDPs). The first part of the paper presents trends on key socioeconomic indicators from the nationally representative sample of households that had been interviewed monthly since August 2020. The second part of the report concentrates on an expanded sample of forcibly displaced households from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and the North region and its comparison with non-displaced households from these regions that form part of the regular national sample. In total, this report conveys data from nearly 15,000 interviews.

Iraq is among the most pandemic-impacted countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. As an early response, both the Government of Iraq (GoI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took strict measures to limit the spread of the virus. The whole country was locked down and curfew hours were imposed in major cities at one point, including Baghdad and Erbil. The country instituted protracted measures that restricted movement outside the home, between cities or regions, and limiting schooling.

Since August 2020, the World Bank, in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP), has been collecting data through High Frequency Phone Surveys (HFPS) to monitor the socioeconomic fallout of COVID-19 on households in Iraq. The project utilizes WFP’s mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) system and collects data on household food consumption, employment, child education, and access to social safety nets, market, and healthcare access during the pandemic. The national sample covers all 18 governorates and interviews more than 1,600 individuals across Iraq in each round and, because it is representative of the entire population living in Iraq, naturally includes a small portion of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) - around 60 households per round from KRI and the North (Annex II). Following the August round, the sample was expanded and oversampled strata of IDPs in KRI and the North and returnees in the North, with more than 1,500 interviews conducted across those two groups in each round. The surveys provide insights on trends in the labor market, household food consumption, cash, and in-kind transfers, as well as access to markets, grocery stores and healthcare services.

Results from the national sample suggest that the socioeconomic fallout of the pandemic has been severe for Iraqi households and recovery, where seen, is incomplete. While estimated labor force participation for individuals between 18 and 64 years of age across Iraq remained above 61 percent throughout these last four rounds, the estimated unemployment rate increased significantly during the pandemic. Compared to 12.7 percent prior to the pandemic, the figure climbed to 22 percent in October 2020 which slightly increased to 23.5 percent in January 2021. Food security concerns have materialized to a lesser degree. The share of Iraqi households consuming inadequate diets decreased between August and November 2020 (i.e., from 6.0 to 4.1 percent), but returned to 6.1 percent in January 2021. The share of Iraqis that benefitted from a food ration from the Public Distribution System (PDS) declined sharply between February (pre-pandemic) and July 2020; although it has since trended upward, it is yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. A significant share of Iraqis faced challenges accessing markets, but overall access to markets and grocery stores improved after August 2020. While 23.9 percent of the respondents indicated that they faced challenges accessing markets and grocery stores in August 2020, only 14.2 percent reported facing challenges in January 2021. In contrast, Iraqis continue to struggle with access to healthcare services. COVID-19 testing in Iraq remains relatively low, but a significant share of Iraqis is likely to accept safe and effective vaccines if endorsed by an employer and the government, although vaccine receptivity varies across regions from 55.7 percent in KRI to 71.2 percent in the North.

IDPs and returnees in Kurdistan and the North regions generally fare worse than non-displaced households from those regions, but not always. Despite high overall labor force participation, not all working-age adults seeking jobs are able to find employment, and the unemployment rates among IDPs, returnees and non-displaced remained high between October 2020 and January 2021. IDPs and returnees reported participating in the labor force at a steady rate (about 78 percent for IDPs and 83 percent for returnees). This is much higher than both the national average (see above) and the non-displaced population in KRI and the North, whose labor force participation dropped from 68 to 59 percent between October 2020 and January 2021. However, despite lower labor force participation, unemployment rates for the non-displaced were both more volatile and ended slightly higher (26.2 percent) than for IDPs or returnees (24.5 and 21.8 percent). While labor force participation among female respondents for IDPs, returnees and non-displaced households have been approximately half that of males (roughly 43.5 versus 87.5 percent), female respondents who do participate are three times as likely to be unemployed as males (roughly 54 versus 16 percent). IDPs living in camps are less likely to look for work than those living out of camps, and among those who are looking, camped IDPs are less likely to find employment. While a further investigation is required, camped-IDPs may find assimilation into the local labor market more difficult than the IDPs already living in the communities.

Food insecurity is a persistent concern among the displaced, but IDPs and returnees follow divergent paths. The share of IDP and returnee households in Iraq with an inadequate diet remained high between October 2020 and January 2021. Following the initial dip from 14.7 percent in October to 12.6 percent in November, the figure doubled between November 2020 and January 2021 to the point where more than a quarter of IDP households had an inadequate diet. This appears to be largely driven by out of camp IDPs, rather than those living in camps. In contrast, although still at an elevated level, the share of returnees who consumed inadequate diets followed a decreasing trend between October 2020 and January 2021 from 14.6 percent to 8.3 percent. A worryingly high share of the IDPs, returnees, and non-displaced populations employed consumption-based coping strategies when households were faced with a lack of food or money to buy food; however, the displaced engaged in these far more frequently. The most frequently adopted strategies include switching to less expensive foods (approximately 63 versus 32 percent for displaced and non-displaced) or borrowing food (58 versus 37 percent), but also include more drastic measures such as limiting adult consumption to allow children to eat (30 versus 11.5 percent). Similar to trends observed in the national sample, the share of returnees and the non-displaced population receiving food rations from the PDS trended upward after the dip in November but have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. However, despite their greater need, participation of IDPs in the PDS has been volatile and decreased slightly from October to January.

Assistance programming helped stabilize welfare, but the ability to benefit from that help varied starkly between displaced groups. Returnees tended to be most able to benefit from this help; indeed, returnees were more likely to receive PDS transfers than non-displaced households in every month observed (October 2020-January 2021). Camped IDPs were also able to avail themselves of cash and in-kind assistance. However, there is real cause for concern for IDP households who are not part of a camp. Only 38.2 percent of these households received PDS transfers (compared to two thirds of non-displaced and camped IDP households). Even lower trends are seen for out of camp IDPs receipt of non-PDS in-kind transfers and cash transfers from any source. In combination with high shares of non-camped IDPs consuming inadequate diets, this group warrants further initiatives to monitor and improve welfare.

Few children were engaged in learning during the pandemic lockdown. Among households with children attending school prior to lockdown, only 10.3, 11.1 and 21.3 percent of IDP, returnees, and non-displaced households from KRI and the North indicated that their children were engaged in either catchup or learning activities during the month of October 2020 when schools were closed due to the pandemic—and most of those who did were attending private schools. IDPs were much less likely to send children to school in January 2021. Even among those who were enrolled, children from both displaced and non-displaced households were only attending school about one day per week. These short-term impacts on human capital accumulation, especially faced during early childhood, could be persistent and need to be remedied.

COVID-19 testing is low and vaccine receptivity is moderately high for all groups, but the displaced samples outpace the non-displaced and general population of Iraq. As of January, less than 25 percent of Iraqis overall had a COVID test at any time and the rate is similar for the non-displaced, IDP and returnee samples in KRI and the North. IDPs are far more likely than other groups to report inability to access healthcare. While a significant share of Iraqis are likely to accept safe and effective vaccines (approximately 67.8 percent of the general population), vaccine acceptance is even higher among returnees (82.6 percent) relative to IDPs (70.9 percent) and non-displaced households (61.6 percent). Results indicate that government or employer endorsement as well as price are key factors for encouraging vaccine take-up.