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Hearts and Minds: Aid and reconstruction in Iraq

A CASI briefing, issued on 16 April 2003.


This briefing examines some of the political, financial and operational problems surrounding the provision of aid, and the project of reconstruction in Iraq. In particular, it focuses upon the difficulty in striking a balance between the US and the UK fulfilling their responsibilities to provide aid and assist in rebuilding, and their control of the process to the detriment of its effectiveness.

The politicisation of relief complicates the provision of aid, and may yet scupper the effective reconstruction of Iraq. At its worst, using humanitarian aid as a political or military tool to woo the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqi population risks prolonging suffering, entrenching unilateralism, and reducing the willingness of states to contribute towards the rebuilding of Iraq.

Pre-conflict preparation

The political manoeuvrings surrounding the start of the conflict have already damaged humanitarian preparation. The United Nations launched emergency preparedness appeals in December and January for $123.5 million. In the absence of a Security Council resolution authorising war, and with peace still a possibility, less than half of this sum was pledged,[1] and still less actually disbursed. On the eve of the conflict on 19 March, the UN had received only $34 million.[2]

Funding delays were matched by planning delays. NGOs and governments were hampered by insufficient funds, diplomatic secrecy and political sensitivities making organisations unwilling to portray the conflict as inevitable. In some cases, there appears to have been a deliberate decision to withhold information about the humanitarian dimensions of war plans: the American refusal to take part in the Swiss government’s humanitarian planning meeting in Geneva in February 2003 cannot have helped, while the US’s own Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) appeared “unfocused and disorganised” in late February, weeks after its establishment.[3] And as one EU official insisted, until war starts “we are willing to talk and exchange information, but coordination on contingency planning is presently not on the cards.”[4]

Immediate needs

This combination of an abrogation of responsibility by the warring parties, and the political sensitivities of those opposed to military action, has diminished somewhat with the onset of war. Beyond the US pledge of $543.6 million, as of 8 April at least $724.5 million has been pledged for aid and reconstruction by other countries.[5] Yet major shortfalls remain for precisely those organisations with most experience in Iraq, and which are capable of delivering aid impartially. As of April 15, only $387 million has been pledged in response to the UN’s Flash Appeal for over $2.2 billion to cover food and non-food aid for Iraq over the next six months. While we cannot judge the accuracy of this assessment of needs, it is worth noting that $2.2 billion, at $11.9 million per day, this is close to the level of funding provided by Oil for Food since 1996 (approx. $11.7 million per day), a sum which barely provided a starvation ration for Iraq prior to the additional infrastructural damage caused by war.[6]

Impressive initial sums came from the UK’s Department for International Development ($100 million/£65 million), and $260 million to the World Food Programme (WFP) from the United States.[7] But over $1.8 billion is still required, including a little over a billion dollars for the WFP.[8] Governments will thus need to be monitored to ensure they fulfil their promises.

Funding will also need to be flexible, directed towards needs whose scale and nature changes daily. At present, food supplies, at least in Southern Iraq, will probably last until the end of April. Food security has been helped by much lower refugee numbers than anticipated. Water remains by far the most urgent need, exacerbated by electricity disruption across Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra and southern towns.[9] Even in the relatively secure Erbil governorate, contaminated water has increased from 11.8% to 15.2% between February and March.[10] Baghdad hospitals continue to rely upon water and medical deliveries made uncertain by “volatile” security conditions, and looting of key infrastructure will slow repair efforts: for instance, hardly any tools or machines are left in the warehouses of the Baghdad Water Authorities, and local operating staff refuse to work due to insecurity.[11] Funding needs to remain flexible, therefore: possibly diverted from refugee assistance to water, sanitation and medical supplies for static populations.

The political association of some governmental funding complicates the situation. A few NGOs, including Oxfam, have declined to accept money directly from “belligerents” to preserve their impartiality, while the Iraqi Red Crescent Society has turned back medical supplies from Jordan.[12] Funds for reconstruction may also suffer from US control over the process: Chris Patten said as much about the willingness of the European Parliament and Council, still to approve €79 million for reconstruction.[13]

Providing aid

The immediate aid problem, however, lies as much in execution as in funding. The 4th Geneva Convention places primary responsibility for the welfare of the civilian population with the occupying power, for which HM Treasury has allocated £30 million to the Ministry of Defence.[14] But military control over aid presents practical difficulties. In places the military has monopolised aid provision itself. At its worst, lacking the local knowledge and professional skills to assess local needs effectively, food is shifted off the back of lorries to an uncontrolled crowd: the strongest and fittest receive aid that may subsequently be sold, beyond the physical and financial means of the poorest and weakest.[15] Inexperience is exacerbated by the US impeding access and funding to precisely those non-American NGOs without “security clearance”, but with extensive experience in Iraq.[16]

Along with experience, impartiality is also important, impossible if aid is dominated by the military. NGOs do not simply demand control of aid provision from the military or belligerent governments out of high moral principles. The safety and effectiveness of their personnel relies upon their visible neutrality, threatened, for instance, by the insistence that they wear US military identification badges, losing the neutrality which would be available were the aid effort coordinated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), rather than the US Humanitarian Operations Centre. With disorder continuing in areas where large-scale fighting has ceased, this impartiality will remain a critical issue. While troops need to provide a secure environment for aid provision, effective distribution requires experience and neutrality.

Perhaps most importantly, what is required is military support for aid provided not only by international organisations, but also by Iraq itself. the most effective provision of food beyond April, for example, lies in reviving the local network of Food Distribution Agents which has provided 60% of the population with rations under the ‘oil for food’ (OFF) programme. An initial UN assessment in Basra found all of these agents remaining and willing to work.[17] Where possible, aid should support reconstruction in this way: using local expertise, and buying local goods. Encouraging US and UK forces to trust these Iraqi institutions, and others like them, will be both difficult and vital.

Longer-term issues

The temporary reinstatement of the ‘oil for food’ programme holds out hopes that political sensitivities on all sides might be overcome. The programme permits Iraq to sell oil for food and other humanitarian goods, funds passing through a United Nations escrow account. While Iraqi oil sales have been virtually halted, delays in the processing of Programme contracts mean that around $10 billion of supplies have been approved but not delivered. On 28 March, Security Council Resolution 1472 was unanimously adopted, empowering the Secretary-General to review approved contracts remaining undelivered, and to negotiate their delivery, for 45 days.[18]

But the ‘oil for food’ programme is no panacea. While $2.4 billion in food, agriculture and health supplies remains in the OFF pipeline, only $395 million are available for shipping within the 45-day timeframe.[19] Nor does Resolution 1472 allow for new contracts to be negotiated beyond essential medical items. Country responses to the UN’s Flash Appeal remains vital, and actual disbursement needs to be monitored after pledges of funding.

Conversely, the ‘oil for food’ programme has been hailed as a potential solution to the dilemma of the UK/US responsibility for reconstruction, and the ‘ownership’ of the reconstruction effort by Iraq itself. Tony Blair has recommended that Iraqi oil revenues continue to be placed in a UN escrow account: effectively continuing the Programme after the lifting of UN sanctions.[20] While the US has called for the sanctions regime to be lifted even before the verification of disarmament, it remains unclear how funds for reconstruction will be structured and administered. UN paternalism may perhaps be the lesser evil to US control of oil revenues for reconstruction by US firms. Significant issues remain unresolved, however. These include:

- repayments to the Compensation Fund set up after the 1991 Gulf War, which are still continuing. On 8 April, a further $830 million was taken from the Fund to pay reparations [21]

- The status of Iraq’s frozen assets, currently being gathered into a US Federal Reserve account whose legality remains unclear

- Iraq’s national debt, which at perhaps $383 billion would consume a generation of oil sales.[22] Russia, France and Germany remain uncertain about unilateral debt relief, requiring UN involvement in Iraq’s post-war administration to enter into multilateral debt negotiations.[23]

Perhaps most importantly, any reconstruction programme should use Iraqi expertise and Iraqi goods as far as possible. Building human capital in this way requires the abrogation of political control while retaining responsibility for funding and assisting reconstruction.[24] Bush himself has called for the restarted OFF programme not to “be politicised”, a welcome attitude after seven years of political manipulation of the programme by the UK and US in the Security Council.[25] This de-politicisation could go further: separating genuine humanitarian responsibilities from “hearts and minds” operations; and reconstruction from the economic interests and political visions of the US and the UK. Insisting on these responsibilities without allowing foreign political control will be key to the future of Iraq

Author: Mike Lewis
16 April 2003


[1] $58.6 million according to the UNOCHA Flash Appeal for the humanitarian requirements of the Iraq crisis – six-month response (28 March 2003).
[2] The Secretary-General, Statement to the Security Council (19 March 2003).
[3] International Crisis Group (ICG) report No. 12, War in Iraq: Managing Humanitarian Relief (27 March 2003) p. 12. ORHA was established on 20 January 2003.
[4] ICG report No. 12, p. 10.
[5] USAID/State Department Funding Summary #11 (14 April 2003); compilation of aid pledges posted on Relief Web, which may not be comprehensive.
[6] Figures from the UN Office of the Iraq Programme. $26.8 bn of supplies has been delivered since 1996: 26.8bn / 6.25 / 365 = $11.7mn/day.
[7] DfID Press Release: UK Contribution to United Nations Iraq Appeal (28 March 2003); WFP Press Release: WFP welcomes international response to Iraq appeal (4 April 2003).
[8] UNOCHA Summary of Requirements and Contributions by Appealing Organisation (15 April 2003); WFP Press Release: Funds Urgently Needed for Iraq Appeal (7 April 2003).
[9] UNOHCI Humanitarian Situation Report #23 (15 April 2003); ICRC Iraq Bulletin (15 April 2003).
[10] WHO water quality control tests, reported in UNOHCI Humanitarian Situation Report #23.
[11] ICRC Iraq: Daily Bulletin (13 April 2003); UNOHCI Humanitarian Situation Report #23.
[12] Oxfam Press Release: Oxfam to Refuse Money From Belligerents During Any War (7 March 2003).
[13] Quoted in Ian Black, ‘Patten warns US over aid for Iraq’, The Guardian (14 January 2003).
[14] DFID Iraq Update #18 (16 April 2003).
[15] Christian Aid statement: Why Soldiers shouldn’t hand out aid (28 March 2003).
[16] ICG report No. 12, pp. 14-15.
[17] UNOHCI Humanitarian Situation Report #23.
[18] UNSCR 1472 (28 March 2003).
[19] UN Press Release: ‘UN aid programme identifies $395 million in priority deliveries for Iraq’ (15 April 2003).
[20] Article in Al-Ahram newspaper, Egypt (30 March 2003).
[21] ‘UN panel awards $860 million in compensation for Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait’, UN News Service (8 April 2003).
[22] Figure estimated by Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), compiled by Jubilee Iraq.
[23] For a useful summary, see ‘Debate Rages on Reconstructing Iraq’, Moscow Times (14 April 2003).
[24] Oxfam policy paper: Iraq’s Reconstruction and the role of the United Nations (4 April 2003) p. 1.
[25] Camp David Press Conference (27 March 2003).


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