Food Security in Iraq: Politics Matter

It’s politics, stupid! In few countries of the world food security has been so much affected by political developments as in Iraq. The rise (and fall) of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is only the latest event in a string of political impacts on food security. Iraq is not alone: Large n-studies reveal that agriculture and food security are not only affected by conflict globally; their deterioration also has a contributing effect on conflict itself. This relationship is particularly pronounced in the Middle East.

The multilateral UN embargo on Iraq caused great harm between 1990 and 2003. Food security deteriorated. After 1996 the Oil for Food Programme granted some embargo relief by allowing monitored oil exports to import food, but the food security situation was still worse than before 1990. After the fall of the Saddam regime some improvement set in over the 2000s. In a socio-economic survey at the end of 2007, the World Food Programme (WFP) attributed an improvement of food security to a reduction of conflict and violent civilian deaths, improved macroeconomic indicators and humanitarian aid. The survey of the Iraq Knowledge Network (IKN) and World Bank studies then saw further improvement until 2011/12.

In contrast to theses socio-economic surveys, Iraqis have reported mostly deteriorating living conditions in the representative Gallup World Poll surveys from 2008-2015, especially after 2012 (see Table). After a brief improvement from 2008 to 2009 people who reported that they had not been able to buy enough food over the past year increased from 12 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2015. Negative perceptions of adequate shelter, household income and general economic conditions also rose steeply between 2008 and 2015. Dissatisfaction with water quality remained on constantly high levels of 50 to 71 percent and the share of respondents who contemplated to immigrate permanently to another country spiked at 28 percent in 2015.

Over the same period when Iraqis reported deteriorating living conditions, Iraq increased its oil production by over 50 percent and oil prices remained high most of the time (see Figure). After a short lived correction in 2008/09 they only fell below $100 per barrel in the second half of 2014. Hence the revenue situation of the heavily oil dependent Iraqi economy was relatively comfortable over the period. GDP per capita showed considerable growth, only declining slightly in 2014/15 and production of wheat, the country’s most important staple crop, rose steeply after the drought in 2009 and production incentives of the Iraqi government.

Thus perceived food security in Iraq decreased since 2009, despite improved economic macro indicators, most likely because of the deteriorating security situation and related political factors. This is also borne out by a qualitative online survey that we conducted among 152 Iraqi experts from academia, ministries and NGOs. Iraqis overwhelmingly identify political instability and bad governance as major challenges to food security. Strategies to enhance food security, such as safety nets, family planning, education, agricultural production and rural livelihoods and reduced exposure to market volatility via storage and hedging policies are crucial in Iraq as they are in the Middle East at large. Yet political factors play an overwhelming role in Iraqi food security, its past challenges and its current deterioration. It is unlikely that mere technocratic policy prescriptions can improve food security in the absence of political stability and improved governance.

Eckart Woertz, Senior Research Fellow and Research Coordinator, CIDOB.

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