"We're not prepared"

International aid workers fear a humanitarian crisis as the bombs start falling on Iraqi cities.

Published March 20, 2003 8:11PM (EST)

At a dramatic moment during his State of the Union address, President Bush assured the world that when the United States crushes Saddam Hussein's government, "we will bring to the Iraqi people food and medicines and supplies -- and freedom." The promise, which Bush repeated on Monday in his speech warning of imminent attack, is seen as crucial to his administration's plans in Iraq. In a war to be fought without international sanction, the plight of Iraqi civilians during and after an American invasion will most likely become, in this media age, a key measure by which the world judges the United States' military effort. If thousands of Iraqis are seen to suffer the horrors of war, the attack might be deemed a failure even if Hussein's regime is quickly toppled.

But on the eve of battle, the food and medicine Bush has pledged seem to exist only as a rhetorical flourish. The administration says that it expects much of the relief to be provided by international aid agencies, but many of these groups complain that they're starved of money, and they fear a "crisis" -- representatives of several organizations used that word -- once the invasion begins. Iraqis, many of whom get all of their provisions from their government, could face shortages of food and clean water in the event of a conflict that lasts more than a few weeks. As many as 600,000 refugees may stream out of the country, and aid groups worry that the flow could quickly overwhelm the infrastructure built up to house and feed such people.

"I think we're not prepared," says Steve Claborne, the director of program operations for Mercy Corps, an aid agency based in Portland, Ore. "We don't have the resources -- the pre-positioned stocks, tents, blankets, water, sanitation equipment. We feel hamstrung."

Aid groups say that the worldwide opposition to an attack on Iraq has hampered fundraising efforts for humanitarian aid. In the months before Bush shut the "window" on diplomacy, private foundations feared that if they donated large sums of aid money they would be seen as supporting the war. Perhaps for similar reasons, many governments around the world have also been slow to fund United Nations agencies like the World Food Program and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which recently reported that it has only about a third of the $60 million it needs to carry out its efforts in Iraq.

The greatest infusion of aid money from the U.S. is expected to come after the invasion begins, when the administration submits a funding request to Congress. According to Refugees International, the United States has provided about $24 million to U.N. aid agencies, money which the group says was "unnecessarily delayed." They add that the amount is woefully inadequate, noting that the U.S. already has spent more than $2 billion on the military preparation for the war. (The United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, the agency coordinating aid efforts in Iraq, did not return calls for comment.)

The Bush administration has announced several steps it plans to take to minimize Iraqi suffering. In February, the White House's Office of Global Communications said that military plans in Iraq would be "carefully tailored" to reduce the "impact on civilian populations." The U.S. reportedly plans, for example, to avoid bringing down Baghdad's electricity grid during a war. The White House also hopes to discourage refugee flows by mounting an "information campaign" to "reassure populations not at risk that they are safe in their homes." And USAID has set up a 60-person Disaster Assistance Response Team charged with entering "liberated" areas of Iraq in order to determine humanitarian needs and make "in-the-field" grants to aid agencies.

It's worth noting, too, that aid groups made similar dire predictions of humanitarian catastrophe in the run-up to a U.S. attack on Afghanistan. Oxfam, a British aid agency, said that a war would force more than 2 million people from their homes, and the World Food Program feared that millions could face starvation. In the event, however, the predictions seemed exaggerated -- after the U.S. rout of the Taliban, thousands of tons of food aid were quickly brought in. And instead of millions of people pouring out of the country, hundreds of thousands who'd left during the previous two decades of war returned to Afghanistan after the war. In 2002, the U.S. gave more than $500 million in aid to the country.

Still, for a war the administration knew it was going to have -- a war that White House chief of staff Andrew Card famously suggested was rolled out with the deliberateness of a marketing campaign -- the government's humanitarian aid preparations for Iraq have the air of an afterthought. "At this point we're extremely concerned," said Cassandra Nelson, who works with Mercy Corps in Kuwait City, not far from Kuwait's border with Iraq, where she has been stationed for the past two weeks. "The clock is ticking the final seconds off and there is nothing here to distribute. People keep saying, 'Oh well, the NGOs will handle the humanitarian side,' and here we are waving a red flag and saying that we can only get so far until we get more money to spend on this."

She continued, "The scenario that's been painted for this is that after the war, the plan is to help the Iraqi people to rebuild the country and rebuild democracy. But at the same time people are not willing to do even the basics, like feed people and take care of what may happen due to the bombs and warfare."

Even in the absence of war, the humanitarian statistics on Iraq are grim. One-half of the 24.5 million people in Iraq are children. According to the United Nations Children Fund, known as Unicef, one child in eight dies before he reaches his fifth birthday -- one of the highest child-mortality rates in the world. About 1 million Iraqis under the age of 5 are considered malnourished, and could fare especially poorly during a conflict.

Sixty percent of Iraqis subsist entirely on food brought in through the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program, which distributes monthly rations to 16 million people via a complex system of local and national centers. "One of the problems in Iraq," says Alfred Ironside, a spokesman for Unicef in New York, "one of the big problems, is that people rely on these food rations, and it's often a very basic basket of items. There's not sufficient meat with proteins and other basic nutrients. Usually it's not sufficient for lactating women or women with small children. As a result, a quarter of all children are born underweight."

During the past few weeks, in preparation for war, Unicef and the Iraqi Ministry of Health began to distribute 1,000 metric tons of "high-protein biscuits" to 400,000 of these most needy cases. The biscuits, which are easy to transport and require no preparation, contain "protein, calories and micronutrients and have proved to be highly effective in saving lives in emergencies around the world," according to Unicef. The agency managed to complete the distribution just before the United Nations ordered its staff to leave the country on Monday. "We did it just under the wire," Ironside says. Now, the agency's national staff -- about 170 Iraqis -- will try to "manage operations as best they can, inasmuch as it is safe for them to do so."

In December, Saddam Hussein's government increased the food rations available to Iraqis, and as a result most households are thought to have about six weeks' worth of food stockpiled. Most aid agencies expect a war to disrupt or completely destroy the oil-for-food system, but if the war lasts just a couple weeks and the food can be quickly restored when the fighting stops, Ironside speculates that most Iraqis won't suffer terrible shortages. But he notes that "even a short war could displace a lot of people, and then you have a different kind of scenario. For displaced people -- let's say their homes are destroyed -- you have to make sure that they'll have a way to be getting the food they need."

But other aid workers are worried that Iraq's food distribution system is so complex and would be so thoroughly roiled during a war that it could take at least a month to restore the flow of provisions to the population. Joel Charny, the vice president for policy at Refugees International, says that the U.S. must prepare for the worst-case food situation in Iraq -- a scenario in which no rations are readily available for most Iraqis. In that case, he says, the U.S. should immediately donate money to the World Food Program to purchase at least one month's and possibly two months' worth of grain for 24 million Iraqis, at a cost of $200 million per month.

Charny is appalled that the U.S. has not acknowledged that hundreds of millions of dollars of food aid might be required in Iraq, especially since USAID has invited a handful of corporations with close ties to the White House to bid on a billion-dollar infrastructure reconstruction contract in postwar Iraq. "By all means, let's think about having money to rebuild bridges and roads and electrical plants," he says, "but there's a glaring contrast between preparations for private firms to do that kind of large-scale work and the lack of funding for the U.N. and NGOs to provide aid to Iraqis. The administration is getting ahead of itself. The survival of the Iraqi population is not yet restored."

From her hotel room in Kuwait City on Tuesday night, Cassandra Nelson, of Mercy Corps, described a city that has girded itself for war. "People are carrying on with their lives -- it's not as if everybody's hiding inside -- but there is heightened security," she said. "There's a lot of the Kuwaiti military stationed around the city, a lot of vehicles set up with large guns on turrets. The major concern for Kuwait is if there's any kind of chemical or biological attack on the city, and you see people preparing for that. There's a whole system of sirens they've developed, with different kind of sirens for when a bomb goes off, and another one that's the all-clear for when they've identified that it's not a chemical bomb, that you can go out."

But Nelson's preparations for aid, like those of many of the aid agencies here, have been stalled by a lack of money. A Mercy Corps executive in Oregon described the group as "operating on fumes" right now, and Nelson backed up that claim. Staff members in Kuwait have no transportation -- "we have to take taxis around the city," Nelson said. There's no money to rent warehouses for supplies, or to hire local people to help in the aid efforts. "What we're looking to do is assist half a million Iraqis who've been displaced by the war, and we'll be providing food, water, tents, household items like cooking sets and hygiene sets," Nelson said. "So what we've been spending a lot of our time doing is identifying where we can get the trucks, where do we get the food, what do we do when we do get the money."

Like other relief groups, Mercy Corps has appealed for funding from the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and many private foundations, and it expects to receive more than $20 million in aid. But the group has no indication of when that money will flow in.

"And that's one of the frustrating things -- we have not gotten any clarity," Nelson said. "We're in a little bit of a waiting period in terms of being able to make great strides forward and prepare for this event. We don't know when the money is coming -- but we hope that now that the terms have been so clearly laid out by President Bush, it's going to encourage donor agencies to give us the funds immediately. Because if they give us the money after the war starts it might be too late."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush