People need cash, not foreigners

4th April 2003 at 01:00
IRAQ. Bringing in lots of foreigners to rebuild Iraq's school system is not the answer, the Unicef representative in Baghdad, Carel de Rooy, said this week.

The poverty that keeps many children out of school and many families on an inadequate diet is better tackled in a way that puts money in people's pockets, said Mr de Rooy.

"What Iraq needs is money to be pumped into the economy - the more the better - as that is at the root of its problems," he said.

"Ideally, Iraqi contractors who know the country will be used as much as possible, so that living standards can increase and people can eat meat again."

He said 31 per cent of girls and 17 per cent of boys are out of school.

Poverty has driven many of them into jobs that are often hazardous. For those that do attend the quality of education is often dire.

"You walk into a school and there is no paint on the wall and no glass in the windows. Where there are fans, there is no electricity to run them. Yet in the summer it gets incredibly hot - up to 60 degrees centigrade - and in the winter it gets very cold without heating," said Mr de Rooy.

"Some classrooms cannot be occupied because they are collapsing. It is not unusual to find rooms too dangerous to use. There is no water, no functioning toilets and many schools get flooded in winter with sewage backing up."

Schools are operating two or three shifts because of lack of space, leaving children with only two or three hours' education a day in a country that used to be the most literate in the Arab world.

At the same time lack of meat caused by poverty - teachers, for instance, are paid pound;3 to pound;5 a month - is at the root of the country's health problems. Sixty per cent of Iraqi women have anaemia and one in four children is born underweight, leaving them prone to preventable diseases such as diarrhoea and acute respiratory infection.

"The disease pattern is typical of other very poor countries such as Mali and Chad. One way to address this is to pump money into the economy to allow people to buy meat. It is the traditional way of taking protein, but today few Iraqis can afford it," said Mr de Rooy He said Iraq had been awash with investment in health, education and roads following nationalisation of oil in 1972, but the country went broke during the Iran-Iraq war.

With backing from the British government, Unicef, which has 200 local staff in Iraq, has rehabilitated 500 schools in the past six years but there will be a massive task once the war ends.

Mr de Rooy said the UK's international development secretary Clare Short was right to push for UN agencies to be given as full a role as possible.

"They know the country well, they have the contacts and they have the staff," he said.

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