Sanctions on a generation of learning;Briefing

12th June 1998 at 01:00

Susannah Hall and David Olafimihan report on the effect of nearly eight years of economic isolation on Iraq's children.

United Nations officials are warning that nearly eight years of sanctions against Iraq imposed when it invaded Kuwait have left the country's children blighted by poor health and inadequate education.

According to the UN's children's fund (UNICEF) about a third of children under five are chronically malnourished. Once these children reach school age they will be entering an education system which has had no real investment for the past eight years.

Denis Halliday, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq, said: "Chronic malnutrition has physical and possible mental stunting effects which could impact on a whole generation."

Since 1996 the education system has received the equivalent of pound;3.60 per school-aged child annually. This is funded by revenue from oil sales agreed by the UN. The money is being used for basic repairs - fixing roofs, the water supply and latrines, heating and air conditioning and supplying desks, chairs and blackboards.

A small amount goes to buy spare parts for printing presses, paper and ink so textbooks can be printed. Earlier this year, UNICEF warned that there was only capacity to print half the exam books needed by the country. The education department has instituted a prize for the school that best maintains and redistributes its books.

There are many things the money doesn't cover - for example, transporting goods to schools. Desks are sitting in warehouses because fork-lift trucks and lorries to transport them are broken. There is no money to provide even a simple thing like oily chalk because the central chalk factory in Baghdad lacks spare parts and materials to manufacture it. Schools have to use pure gypsum with the result that many children and teachers now have asthma and other chest problems from the dust.

Even when there is money there is no guarantee that schools will get what they need. Two consignments of computers for primary schools are being blocked at present by the UN sanctions committee because computers are considered "dual-use" items. The UN's education organisation, UNESCO has submitted a report to approve the shipment but nothing has shifted yet.

The problems go beyond shortages of equipment. No money is allocated from the sale of oil to pay teachers' salaries and wages have dropped so low that many can't afford to continue. Before sanctions they were paid between pound;246 and pound;361 per month. Now they get between pound;1.20 and pound;2.40 per month - enough to buy two eggs a day. Many are leaving creating a shortage of teachers.

Some children starting school are taught by older pupils and when they do have a teacher it is only for a few hours tuition as schools are now operating two or three shifts a day.

Despite this the education department is trying to maintain standards. Last year in the university entrance exams the examiners failed 70 per cent of candidates. Those retaking the exam are penalised by losing an automatic 15 per cent if they are repeating. The pass mark is 50 per cent.

One teacher told us bitterly: "We feel they are trying to degrade our standards. We are fighting a losing battle. Even the humanitarian organisations are only supporting us to survive - not to go a step ahead; not to improve."

Schooling in Iraq is free, but the number of children enrolling is dropping. According to UNICEF, enrolment in 199596 was 67.8 per cent in comparison to 88 per cent in 199293. Dropout rates of those that do enrol are about 50 per cent. Children can be seen at road junctions all over Baghdad selling newspapers, cigarettes, water melons, fly swats, sweets, tissues and whatever else they can to help support their families. A few simply beg.

In desperation the education ministry has this year instituted a pilot scheme of vocational night schools. They hope this may help stem the tide of dropouts by providing schooling that children can organise around their work. What effect it will have remains to be seen.

The amount of money available for investment in education is likely to double shortly (to $12 per child annually), but UN officials have said that even if sanctions were lifted tomorrow the deterioration in the environment, quality of education and in the minds and hearts of teachers and pupils will take years to reverse.

Iraq's schoolchildren have seen their parents' own efforts to improve their lives by educating themselves fail. For this lost, disillusioned generation of youth there seems no point in going to school.

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