The War Over the War

Shannon Scribner
Oxfam America's Senior Policy Advisor on Humanitarian Issues
Tuesday, August 14, 2007; 12:00 PM

Oxfam America's senior policy advisor on humanitarian issues Shannon Scribner was online Tuesday, August 14 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq.

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Shannon Scribner has worked on several humanitarian emergencies on behalf of Oxfam programs and staff around the world. She discussed a report released in July by Oxfam and the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI) entitled "Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq" that claims eight million Iraqis -- nearly one in three -- need emergency aid.

A transcript follows.


Shannon Scribner: Hello everyone, looking forward to discussing Oxfam's recent report "Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq." Just wanted to emphasize that the report outlines the humanitarian situation inside Iraq, so that's what we'll focus on today. Let's get started.


Munich: After reading the "Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq" policy paper, my first thought was that I'm not sure how the living standard of people in crisis can be improved if the terrorists' objective is to create chaos and prevent the improvement of people's lives by their enemies (the U.S., the UN, western aid organizations, NGOs, etc.). There were government related issues suggested that could conceivably be carried out if the Iraqi government wasn't so fractious, chaotic and inefficient. What is the impression of the people at Oxfam? Does the present situation in Iraq present a realistic opportunity for aid organizations and NGOs to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis caught in the crossfire?

Shannon Scribner: While the report emphasizes that the number one challenge facing civilians is the security crises, there are things that can be done today by the Iraqi government, the international community and the United Nations to make a difference in people's lives today.

For example, the government of Iraq should expand the food ration system in Iraq so that those who have become displaced (there are 2 million displaced, people mostly women and children) can receive food (51% of the people in need of food are only receiving food rations some of the time).


Lyme, Conn.: It amazes me when our leaders believe that a country will greet us with flowers and open arms when they saw, according to the defense department, estimates of approximately 200,000 deaths the previous time we were there in Desert Storm. Now the Iraqis have seen more deaths and serious disruptions of their lives. This question should be obvious, but I ask it because many still don't realize it, but: don't we win more friends in other countries by aiding the country and improving the lives of their people? Shouldn't we do more for humanitarian efforts, both to help others, yet also to serve as a model for all countries that the way to better diplomacy is through assistance?

Shannon Scribner: Oxfam opposed the war from the beginning due to concerns about the disproportionate effect the war would have on civilian lives. Today in Iraq this is what we are seeing. Seventy percent of people are without adequate water supplies compared to 50% in 2003, 80% lack effective sanitation, 43% live in poverty; of the 180 hospitals countrywide, 90% lack key resources including basic medical supplies; 28% of children are malnourished today compared to 19% in 2003 and 92% of children suffer from learning problems mostly due to the climate of fear.

_______________________ How does the severity of the humanitarian crisis differ when travelling between Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish dominated regions in Iraq?

Shannon Scribner: The humanitarian situation is worse (in terms of access to food, clean water and sanitation) in Shiite and Sunni areas compared to the north, but we are seeing a deterioration of the humanitarian situation throughout the country.

The Iraqi Government and International donors have been slow to recognize the scale of humanitarian needs. One thing we need to do is increase humanitarian funding as most of the focus has been on development needs. In April of this year Oxfam conducted a survey that showed 80% of those providing emergency aid could expand their programs if they had more money. In 2005 the United States gave $123 million towards humanitarian assistance, the last amount they gave decreased to $43 million.


Arlington, Va.: How self-sufficient is Iraq and how self-sufficient could they be under ideal conditions? I am asking mainly in terms of food and energy production (obviously they have oil but what about useable energy-refined products)?

Shannon Scribner: The Iraqi government has a $26 billion dollar budget surplus. A portion of that money could and should be used to support humanitarian activities. For example, they should increase emergency cash to widows and their children from $100 to $200/month, which is closer to the average monthly income. Ninety percent of those killed in Iraq have been men so the women are left to fend for themselves and take care of their families.

The Iraqi government should also use some of the surplus to decentralize the aid distribution system, which includes giving power and resources to local authorities to store, quality-check and distribute emergency supplies to local aid agencies for delivery. They should also set up an extensive warehouse storage system for supplies throughout Iraq. At present all aid supplies coming into Iraq must first be sent to Baghdad where they are kept in seven warehouses for quality-control checking before being distributed to the rest of the country.


West Orange, N.J.: What constitutes an NGO in Iraq? If its staff is paid cash, is absent on "field duties" most of the time, and most carry AK-47s, is that par for the course? Is there any audit or control?

Can NGOs substitute for a failed state if there is no public security whatever? Don't any charities have to buy "insurance" (essentially hand over their funds to insurgent networks) or risk annihilation?

Do the Iraqi police or interior ministry function at all? Or are they a major contributor to the problem?

Shannon Scribner: There are thousands of local NGOs in Iraq and about 80 international NGOs working in Iraq or supporting partners. Oxfam produced this report with the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI) a network of about 80 international and 200 Iraqi aid agencies that all subscribe to the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. That means that these NGOs strive to remain neutral and independent and do not accept armed guards or carry guns themselves.

One thing the report calls for is for the Iraqi government to support NGOs with a proven record of delivering assistance. A proper legal framework to register NGOs needs to be established so that a group of credible and recognized NGOs will have the legal authority to provide assistance. This doesn't exist today in Iraq.

In terms of the different ministries, there is a lot of disfunction. One thing the Oxfam report calls for is to mobilize a cross-ministerial team (this would include the ministry of displacement and migration, ministry of health, ministry of labor, ministry of transportation, etc.) to coordinate and release funds for its humanitarian response. The United States should provide technical assistance to the Iraqi government to implement this team.


Winnipeg, Canada: The statistics you quote about the state of development in Iraq are very discouraging. No wonder the Iraqi government has trouble functioning -- take away the electricity in any country and see how well the bureaucracy functions. My question is this: what needs to happen for the statistics you quote to improve? More soldiers? More diplomats? More aid workers? Better strategies?

Shannon Scribner: While the report does not claim to have all the answers to fix the problem given the horrific security situation in Iraq, Oxfam believes the situation can be improved through more humanitarian funding and better strategies.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked donors for 123 million dollars to deal with the growing refugee crisis (2 million Iraqis are now living in surrounding countries). Donors should step up and meet this request. In addition we need better strategies and we need to support creative programming when it comes to Iraq. In Oxfam's opinion, we were not prepared for the humanitarian situation going into the war and we are still not prepared today. Regardless if troops stay or go planning needs to take place today by the Iraqi government, the international community and the United Nations about what to do to address the current humanitarian situation.

Donors should support remote control programming. This is what is used in highly insecure environments. National staff who know the language, the culture, the communities and local leaders working inside the country with management based in a different country such as Jordan, carry out humanitarian programming. Donors don't like to support these types of programs because they don't follow the conventional forms of delivery, monitoring and evaluation donors are use to but it is a good alternative for working in Iraq today.

_______________________ What do you believe would happen if the U.S. was to pull out of Iraq within the next year? How would the humanitarian situation change?

Shannon Scribner: As a humanitarian organization, Oxfam does not take a position on this issue; humanitarianism is our area of expertise (not military strategy or politics). The point is, there are tangible things that must be done now, not when or if the situation in Iraq changes. We need to improve things given the status quo, and also plan for the other possibilities currently being discussed.


Cambridge, Mass.: What do you think the long-term consequences of the Iraq war are for humanitarian action? Do you see humanitarian assistance becoming more militarized due to conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan? Or less?

Shannon Scribner: Iraq and Afghanistan have blurred the lines between military and civilians activities. In Afghanistan you have provincial reconstruction teams (essentially the military) providing humanitarian assistance. In Iraq you have contractors, military, security details and aid workers operating in the same space making it confusing as to who is doing what.

From Oxfam all parties involved in the conflict have an obligation under international humanitarian law to not harm civilians, their property or essential infrastructure and should make every effort to ensure the civilian population has access to humanitarian assistance. Coalition forces contributions to providing humanitarian assistance must only occur as a last resort when no civilian means are available for meeting urgent needs. If and when such efforts occur, they must avoid blurring the lines between military actors, who may be engaged in providing material assistance, and aid workers, who provide humanitarian assistance based on principles of impartiality and independence.


Arlington, Va.: Why did Iraq in 2004 make it illegal for farmers to save and use their seeds from crops? At the same time, only GM seeds were made available from transnational companies like Monsanto. This leaves Iraqi farmers dependent on getting the seed from these sources since the crops that grow from them are sterile (do not produce seeds of their own). This changed hundreds of years of farming practice in Iraq. Was this beneficial? Humanitarian?

Shannon Scribner: Sorry -- good question but don't know the answer.


Shannon Scribner: Thanks everyone for the lively discussion. I enjoyed it and hope you got something out of it.


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