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IRAQ: Divergent views over relationship between NGOs and Coalition

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

BAGHDAD, 4 May 2005 (IRIN) - Persistent violence and the fear of being associated with the US-led Coalition have limited the scope and neutrality of humanitarian agencies in Iraq in spite of available funding for projects, according to aid workers.

The underlying problem for aid organisations is poor security, they say. Many NGOs have relocated to nearby countries and evacuated international staff following kidnappings and bombings, targeting them.

In some cases, private contractors have been employed to carry out transport and reconstruction duties, although, they too, have been regularly targeted by insurgents.

Aid agencies now operate with extreme caution and discretion, struggling to continue operations while trying to maintain neutrality, according to international humanitarian workers. Their dilemma is that the agencies often need Coalition forces to provide the security the NGOs crave.

“The severe lack of humanitarian space in Iraq is a disgrace,” independent aid consultant, Greg Hansen told IRIN, having recently returned from Iraq.

“It is an indictment of the behaviour of the combatants on all sides,” he added. “Genuine humanitarian organisations are unable to properly assess and meet the needs among the civilian population for assistance and protection.”

Hansen, who specialises in humanitarian action in armed conflict, said combatants “collectively have failed” to respect and defer to the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian organisations.

He said that the result is a lack of clarity as to the motives of the projects being undertaken.

“But the lack of humanitarian space is an indirect consequence of many other factors that together have contributed to a blurring of the line between political and military activity and genuine humanitarian action,” the consultant maintained.

Hansen pointed to foreign contractors adopting working patterns similar to human rights organisations and NGOs taking funds for projects from the US as factors that have influenced Iraqi perceptions of humanitarian work.

“Several US-based organisations became instruments of the occupation by accepting USAID and Coalition funding for so-called humanitarian projects,” Hansen said. “Can you blame Iraqis for being thoroughly confused about who is doing what?”

The UN has issued general guidelines on interaction between its staff and the various military groups in Iraq. It acknowledges coordination between humanitarian and military organisations, particularly in the early phase of a conflict, can be essential for the timely and effective delivery of humanitarian assistance and to help ensure the protection of civilians.

“UN humanitarian agencies, under the overall authority of the humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, must retain full control of UN humanitarian operations inside and outside Iraq. Agencies must ensure that their operational independence is guaranteed at all times, e.g. on issues involving freedom of movement, non-integration in military planning, or access to communications,” an extract from the guidelines says.

The US government has allocated some US $20.9 billion for the country’s reconstruction process. The funds have been set aside for security and law enforcement, infrastructure, such as electricity and oil and for humanitarian work.

The International Reconstruction Facility For Iraq (IRFFI) allocated $350 million for education, refugees, human rights and governance, while $786 million was set aside for health care, the US state department said in a recent report.

The IRFFI was established by the World Bank and the UN to ensure swift, flexible, and coordinated donor financing for priority investments in Iraq.

Maj. Lin Mellens, a senior officer responsible for the partnership between the US Coalition and local NGOs, told IRIN that hundreds of NGOs are being supported by Coalition funds. The US army official said statistics on exactly how much money has been dispersed to local NGOs in the country could not be released for security issues.

But Mellens also admitted Iraqis’ negative views of the US presence had “led to misperceptions that NGOs were not helping the people but the occupier”.

A spokeswoman for the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), Firdous al-Abadi, stressed the need for the group to distance itself from the US-led Coalition and even the interim Iraqi government.

"We don't have a working partnership with the government because if you are receiving supplies from them you will have to follow their conditions as well as work with the Coalition forces,” al-Abadi said.

“It's something that cannot happen because if you cooperate with them, you will start to be seen as being on their side and not on the Iraqis side," she added

Muhammad Omar, director of the People of Iraq Organisation, disagreed with this assessment. He said Coalition funds had helped NGOs establish successful projects, which promote a better life for Iraqis.

"I don't understand what's wrong if a military group helps us with money," he added. “They are just offering better conditions for the Iraqis.”

However, real dangers remain for NGOs that insurgent groups perceive are associated with the Coalition. For example, local NGO, Compassion for Human Beings, has received nearly 20 threats since February. The Islamic charity has offered support to more than 450 families.

"One of our volunteers was killed recently and a message was found pinned to his chest saying that he deserved to be in hell since he was siding with the US troops,” a spokeswoman for the organisation, Zeena Ebin Nour, told IRIN.


Other recent IRAQ reports:

Focus on increasing displacement in Kirkuk,  3/May/05

Shortage of drugs for epileptic children,  3/May/05

Calls for compensation after mass grave discovery,  2/May/05

Doctors warn of increasing deformities in newborn babies.,  27/Apr/05

Contaminated flour taken out of bread basket,  26/Apr/05

Other recent Democracy & Governance reports:

MIDDLE EAST: MIDDLE EAST: Weekly round-up Number 20 for 29 April- 5 May 2005, 6/May/05

UZBEKISTAN: Southern demonstration barred after week of protests, 6/May/05

SIERRA LEONE: Annan says UN peacekeepers should leave by end of 2005, 6/May/05

LIBERIA: Aid groups say resettlement of displaced people is too hasty, 6/May/05

SUDAN: Vice-president calls for unity and solidarity in Darfur, 6/May/05

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