Iraq's Wasted Reconstruction

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Humanitarian activist Basma al-Khateeb will tell you that Iraq doesn't need any more reconstruction projects or development programs now. International donor funds are better spent, she says, on emergency aid like food, water and medicine. "We are facing a huge humanitarian catastrophe," says al-Khateeb, who works on gender and youth issues for the Iraq al-Amal Association, an Iraqi nongovernmental organization. "No one is acknowledging how big the humanitarian catastrophe is."

Speaking to TIME in Baghdad, Khateeb offers a number of grim statistics showing that Iraq is quickly becoming a disaster zone comparable to places like Somalia. Violence in recent years has left roughly 3 million women widows and created about 5 million orphans, she said. Unemployment for much of the country is as high as 60%. Tent cities are springing up in Baghdad to house the estimated 2 million internally displaced people adrift in Iraq.

On Monday, Oxfam and a coalition of Iraqi NGOs aired a new report saying that roughly 8 million Iraqis are in need of emergency aid. That means about one in three people in Iraq now is desperate for the basics of life. Four million Iraqis (about 15% of the population) regularly cannot buy enough to eat. And 28% of children are malnourished now, compared to 19% before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. As summer heat reaches its annual highs here, 70% of Iraqis go without adequate water supplies, a figure up 20% since 2003. By way of comparison, 60% of people in southern Sudan today struggle to find enough water.

The bleak humanitarian assessment comes after four years of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq at a cost of nearly $6 billion. A recent report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction says the United States has finished 2,797 reconstruction projects, but Iraq's dysfunctional government has managed to take control of just 435 of them. Thousands of newly completed projects ranging from hospitals to power plants risk going unused and falling into disrepair.

The Oxfam report says more money should go to emergency relief efforts in Iraq, where much of the international aid is earmarked for rebuilding and development. Khateeb agrees. But she suspects many would-be aid givers, chiefly the United States and its allies, will be slow to ramp up humanitarian intervention, because doing so would be a sign that Iraq has become a failed state.

For millions of Iraqis, meanwhile, emergency aid cannot come soon enough. Khateeb says she gets a steady stream of phone calls from Iraqis seeking help of one kind or another as their lives slide into desperation amid Iraq's persisting violence and increasing fragmentation. "People are calling us every hour, every minute," Khateeb says. "They want to survive."