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Reviving the food distribution system

[Iraq] Ali Hasan, a food agent, uses his shop as a distribution point.
Ali Hasan, a food agent, uses his shop as a distribution point (IRIN)

"We need our salaries," says Ali Qasim Hasan, a cashier working with the Ministry of Trade (MT) in the Muthanna Governorate of southern Iraq. "I am here to ask the United Nations to help."

Standing outside the MT warehouse offices in As-Samawah, the main city in Muthanna, are several other officials who are complaining about the same thing. They say Coalition forces promised them US $20 each per month, but payment keeps being postponed, making them feel increasingly frustrated.

"We can't survive like this, they're asking themselves why they come to work at all," says Ali Qasim. "They are selling clothes, cars, anything, because they need food, what can they do? A friend of mine sold his watch for 20,000 Iraqi dinars [US $10] to buy a bag of rice."

Keeping the food distribution system running, which has been designed and managed by local MT staff in Iraq's 15 central and southern governorates for the last 12 years, is one of the key challenges facing the country.

Not least, because it is central to keeping a lid on people's increasing frustrations with almost total unemployment, no salaries, no government and poor security. "Keeping the public distribution system [PDS] going in Iraq's post-conflict phase is essential to stabilising the country," Tarek Elguindi, the programme coordinator for Iraq with the World Food Programme
(WFP), told IRIN. "It is too unstable to stop giving out food."

WFP plans to manage the PDS until the end of September - offering support with transport and logistics - and then to scale down significantly, while a new government takes over.

But to keep the ball rolling and ensure that 60 percent of Iraqis get the heavily subsidised food rations (250 dinars per ration) that they have depended on for so long, a number of postwar problems need to be urgently solved.

Locating the thousands of food and flour agents who distribute the food from their homes, placing armed guards at warehouses to keep stocks safe from looters, repairing warehouses and mills damaged in the war or looted afterwards, locating and updating records of recipients that were not burned or lost, and reinstating computers in looted warehouses to keep records are just some of the everyday headaches.

Moreover, people are hungry and need to receive the food rations, and more, as soon as possible. "We want meat and eggs. We never get to eat these things," says Ali, a local resident of As-Samawah, who says he survives daily on wheat and rice. "A kilo of meat costs 5,000 dinars, a chicken costs 6,000, and even an MT official earns only 25,000. How can we afford to eat well?"

In theory, people in Muthanna have been given supplies, except for milk and rice, to last them up until September. But most of these have long been sold. "Most have sold the extra rations they got before the war because everything's become so expensive - they didn't act economically with the food," says Khuld Karam, a team coordinator with WFP.

So locals are keen to see the system up and running as soon as possible, and have asked WFP to have full rations in place for 1 June. Partial distributions have been made over the last couple of weeks as a stop-gap measure, but the high cost of fuel means many food agents cannot afford to keep travelling to the warehouses to collect it. In Muthanna, some of the 600 food agents have to travel up to 180 km each way to bring the food back to their homes, where they distribute it to their neighbours.

"Transporting the food from the warehouse to the distribution point has doubled in price. I think the food agents should get more benefits," says Karam. Rashid Shaykhan, a food agent who is now paying 15,000 dinars in transport costs, said "we have to bring the food here, I pay for it out of my own money".

But others may not be so dedicated. Higher fuel prices will affect the fairness of the system by tempting food agents to ask people for more than the standard 250 dinars per ration - already difficult to find for some - or to steal food to compensate.

Even more worrying in the long-term is whether a new Iraqi government will have the time and money to import enough food before the end of September. Hamid Kamil, an MT warehouse manager in As-Samawah, said he had heard of no plans to import food. "Nobody has informed us of anything. There have been no directives from Baghdad," he said. "I don't think any steps have been taken - there's no minister or ministry, there's no order."

With no authority in place, looted banks, empty reserves, and disgruntled MT workers, the challenges ahead cannot be underestimated. The only certainty is that the task of feeding 27 million Iraqis in a country that does not produce enough to feed itself will not go away.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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