Since 1976 the United Nations Development Programme has supported the Government and people of Iraq through stabilization and humanitarian projects. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges to the country in 2020, UNDP Iraq has adapted its work to respond to the crisis through close cooperation with local community initiatives and other UN agencies. Zena Ali Ahmad, Resident Representative of UNDP Iraq, discusses the difficult current situation in Iraq, and how her team is working to ensure the continued development of the country.
What are the biggest challenges Iraq is currently facing, and how is UNDP Iraq working to help address them?
The rapid emergence of COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for Iraq. However, the outbreak of the pandemic is not a unique moment of crisis; today, the country is experiencing a vicious circle of compounded crises: a political transition, youth-led demonstrations and violent unrest, a potential resurgence of Daesh, and economic recession.
With a steep decline in oil prices, and the lockdowns in the country from COVID-19, multiple sectors across the Iraqi workforce have been severely impacted. Unemployment rates have soared, and many families have found themselves in increased debt.
UNDP is working alongside the Government of Iraq, firstly to help manage the pandemic and alleviate pressure on the Iraqi healthcare system. Under UNDP’s COVID-19 response package, we’re building isolation units, providing protective equipment for healthcare workers, raising awareness about the virus, and providing critical medical equipment like ventilators and defibrillators to health centers, as well as supporting social cohesion and responses to increasing gender-based violence. In addition to this, under the overall direction of the Resident Coordinator, UNDP is technically leading the development of Iraq’s response and recovery strategy alongside other UN agencies – a two-year plan that maps out how Iraq can recover following the pandemic.
There has been some reporting around Daesh claims that it will seek to exploit the pandemic – have you seen any evidence of this?
The emergence of an unprecedented pandemic has no doubt opened up the possibility of a Daesh resurgence, particularly in light of Iraq’s current instability and the economic downturn. According to various reports, Iraq has seen an increase in the number of Daesh attacks during the pandemic underscoring the critical need to continue our close partnership with Coalition partners, the Government and UN agencies, ensuring we do all we can to mitigate the risks of resurgence. Part of our COVID-19 response package includes a number of social cohesion and livelihood initiatives, which address immediate needs and will make a positive impact on communities across the country.
Has COVID-19 interrupted UNDP’s wider stabilisation work, or has some rebuilding been able to continue?
As infection rates increased in Iraq, and the government curfews were imposed, UNDP stabilization activities were temporarily halted. However, at the request of the Iraqi government, Governors, and beneficiaries, we recently resumed our activities in the five governorates liberated from Daesh – Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah Al-Din. We are, where possible, back rebuilding critical infrastructure damaged in the conflict with Daesh, including Al Shifaa Hospital complex in Mosul – one of the biggest complexes in Ninewa, and once used as Daesh headquarters. Also, our COVID-19 rapid response teams have been working on the establishment of isolation units in 12 governorates.
In an attempt to alleviate some of the financial burdens experienced by communities, we’re in the process of resuming our Cash-for-Work activities across the country, including rubble removal and public space restoration. The safety of our field staff, contractors and beneficiaries is of utmost priority, so we’ve implemented additional health and safety measures to keep people safe and healthy. These include temperature checks onsite, mandatory personal protective equipment, and physical distancing.
How has UNDP Iraq adapted its projects in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Technology has played a pivotal role in our new way of working. Many of our in-person activities like government meetings, training, and ceremonies are now being conducted online. Recently, we held a training session on providing psychosocial support for victims of violence in conflict settings for social workers from NGOs across 15 governorates. Originally scheduled to be conducted in-person, the training was then delivered through a web-based platform for social workers in their homes. After the training, workers supported 7,500 women in 10 days.
The imposition of curfews both within and between governorates has proven to be a challenge for our on-the-ground-implementation, but we’ve tried to be as resourceful as possible – for example, maximising the use of locally-based staff. When implementation work eventually resumed, we incorporated additional health and safety measures based on the WHO guidelines to prevent the spread of the disease on sites and to ensure duty of care to our staff, contractors, and beneficiaries.
How are UN agencies working together to ensure vulnerable communities in Iraq get the public health advice and support they need?
The entire UN system – both within Iraq and globally – is united in the fight against COVID-19, with a range of complementary activities, joint programming, and multi-agency reports and studies occurring around the world. Within the UN in Iraq, the World Health Organisation is leading the support to the health sector through the COVID-19 strategic preparedness and response plan.
Building isolations wards, providing cash assistance, distributing food items, raising awareness, providing job training, and distributing personal protective equipment to healthcare workers are some of the UN/UNDP activities being implemented to combat the virus. Also, in terms of medium to long-term recovery, UNDP is supporting the UN Resident Coordinator Office in developing the two-year UN Recovery Framework for COVID-19, with all the UN Agencies in the country.
Have local communities mobilised to deal with challenges like sanitation? What role have Local Peace Committees played?
Seeing community groups take the initiative to protect themselves from COVID-19 has been extremely inspiring. Local Peace Committees, established by UNDP to support reconciliation and social cohesion in communities, have stepped-up to play an integral role in community-based response activities to COVID-19 like sterilizing local streets and public spaces, setting up mobile clinics, distributing information flyers and delivering food baskets and hygiene items as well as other support packages for vulnerable families. Above all, they have created a sense of trust and unity among communities of various backgrounds, highlighting the importance of working together to get through this challenging time.
Established in 2018 by UNDP Iraq to promote peace and stability post-ISIL, the Local Peace Committees are made up of representatives from the local communities: security officers, local authority personnel, civil society organization representatives and religious leaders. Each committee is led by their local Mayor, who, since the onset of the pandemic, has been working to raising public awareness and instructing the public to adhere to health protection measures, and shifted the committees’ focus to addressing the immediate needs resulting from the outbreak. Building peaceful communities starts with trust – that’s why the role of the Local Peace Committees has been integral during the pandemic.