Economy and Society in the 1990s Of Iraq

Economy and Society in the 1990s

After 13 years of sanctions, two devastating wars, and decades of social and economic damage arising out of misguided developmental objectives and the militarization of the economy, internal as well as external pressures on the Iraqi economy began to sorely affect the family structure, education, public health, and livelihood of millions of Iraqis.

This author participated in an oral history project in Amman, Jordan, in 2005 in which mostly elderly Iraqis, longtime residents, and new arrivals, agreed to be interviewed. For many Iraqi interviewees, the sanctions era was only the culminating development of many years of war with Iran, in which social and economic problems arising during the Iran-Iraq War, such as galloping infl ation, industrial stagnation, lack of employment opportunities, and massive rural-to-urban migration, were accelerated during the 1990s, further crushing an already traumatized population.

During the sanctions era, the dinar was devalued even further, decimating salaries and retirement benefi ts. Iraqis had to work two or three different jobs and had to sell their possessions to make ends meet. Iraq’s health system, one of the best in the Middle East, broke down, as did its educational structure. Small wonder, then, that the majority of respondents in the oral history project characterized the sanctions era as nothing short of total war.

The lack of books, medicine, musical instruments, pencils, or even new, reliable tires for the family car, all examples of imports stopped by Committee 661 (the committee established by the UN Security Council to monitor the implementation of sanctions imposed on Iraq), brought communication to a standstill.

Worn-out tires killed people as surely as a bullet. Minds starved of learning lost energy. New and rapidly spreading cancers required novel drugs, of which there was none. The sale of family heirlooms and furniture, down to the doors of houses in some cases, by Iraqis needing to augment their debased state salaries, crushed the human spirit.

New markets grew up in city streets catering to the demand of secondhand goods. AlMutannabi, the street of the booksellers, was only the most famous. School attendance dropped precipitously, with school-age children now claiming the streets as their sources of livelihood, and hawking and peddling became some of the most conspicuous trades in large cities such as Baghdad. The Iraqi professional class, largely having run out of their savings and unable to make ends meet because of the pittances they received as salaries, left the country in droves.

And the public health crisis accelerated, as departing doctors made way for young and relatively inexperienced interns who, for the fi rst time in decades, had to handle maladies that had once been thought to have been wiped out in Iraq, specifi cally malnutrition, diphtheria, and cholera. The spread of daytime robberies, unheard of in Baghdad until the mid-1990s, destroyed trust. The extortion of government offi cials and the rising levels of corruption raised the ordinary Iraqi’s instinct of self-preservation to a new level.

The Baathist regime continued to pamper some, if not all, of its military personnel (conscripts fared badly while commanders of the Republican Guard regiments were well taken care of). The sanctions era, I was told over and over again, turned Iraqis into machines in which, as one elderly respondent told me, “we lost the memory of being human.” Signifi cantly, most of the interviewees noted the existence of an external and internal embargo; to Iraqis, the fi rst was imposed by the United Nations and the second, by the Iraqi government, which, with some notable exceptions, preyed on Iraq and its long-suffering population.