Dispatches from Iraq #4

Reconstruction and Debt in Iraq

The following is a reflection written by Sheila Provencher, 32, who lives and works in Baghdad, Iraq, with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). CPT is an ecumenical organization that works with local people in areas of violence (including the West Bank, Colombia and Iraq) to seek nonviolent solutions to situations of injustice and oppression. Sheila, who holds degrees from Harvard and Notre Dame, joined CPT in Baghdad in December, 2003. She is showm at left wearing a red cap.

BustedHalo.com will feature Sheila’s occasional reflections on daily life in Iraq, the Iraqi people and the challenges they face during the American occupation.

I have been in Iraq now about a year and a half. When I arrived in Baghdad in December 2003, I drove past ruined buildings with enormous bomb-created holes in them. I sat in traffic jams on bridges whose guard-rails were cracked and broken. We had only about eight hours of electricity per day and suffered occasional water shortages. There were no phone services.

Today, I drive through city streets past buildings with gaping, bomb-created holes and sit in traffic jams created by roadblocks and security-induced bridge-closings. The bridges that are open still have gaps in the guard-rails. We still have only six-to-ten hours of electricity per day, and the summer still sees water shortages. We have phone service, but heavy rains recently incapacitated them for three weeks, and the mobile network is often jammed by U.S. security measures.

There are some improvements. I see orange-jumpsuit-clad young men sweeping the streets and tidying parks. They are opening a new road along the river, which should free up much of the gridlock that resulted when the main thoroughfare was closed right after the 2003 invasion.

But for the most part, whatever reconstruction is happening is invisible to the naked eye, and therefore invisible to the ordinary Iraqi who longs for improvement. Other areas of “reconstruction”­-such as improvements to the once-great educational system­-are also desperately needed. The other day when I visited an Iraqi college student and she showed me her English textbook, I realized that it was a photocopy of a very outdated book. The chapter on Sociology began with the words, “Now that the year 2000 is less than twenty years away . . .”

Part of the reconstruction problem is the constant state of insecurity and ongoing war. But a less-known part of the problem is the fact that Iraq, a country in dire need of reconstruction funds, has actually been paying funds to other countries to make restitution for the 1990 war against Kuwait.

For more information on what you can do to help, continue reading . . .

Leviticus 25:10:
“This year of jubilee you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all its inhabitants.”

Jubilee years, which the ancient Israelites proclaimed as part of God’s law, granted freedom to slaves, forgiveness of debts, and return of land to its original owners. This practice helped to preserve the society’s social and economic equilibrium by preventing the extremes of wealth and poverty from polarizing the community.

Today, Iraq is one of many nations groaning beneath the burden of impossible debts. During the 1980’s, many Western nations including the U.S. and Great Britain made loans to support Saddam Hussein’s military spending in the war against Iran. In legal terms, such debts can be written off as “odious debts,” because (1) they were the personal debts of a particular regime, (2) they were contracted without the consent of the people and were not spent in the people’s
interests (i.e. most of Saddam’s loans were spent on state and military oppression), and (3) the creditors were aware of what was happening with loans they provided.

Iraq’s total debt is within the range of $95-153 billion. In addition, Iraq has been paying and must still pay reparation claims from the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A UN Compensation Commission has awarded almost $50 billion to corporations, governments, and individuals. Iraq has paid almost $19 billion of this, at a time when the country is desperately in need of funds for its own reconstruction. (Recipients of a recent payment on January 13, 2005, included companies from America, Britain, France, and Germany).

Even the “Paris Club” deal in the fall of 2004, which promised up to 80 percent debt forgiveness for Iraq, comes with mandatory International Monetary Fund conditions–such as privatization, ending food rations & fuel subsidies, and restricting salaries & pensions­-which could further exacerbate the poverty and instability in Iraq. Plus, Iraq would still be burdened with $25 billion in debt.

Since these debts were “odious debts” to begin with, the people of Iraq should not have to pay them. Iraq’s debt should be written off completely, in the spirit of Jubilee that we find in the Mosaic Law.*

What can we do? Consider the following simple actions, in order to help Iraq emerge from its burden of debt.

1. Budget two hours this week and visit the website of Jubilee Iraq, a nonprofit organization advocating debt forgiveness for Iraq. (www.jubileeiraq.org)

2. Choose and follow one of their suggested action steps to respond to Iraq’s debt crisis. And of course, continue to keep Iraq and its people in your prayers.

*All statistical information taken from Jubilee Iraq at www.jubileeiraq.org.