CARE Iraq's country director Margaret Hassan, and her assistant Judy Morgan visited Birmingham HQ on a visit to England, and presented a talk about the humanitarian situation in Iraq.
Margaret Hassan, who has worked for CARE since 1992, spoke about the continuing suffering of the Iraqi people. She described how a formerly prosperous nation - home to the world's second largest oil reserves, had been systematically reduced to poverty.
In 1990, after the invasion of Kuwait, the UN imposed economic sanctions. Gulf War bombing destroyed much of Iraq's infrastructure, including electrical plants and water treatment facilities. The combined effect was devastating.
Ms Hassan described how most Iraqis are dependant on relief rations for their food, and how over half the population live in absolute poverty. The Iraqi Dinar, she said, has been dramatically devalued, with average salaries between $5 and $10 per month.
The 1996 UN Oil-for-Food programme allowed Iraq to export oil and use part of the money to buy basic goods. However, 25% of the income goes towards reparation payments. A UN committee has the power of veto over every Iraqi contract, including those for humanitarian supplies. "We ourselves have suffered three times with our supplies being stopped," said Ms Hassan.
Sanctions have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable - particularly children. According to a Unicef report half a million children have died in just eight years, and millions more are malnourished. Children from poor families are forced to leave school, and girls are usually the first to drop out.
Speaking about CARE's work in Iraq Ms Hassan said, "The main focus of our work is Integrated Water Projects where we improve water quality in towns throughout Iraq." This initiative has helped prevent the spread of cholera, dysentery, malaria and typhoid fever. Other work includes rehabilitating and extending hospitals, which now have to treat thousands more patients than they were originally designed to handle.
Describing the severe restrictions on the import of medicines, she spoke of the experience of a British ophthalmologist, who worked as a volunteer with CARE. "He was absolutely shocked by what he saw. Thousands of patients were losing their sight, and all that was required was a small laser machine. But it wasn't allowed in."
Ms Hassan explained that most people were forced to sell their possessions in order to survive in the early 1990s. With no remaining household assets, they have nothing to fall back on should food rations be cut. Any further shock, such as conflict, price increases, drought, or other natural disaster could be devastating.
Asked whether she saw any prospect of improvement in Iraq, Ms Hassan was sceptical. "There are no indicators to suggest things are about to change for the better."
"From the perspective of a young Iraqi," added Judy Morgan, "how would you see the future with all these constraints? Not bright at all."
[Margaret Hassan and Judy Morgan visited Islamic Relief's Birmingham HQ on the 6th of June 2002]