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New Welfare System Overwhelmed

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi families sign up for a more inclusive benefits scheme.
By Wa\'d Ibrahim
Many of Iraq’s poorest families should by now be benefiting from a new welfare support system, but only a fraction of those in need have received help so far because the civil service cannot cope.



The government created the Social Safety Net earlier this year as way of caring for the growing number of poor families.



It replaces the previous family welfare project which offered aid to needy Iraqis such as war widows and the disabled. The new scheme provides higher monthly payments and increases the number of people who qualify, paying out monthly benefits to groups such as the unemployed, low-income families and married students. Families which would have received up to 50,000 dinars (34 US dollars) a month before will now get between 50,000 and 120,000 dinars.



The government has allocated about 500 billion Iraqi dinars, or 341 million dollars, from fuel revenues to fund the scheme.



Hundreds of thousands of families have signed up for benefits, overwhelming branch offices of the labour and social affairs ministry, which have had difficulty handling the bureaucracy.



In a country where the government and economists estimate the unemployment rate at between 30 and 40 per cent, most of the individuals registering are jobless.



"I've registered my name on the unemployed list because my family is under a lot of [economic] pressure. I really hope it helps us," said Ameera Hussein, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate. "My dreams are much bigger than [this], but life is getting harder by the day."



Soaring inflation and unemployment are contributing to rising poverty. The social affairs ministry estimates that 20 per cent of Iraqi families are living under the poverty line, and that one million families will be eligible for aid under the Social Safety Net.



Mosul, the capital of Nineweh governorate in north-western Iraq, is home to perhaps four-fifths of the estimated 2.5 million people living in the province. The labour and social affairs ministry estimates that 86,000 families in the province qualify for aid under the social protection network, but says only about 1,620 families have received payments.



Most of the Iraqi families which registered for the welfare scheme, including 241,000 in Baghdad, signed up in January. But of that number, the few thousand which have actually received benefits did not get any payments until March.



"We've had nothing but promises," said Fakhri Majeed, a 39-year-old unemployed father of four with a degree in agriculture. "Our names are on the list, and we keep going from one office to another. We don't know if we’re going to get anything or not."



Leila Kazim Aziz, director of the Social Safety Net, told the Iraqi newspaper al-Ittihad that there were not enough civil servants to register all the families applying for benefits. She expressed particular concern about reaching poor Iraqis in villages, and said the authorities planned to enlist non-government organisations to help register families.



Unemployed Iraqis registering for the scheme have to provide documentation showing proof of identity, any assets, and their unemployed status. But getting hold of the right documents may prove difficult, especially for those working in the private sector where formal employment is hard to prove.



In the state sector, a huge employer in Iraq, the government’s employment department should be able to confirm whether someone has an official job. But Muthana Ahmad, in charge of unemployment issues at Mosul's welfare department, says there have been bureaucratic problems in working with these offices.



"There's poor coordination with the employment directorate," he said. "People are submitting fake information, but it’s hard to prove."



Ahmad said Mosul’s welfare authorities are trying to improve communications with the employment offices "because of the immensity of the project and the number of applicants".



The Social Safety Net has been set up at a time when government is cutting back on other benefits such as food aid. Iraqis received subsidised food, fuel and electricity for several decades under Saddam Hussein's socialist dictatorship.



The new Iraqi government is adopting free-market policies, but the transition has been difficult. In response to International Monetary Fund demands, it stopped subsidising fuel prices virtually overnight, so that prices shot up nearly eightfold.



The government is using the additional fuel revenues to help fund the new scheme.



Bassima Faris, a social sciences professor at Mosul University, said Iraq's welfare services have long been inadequate, and he praised the government for making an effort to help the poor.



But he said funding the scheme by raising fuel prices was wrong as it meant the project "was created on the backs of the poor".



Star al-Hamdani, 36, agreed, arguing that higher fuel costs are driving up the prices of other goods and services.



Hamdani, an unemployed father of two who has applied for the welfare scheme, said he hoped the government would help create jobs rather than just offer handouts.



Jobs would be "better than giving us these benefit payments", he said. "The [financial support] makes us feel like we are burdens on our society, family and government."



Wa'd Ibrahim is an IWPR trainee journalist in Mosul.

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