The Iraqi government has pledged to improve the state-run food aid system in the wake of sporadic protests and long-standing discontent over the quality and targeting of the rations provided.
“We are working hard to improve the food ration system this year and to offer it with all [five] items, not just some of them,” Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki told a press conference on 17 February. “We have adopted a number of measures that can help us tackle this issue which we are following closely.”
In a move designed to outflank discontent in the wake of demonstrations in Iraq inspired by the momentous demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, Al-Maliki on 15 February announced the postponement of the purchase of 18 F-16 fighter jets from the USA, and the use of the money saved to improve food rations.
“We need these fighter jets as we are working to boost security, but we also need money to improve the food ration system, so we decided to postpone the [jet fighter] purchase,” he said, adding that about US$1 billion earmarked for the jets would now be spent on subsidized food handouts.
Al-Maliki said the government had also decided to decentralize management of the of the state food ration system by allowing local government in the 18 provinces to import, store and distribute the relevant food items.
The distribution, he added, would be targeted at the most vulnerable.
Many Iraqis complain that only some of the rations are delivered, or they arrive in poor condition, and there have been a number of protests against poor quality rations, unemployment, corruption and feeble public services.
“It’s a fodder ration not a food ration,” said one banner brandished by demonstrators in Iraq’s southern province of Wasit on 16 February. “We are sitting on billions of barrels of oil, but we can’t find anything to eat,” said another.
Iraq’s food rationing system, known as the Public Distribution System (PDS), was set up in 1995 as part of the UN’s oil-for-food programme following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. More than half of Iraq's 29 million people depend on it, according to the Trade Ministry.
At the end of 2009, the monthly PDS parcels contained rice (3kg per person); sugar (2kg per person); cooking oil (1.25kg or one litre per person); flour (9kg per person); milk for adults (250g per person); tea (200g per person); beans (250g per person); children's milk (1.8kg per child); soap (250g per person); detergents (500g per person); and tomato paste (500g per person).
In 2010, the government reduced the number of items to five: flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil and children’s milk - in the same quantities. But recipients have been receiving two or three items at a time. Al-Maliki said they would now receive all the five.
According to the Planning Ministry, about 25 percent of the population lives below the country’s poverty line, and unemployment is about 30 percent.
Meanwhile, oil revenues, which make up about 95 percent of Iraq’s revenue, have risen sharply in recent months giving ammunition to those calling for the government to spend more on PDS.
According to the Trade Ministry, about US$3 billion was spent on PDS in 2010. The Ministry is asking for $5 billion to be earmarked for PDS in this year’s budget which is yet to be approved by parliament.
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