“If poverty had been a man, I would have killed him.” Thus spoke Ali ben Abi Taleb, the Shia Muslims most revered imam and a hero who viewed poverty as the greatest enemy of God’s kingdom on earth.
His sermons on social justice became a fundamental pillar of Islam in the Shia faith, in addition to the belief in God, his messenger the Prophet Mohamed, and doomsday.
Yet, under the first ever Shia-led government in modern Iraq, Ali’s doctrine of social justice has remained merely ink on paper as the Shia elites’ corruption and incompetence continue to cost the country dear in terms of state failure.
What is even more depressing about how Ali’s teachings have apparently not echoed in today’s Iraq is the betrayal of the Iraqi Shia political class that had built its case for empowerment on demands to undo the injustice done to the Shias in the country over centuries.
Though Iraq, whose huge oil reserves make it OPEC’s second-largest producer, is one of the wealthiest countries in the world on paper, it ranked just 78th in the world in 2016.
The official poverty and unemployment statistics for Iraq make bleak reading, even when compared with similar data from less wealthy countries.
Recent figures from UN agencies and the Iraqi government indicate that both the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and the unemployment rate in Iraq have risen in recent years.
A joint UN-Iraqi report warns of unprecedented levels of vulnerability among the poorer members of the country’s population and provides key recommendations to avoid a hunger crisis in the country.
The data collection was conducted in association with the Iraqi government and was concluded in 2016. More than 20,000 Iraqi families were surveyed in urban and rural areas, including people who had been internally displaced and those living in their own homes.
The report says that more than half of Iraqi families are at risk of food insecurity and can no longer absorb any further shocks such as further conflict or increases in basic food prices.
The deterioration in welfare conditions in the country has led many to believe that Iraq’s failure to reduce poverty, particularly among the young, is the major underlying cause of recent social unrest in parts of the country, the report concludes.
Iraq’s economy has been paralysed by a sharp decline in oil prices and high spending on the war against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. But the country’s deepening economic crisis is also due largely to bad planning, inefficiency, and rampant corruption among the ruling elite.
Since 2003, Iraq has ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world in the lobby group Transparency International’s index of corrupt nations. Corruption and bad governance have created a black hole in Iraq’s economy, particularly by reducing business confidence and investment.
Graft, bribery, extortion and the abuse of power in the public and private sectors have been blamed for the reluctance of businesses to invest in Iraq, thus reducing job opportunities and deepening the country’s poverty gap.
Iraq’s reputation for widespread corruption is tied to how its well-connected oligarchs have looted the country using the key strategies of thievery and fraud. Not only have the country’s political elite plundered the nation’s wealth, but they also appear aloof and detached from the troubles of their countrymen.
A superficial glance could suggest that Iraq is still not as poor as it could have been given the circumstances. But the effects of poverty can be felt at every level of society in the country, from individuals living in dire conditions and lacking sufficient food, healthcare and education to the overall underperformance of the economy.
Whether it is food insecurity, malnutrition, healthcare, homelessness, unemployment or increased income instability, poverty reaches just about every aspect of life in Iraq.
Other impacts of poverty include its devastating consequences on education. A report by the World Economic Forum published earlier this year concluded that Iraq did not meet even the most basic standards of quality in education, making it ineligible to enter any framework for evaluation.
Another report published earlier this year revealed that worsening poverty was one of the key factors behind the rise in divorce rates in Iraq. According to the survey, a large number of divorces in the country are due to men abandoning their wives because they are not in a position to bear the financial burdens of looking after a family.
However, the most disturbing effect of poverty remains the political turmoil and the internal instability that has plagued the country. The link between poverty and violence in Iraq is not just on the individual level, but rather serves as a wider social indicator.
Since its invasion by the US in 2003, toppling the Sunni regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been divided by a sectarian conflict that has so far killed hundreds of thousands of people.
This conflict has been related to a dispiriting sense of injustice felt by the country’s Sunni minority, who have resorted to insurgency in the search for greater inclusion and equality.
Since June 2014 when IS seized large areas of land in northern Iraq, more than three million people have been displaced by the civil conflict that has been exacerbated by the rise of the terror group.
The effect of poverty that is caused by corruption and mismanagement on terrorism is straightforward. Poverty fuels terrorism by creating a state of misery and frustration that pushes people to join terrorist organisations.
Top Iraqi officials now agree that terrorism and corruption in the country are the two sides of one coin. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi told a gathering in Iraq on 2 April that “corruption is not less harmful than terrorism.”
Sunni parliamentary speaker Saleem Al-Jubouri also urged the government last week to adopt a “well-defined approach to social justice,” which he said should “foil” attempts by terrorists to fuel further discontent.
“Poverty is a short cut to crime and radicalism, and unless we put an end to the deterioration in standards of living and the rise in poverty we will face a new nightmare,” Al-Jabouri told a gathering in Baghdad.
He called for an overhaul of the government’s economic and development strategies “in order to provide a source of income for citizens and to immunise them against terrorism”.
Many Iraqis believe that corruption, which has left the Iraqi treasury nearly empty, is a more urgent cause of their country’s misery than other factors by a large margin.
As their country continues to be mired in a deepening economic crisis characterised by policy failures and worsening poverty, the euphoria that engulfed the Iraqi Shia on their empowerment has been gradually waning as they discover how the crumbling of their long-aspired-to government and society has been closely entangled with the rampant corruption and inefficiency of their leaders.
Many Iraqi Shias feel that their political elites should be ashamed of the poverty that still exists throughout the country and of the fact that they have failed to build the society of justice and welfare that their most revered saint wanted to see.
In Ali’s teachings, God’s purpose in sending His prophets was to end injustice in the world and to establish Islamic justice on earth, requiring among other things the punishment of embezzlers and those who abuse public funds.
Yet, in Iraq today these challenges are still daunting, and they are crying out for practical solutions. After the liberation of areas of the country from under IS rule, a reconstruction programme still awaits funds from the cash-strapped Iraqi government in order to achieve stabilisation and prevent a return of the terrorist group.
The failure of the Shia-led government in Baghdad to adopt a consistent policy for national rebuilding and reconciliation with the country’s Sunni minority will keep the country deadlocked and even deepen the political uncertainty.
The continuation of instability, coupled with rampant corruption, also portends further economic decline, increasing the hardship especially among the most vulnerable social strata.
Unless Iraq’s Shia political class instigates serious reforms to end the corruption and mismanagement in the country, Iraq’s economy will continue to fail and poverty will continue to worsen, leaving the country ever closer to the edge.