Interview:Nasreen Mustafa Sideek Minister of Reconstruction and Development, Kurdistan Regional Government (northern Iraq).
Michael Rubin, a member of the MEIB advisory board and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, interviewed Ms. Nasreen Mustafa Sideek regarding the United Nations-administered oil-for-food program and her ministry's development activities. This interview was conducted online between Washington and Irbil, Iraq.
Nasreen Mustafa Sideek was born in Baghdad in 1967, and became a political prisoner at age 14. She obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in architectural engineering at the University of Baghdad in 1991. Fleeing Iraq in the wake of the failed Kurdish uprising in 1991, Nasreen returned upon the creation of the safe-haven, finding work as an administrative officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. She continued working in various UN capacities in northern Iraq, eventually becoming head of the United Nations Center for Human Settlements (Habitat) field office in 1997. In 1999, after completing a Master's Degree in Public Administration at Harvard University, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) appointed Nasreen Minister of Reconstruction and Development.
Many argue that UN Security Council Resolution 986, the so-called "Oil-for-Food program" is hurting Iraq, and inhibiting development. Is this the case?
Before SCR 986 my ministry did far less than what we are doing today. Even though we had a large technical staff and much heavy machinery, we did not have the funds to address the massive amount of rural reconstruction needed. We did what we could with the very limited funds available . . .
SCR 986 brought, and continues to bring, an abundance of resources. Since the program began, more than 20,000 families throughout Iraqi Kurdistan have been provided with accommodation. Hundreds of schools with thousands of classrooms have been constructed and many more are being planned. Hundreds of kilometers of village access roads have been completed along with water systems, health centers, irrigation channels, veterinary centers, and other works.
What is the scale of reconstruction in northern Iraq?
To answer that, I'll let the figures speak for themselves (see charts below).
When you discuss reconstruction, is northern Iraq developing from the same baseline as the rest of Iraq?
It must never be overlooked that more than 4,000 of some 5,000 communities were destroyed, flattened, ranging from small hamlets to towns of more than 50,000 people. Since 1975, many families were forced from their communities. Our cities have grown excessively because of forced displacement and destruction, and this has placed an excessive burden on urban services. Even today, according to a UNCHS (Habitat) report, 23% of Iraqi Kurdistan's 3.6 million people are displaced, and many more continue to live in substandard conditions. The Arabization of Kurdish areas in Iraqi government-controlled territory continues to force more families into displacement; more are coming to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Reconstructing these communities and rehabilitating lives is daunting but the abundant SCR 986 resources available are helping tremendously. Incidentally, according to UN Office of Iraq Programme Executive Director Benon Sevan's recent statement, nearly six billion dollars have been earned to date for Iraqi Kurdistan from both oil sale proceeds and interest
How does the United Nation balance working with the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG], which controls the three northern governorates, and the regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad?
A key issue is that UN agencies tend to operate independently of the local authorities. Rather than help strengthen the regional and local government structures that will continue long after they leave the scene, as the UN generally does in virtually all other situations, some UN agencies act as if the KRG need not exist. Some UN agencies take "managing on behalf of the Iraqi government" too far.
Too much of the planning process has been ad hoc, hit or miss, shopping list project proposals. This is a function of funds chasing projects instead of well planned programs and projects chasing funds. We need the UN to assist the KRG to upgrade region-wide planning capabilities in order to apply available funds more effectively.
Does the Oil-for-Food program in any way hurt the local economy?
What many families in rural areas really need is increased income generating opportunities. SCR 986 has not yet paid enough attention to this most important aspect of rural development. Agricultural production is indeed improving under SCR 986 but the fact that the program purchases wheat from Australia and Canada for free distribution instead of purchasing locally produced wheat, which is Iraqi Kurdistan's main crop, has had a very negative effect on rural incomes.
Also, the UN hires away our staff with salaries of ten to fifty times local salaries, according to an independent study commissioned by UNCHS (Habitat) and carried out by the Institute of Social Sciences in The Hague.
The US State Department has recently been pushing so-called smart or targeted sanctions. How would smart sanctions impact your work?
The KRG funds projects and runs programs in the public sector that SCR 986 is not doing. For example, the extensive main road network and the digital telecommunication system that the UN uses to implement SCR 986 projects and programs were all done by the KRG with its own funds. If smart sanctions severely restricted the diesel border trade, which is a primary source of KRG revenue, much of my work on KRG-funded projects would not be possible. The running of my ministry would be adversely affected and I might have to dismantle administrative structures that would be needed to serve the region well into the future after SCR-986 terminated.
However, while the issue of restricting the border will impact the KRG financial capacity to fund its projects and run its institutions, there will be more opportunities within SCR 986 for the use of the cash component to support civil servants and also will allow international investment and international contracting capacity to enter the region. This could increase the rate of implementation.
However all the later issues are subject to the approval of the Iraqi government and visas will have to be granted by the Iraqi government as well. If you consider recent unwillingness of the Iraqi government to grant visas for those working in electricity and demining, I'm not optimistic all the benefits will materialize.
How has the violent separatist campaign waged by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and its activities in Iraq impacted resettlement in the area?
The PKK presence has prevented resettlement of some areas because they have been a very serious threat to security. They have intimidated villagers to leave their communities, caused casualties, destroyed homes and schools, and looted property. More than 100 such communities have been de-settled by PKK presence. Only recently have we been able to seriously consider resettling rural areas vacated due to PKK presence.