Guest Blog: DFAT’s Iraq pullout a bitter pill for aid

By Laura Jean McKay

In February this year Michael Bates, country director of the Danish Refugee Council in the Kurdish region and greater Iraq, received an email. It was from DFAT, the donor that was supporting 70 per cent of their programs in south and central Iraq, regretting to say that they were pulling out. They gave one month’s notice – as per the contract.

Credit: Yvonne Green/DFAT
Credit: Yvonne Green/DFAT

While Bates tells me over an unexpectedly clear Skype connection that the email came as “a shock”, the retreat of the Australian aid program wasn’t much of a surprise.

“As disappointing as it was to lose the money from AusAID or DFAT, I think they have also been an incredibly good donor,” says Bates. “Interests do evolve elsewhere and I can’t single out the Australian government for neglecting a country that still needs to be supported because Australia is not the only one. Most governments, if they haven’t already, are still pulling out. It’s a bitter reality.”

Australia is one of the last of many countries that has been withdrawing funding from Iraq, often to focus on the situation in nearby Syria and the millions of refugees who have escaped over the boarder into Kurdistan – where the Danish Refugee Council also has operations. But while the situation in Syria plays out in the world’s media, 350,000 Iraqis have been displaced from internal sectarian conflicts that are killing 1000 people every month and there are real fears that the country is close to civil war.

Bates and the head of operations Zinnah Kamah successfully negotiated a longer period for the last of the programs that DFAT was supporting – vocational training and income generation for female headed households affected by conflict. The project will now end in June this year.

“We had some good stories of people whose lives have been transformed by this project,” says Kamah from the Danish Refugee Council office. “Women were doing different vocational training programs, some of them related to agriculture production training, some of them sewing, some of them mobile phone repairs, and some setting up small shops. Different kinds of things. Along with the training we gave them a small grant to start up businesses.”

A woman doing training in farm work or phone repairs can be a challenging sight in a traditionally male-dominated society such as Iraq. Bates explains that it’s not easy, and sometimes the effect is small, but it’s better than nothing.

“We’ve advocated at the ground level and also with the government and a lot of the working groups – female groups, religious leaders, government leaders as well. It was quite productive and extremely necessary. Some places were much more challenging than others, yes, but that was part of the work.”

Kamah adds, “in an electrical installation class we had five women. Men couldn’t believe that a woman would have such a career. We told them that, yes, it was a strange situation but we thought it was working. It was accepted.”

The next step was to get this recognised in the wider community – as Kamah points out, there’s no point in doing the training if women aren’t allowed to work in these fields or have a hard time doing so.

“It’s a process,” says Bates. “I don’t think we’re going to change the perception across the board immediately. But I think with small inner circles we can make some changes – and it’s got to start from somewhere.”

When I ask whether this process of change has now stopped because the funding has been withdrawn there is silence over the other end. The connection buzzes. I assume that it has cut out but then Kamah finally murmurs, “it’s hard to say.”

This is an extract of a longer essay by Laura Jean McKay on Australia’s aid program, which is part of the Right Now Essay Series. You can read the rest of the essay here.

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