The "land between two rivers" adapts to its most recent challenge

May 19, 2020


Iraq, the land between the two rivers, is a bittersweet story. The country that is modern day Iraq was once the cradle of civilization, with the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians creating some of the most powerful empires in the region, and indeed, the world. Growing up in nearby Lebanon, I would always hear the Arabic saying: ‘Iraq reads what Egypt writes and what Beirut prints.’ Thousands of young people studied at its universities, walked its streets and sat at the banks of the Tigris River to read.

In the 1980s, Iraq was on a trajectory to real and tangible human development. However sanctions, war, tyranny, corruption and most recently the emergence of ISIL managed to bring one of the most promising countries in the region to its knees. Following its liberation from ISIL, Iraq struggled with rebuilding its governance systems, infrastructure, and social fabric. In October 2019, amidst all the challenges facing the country, Iraqi youth, who constitute more than 60 percent of the population, took to the streets with demands for governance reforms, anticorruption measures, and a simple chance at a decent standard of living; jobs and basic services. The coronavirus COVID-19 has added yet another layer of crisis.

A story of hope

But for me Iraq is also a story of hope. It has the potential to become one of the most developed nations in the world. It holds major natural resources: fertile lands, oil and gas, just to name a few. Its unique ethnic and religious diversity can be a source of its strength, not one of divisiveness. Iraq has young people who are productive and want to work.

Iraq is also a story where UNDP excels; a textbook example of the organization operating at its best in a post-conflict setting. It’s a story where we are always a first resort and the partner of choice – for the government across all levels; for international donors; for implementing partners; and for communities. In 2015, well before ISIL was fully defeated, we launched our stabilization programme. Amidst the fighting, our teams worked around the clock to bring back functioning, basic infrastructure and services to communities. Five years later, it has become UNDP’s flagship programme, responsible for thousands of infrastructure rehabilitation projects, securing tens of thousands of jobs, building government capacity and legitimacy, and launching a range of initiatives to build stronger, more cohesive communities. Without it, more than 4.6 million Iraqis would have remined internally displaced. The programme is funded by 27 donors, and enjoys excellent trust from international partners, the government, and the people of Iraq. It is an agile, responsive, adaptive, accountable, credible vehicle that sets the foundation for a more prosperous and peaceful Iraq. A place one would feel proud to work in!


The "land between two rivers" adapts to its most recent challenge

My visit to the New Danedan Water Treatment Plant in West Mosul, which was destroyed by ISIL and rehabilitated by UNDP Iraq’s Stabilization programme. Photo: UNDP Iraq/Claire Thomas

Fighting COVID on the frontline

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the government required urgent support to bolster health services, especially for vulnerable populations. Yet again, we proved our responsiveness and ability to deliver what is needed - quickly, efficiently, and with ample boots on the ground. After assessing a number of health facilities, our teams are now building isolation rooms, procuring much-needed medical equipment, and providing healthcare workers across the country with personal protective equipment. Our Accelerator Lab team is exploring local, innovative solutions, helping to raise awareness and reduce stigma about the virus through the online ‘Corona in Iraq’ platform and through their community volunteers. Our Local Peace Committees established by our Social Cohesion pillar are working tirelessly in communities to facilitate voluntary returns, while ensuring the smooth integration in communities of origin.

Within the UN system in Iraq, we play the primary role in integrating development agencies. Alongside the World Health Organization’s preparedness plan, and the Humanitarian Country Team’s Humanitarian Response Plan, UNDP Iraq is leading the UN development system in conceiving the UN Recovery Framework for COVID-19 – a roadmap for the United Nations Development System to support Iraq’s recovery from yet another disaster. We commenced this critical work even before the UN Framework was launched, and anticipate that a draft will be completed shortly, informing the collective UN development response for the next two years.

Extreme challenges

Our staff face extreme challenges yet make little complaints. Some nights in Baghdad we wake up to a wailing alarm, signaling a rocket attack in the Green Zone (that’s if the sound of the explosion doesn’t wake you up first.) Over the loudspeaker, instructions are repeated, over and over: “Take cover, put on your PPE, move away from the windows and the doors. Other days we are forced to cancel field missions at the last minute because ISIL sleeper cells have attacked, or demonstrators flooded the streets.

Only one-tenth of international staff remain at the UN compound in Baghdad. We are serviced by a basic clinic, so getting sick in conditions like this with limited to non-existing healthcare services is a legitimate, everyday fear. For those of us who do remain, we live in total lockdown, surrounded by thick, 12-foot-high concrete steel reinforced T-walls and barbed wire, with limited movements, no restaurants or entertainment, and unable to see family and friends. This is the reality of our everyday life, well before COVID-19, and now the world has had a glimpse of it too. Our lifestyle comes with sacrifices we have willingly made to help Iraq return to the great country it once was. But these sacrifices are made by UN staff all over the world, living and working in countries affected by conflict.

Of course, it’s not always doom and gloom. In Baghdad, lifting the UN compound’s dreary, beige T-walls is the occasional hand-painted mural, depicting images of Iraq in its glory days. And of course, the ear-to-ear grin of the Fijian guard unit, who are employed to keep us safe, and who never go one day without saying “Bula ma’am!” It’s a place where you pick up new hobbies like gardening, planting your vegetables in a small pot. It’s where you learn new recipes, make new friends, and gain second families.

The "land between two rivers" adapts to its most recent challenge

A T-wall recently painted by an Iraqi NGO, adding much-needed color and life to the UN compound.


The "land between two rivers" adapts to its most recent challenge

The ear-to-ear grin of the Fijian guard unit, who are employed to keep us safe, and who never go one day without saying “Bula ma’am!”


What drives us to persist conditions like this is our impact on communities. Seeing a shopkeeper open up his bakery for the first time, four years after fleeing from ISIL. Students, males and females, at Mosul University, once ISIL’s headquarters, back on their study benches. Drawings of children depicting themselves as future doctors, engineers and humanitarians. The unwavering hospitality of even the poorest of families when we enter their homes. And the rewarding feeling of being able to deliver these results in the face of enormous difficulties

The story of UNDP in Iraq starts with its staff, who work well beyond their call of duty. It’s an inspirational story that I hope one day ends with young people reading their books by the Tigris.