Issue 65 - Article 5

Designing safer livelihoods programmes in Iraq

October 29, 2015
Rachel Sider
A data collector facilitates a focus group discussion with IDP men using the CLARA tool in Iraq

Since January 2014, Iraq has spiralled from long-term conflict and chronic vulnerability into a complex humanitarian emergency. With over 3.2 million Iraqis displaced, widespread violence and insecurity has torn apart the social fabric of the country. Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups are separated by mutual fear and suspicion, and the chances of restoring social cohesion are dwindling rapidly. A key question remains: how can we continue to respond to acute needs without losing sight of longer-term recovery?

Short-term assistance constitutes the bulk of the inter-national community’s humanitarian response in Iraq in 2015. Yet ensuring favourable outcomes for Iraqi civilians requires action that saves lives in the short run, and addresses the structural causes of violence and fragility without giving rise to new grievances. This article elaborates some of the key socio-economic challenges in Iraq, with a particular focus on livelihoods, security and social cohesion.

Livelihoods as an entry point

To date, there has been limited evidence that livelihood responses in Iraq have effectively considered local dynamics and are conflict sensitive. Affected Iraqis are drawing on their assets to survive, while dealing with changing configurations of power, unequal access to resources and information and the threat of violence. Displacement increases the vulnerability of men, women, boys and girls and can lead to disruptive changes in gender norms and social and cultural practices. In conflict-affected areas, assets have been damaged or destroyed and transport routes are disrupted or dangerous, affecting markets and damaging the livelihoods both of internally displaced people (IDPs) and the communities hosting them.

Livelihood interventions can be a double-edged sword: they can help people overcome crises and build resilience, yet they can also become liabilities, increasing vulnerability to risks such as gender-based violence (GBV) and social tensions. While critical, the links between gender, livelihoods and protection have largely been overlooked. Gender Issues in Conflict and Humanitarian Action, Oxfam Humanitarian Policy Note, November 2013.

In early 2015, Oxfam and the Women’s Refugee Commission piloted the Cohort Livelihoods and Risk Analysis (CLARA) tool in the disputed internal boundaries (DIBs) The Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) are areas that fall under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution as territory that lies outside of the agreed semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq and remains in dispute between Baghdad and Erbil. of Diyala Gover-norate. Developed by the Women’s Refugee Commission, CLARA assesses needs, risks and opportunities, and highlights mitigation strategies for safer, more responsive humanitarian assistance. The tool evaluates the livelihood recovery needs of conflict-affected communities and associated risks through mainstreaming gender risk analysis. This analysis supports the design of appropriate livelihoods initiatives that incorporate gender risk mitigation throughout the programme cycle for safer, more responsive and effective livelihoods programming.

CLARA is a set of four steps to capture GBV risks associated with pre-crisis livelihoods, as well as the potential risks arising from programmes in response to crisis. The four steps are secondary and primary data review, data analysis and programme design, and implementation and monitoring. CLARA may be used alongside other livelihood assessments or as a stand-alone tool, depending on the context. WRC and Oxfam identified three target populations for the assessment – IDPs living in non-camp settings, returnees and host communities. The analysis spanned five villages in northern Diyala consisting primarily of returnees or higher proportions of IDPs to hosts.

A team of nine data collectors, five women and four men, received two days of training on gender, GBV, livelihoods, ethical data collection, interview facilitation and note taking. Together they conducted 28 focus group discussions (FGDs) and 31 household interviews with 208 IDPs, returnees and hosts. In accordance with the IASC Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action, ten consultations took place separately with women, men, adolescent girls and boys. FGDs were also held with the main livelihood groups, including farmers, shepherds, traders and labourers. FGDs included people with disabilities and their caregivers and the elderly.

Perceptions of insecurity

The overarching conclusion of CLARA is that perceptions of insecurity dominate daily life. They restrict livelihoods oppor-tunities, shape communal interactions, influence gender dynamics and perpetuate distrust and fear in communities. This is of particular concern in areas disputed by the Kurdish and federal Iraqi authorities. Dialogue with local elders, community leaders, women and adolescents identified security and community cohesion as the principal factors influencing decision-making in displacement. Addressing these factors is an essential step in facilitating recovery and durable solutions.

Communal tensions, distrust of strangers and revenge crimes – made worse by the easy availability of arms and a general climate of impunity – are major concerns for affected communities, particularly as they recover livelihoods in either areas of displacement or return. As CLARA reveals, individuals’ perceptions of security must be considered in developing durable solutions to their displacement. Host communities and IDPs reported a perceived uptick in petty crime, citing rumours of theft among shopkeepers. Fear of strangers focused on perceived affiliation with armed groups and risks to women and girls. As one woman noted, ‘Most of the men do not go to work because they do not want the women to be alone in the village. We do not let our children go to work because there are strangers in the village’. Such fears have constrained freedom of movement, confining women and girls to the home and preventing traders from travelling far outside the village. People who have opted to remain displaced or who lack alternatives to return often have a bleaker view of security in their home village than those who have returned. These factors, as well as the absence of reliable statistics on crimes against civilians and communal conflict, make it difficult to analyse the security context in a way that, for example, effectively includes women’s perspectives and participation and ensures ‘do no harm’ principles. On the obstacles to incorporating women’s participation and perspectives in developing a comprehensive gender analysis to underpin humanitarian and development interventions, see Women, Peace and Security: Keeping the Promise, Oxfam briefing paper, September 2015.

Trust in governance and in the security forces has been undermined by the proliferation of weapons, the loss of social cohesion following displacement, pervasive cronyism and collective crimes against groups along ethno-sectarian lines. Demographic change in the DIBs has deepened the social, economic and political grievances of communities experiencing displacement. There are no mechanisms to compensate for this and the failure of the authorities to address violations and restore inclusive governance and the rule of law is clear. In the absence of reliable and consistent governance, families in contested areas feel unprotected, intimidated and threatened.

Ultimately, any longer-term solution to displacement can only be durable if physical security (i.e. the absence of threats to people’s physical integrity) and legal security (i.e. the presence of protective measures and respect for human rights) are assured. People must be protected against the threats which caused their displacement, and which may trigger renewed conflict. This hinges on a peaceful resolution of the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil.

Challenges to recovery

Even if the causes of displacement are contained, security is res-tored and families regain their livelihoods, creating the right set of circumstances for sustainable recovery will be difficult. The Iraqi government has publicly recognised that it is responsible for setting up an appropriate framework for return through a joint coordination centre, ensuring security, rule of law, respect for human rights and access to basic services. Very little has been done, however, to make this a reality. In fact, there is hardly any state presence and still little evidence of significant rehabilitation, specifically in the DIBs, where administrative control is contested.

Militia activity – made worse by the circulation of arms and general sense of impunity – has had a negative impact on the work of NGOs and the United Nations, reducing access and threatening programmes intended to assist returns. The presence and unregulated movement of militias in newly accessible areas poses larger threats to civilian security, and is the primary obstacle to voluntary and safe return.

The humanitarian community has yet to collectively prioritise recovery and identify principal areas of concern, needs to be addressed and a common strategy to be adopted. Community tensions, IDP and returnee intentions and protection risks for the displaced have not driven planning processes. As a whole, the international community is struggling to develop programmes that both meet humanitarian needs and strengthen the resilience of Iraqi communities. Oxfam, ‘No Accident: Resilience and the Inequality of Risk’ 2013.

The way forward

Practically, we need to work together to develop clear operating procedures for early recovery to shape interventions in newly secure areas, disputed territories and communities of return. The needs of host communities must be taken into consideration as early as possible. In addition to putting significant strain on local infrastructure, the ongoing IDP influx has increased competition for jobs, depressed wages and increased the cost of living. These factors have fuelled tensions between IDPs and their hosts, threatening the positive protection environment that has sheltered IDPs for over a year and complicating returns scenarios moving forward.

The humanitarian response must take into account conflict dynamics and IDPs’ perceptions of insecurity and support the con-ditions for durable solutions, particularly return. This includes mainstreaming social cohesion in recovery and aligning humani-tarian action with longer-term conflict reduction and peace-building initiatives. Practitioners, governments and donors must recognise that the underlying drivers of conflict, many of which are political and socio-economic, remain unaddressed.

Improving security in Iraq and areas where the conflict has receded will be key to enabling humanitarian and development workers to meet the pressing needs of the population and ensure the proper conditions for durable solutions. Only the state can sustainably restore authority and the rule of law by deploying security forces and strengthening the justice system. Such efforts must be conducted without fuelling further grievances and in a way that guarantees everyone’s safety.

Recurring tensions and communal disputes must be resolved through inclusive consultation with men and women in com-munities and support to traditional dispute resolution mecha-nisms to help families regain trust with their neighbours. Donor governments should continue to support local reconcili-ation and inclusive peace-building programmes alongside a humanitarian response that actively seeks to reduce conflict.

Rachel Sider is Oxfam’s Iraq policy lead, based in Erbil. To read the full report, CLARA: Designing Safer Livelihoods Programs in Iraq, visit Oxfam’s Policy & Practice site at


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