Iraq strives to move beyond body count

_45106055_44efc1f4-b297-4f25-9cb3-47df5119144c1.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) – In five years of war, Iraq has been hostage to a parade of grim statistics: car bombs, corpses, cholera and refugees fleeing rampant bloodshed.

But as violence drops sharply and Iraq turns toward reconstruction, officials seize upon a more quotidian, yet scarcely less important, set of numbers: economic output, employment, childhood vaccinations and even the whereabouts of Iraq’s war-weary population.

The U.S. government, World Bank and other donors have backed efforts in recent years to help Iraqi’s statistics agency, COSIT, get a better grasp of the country’s vital figures.

“A government without statistics is like a traveler without a path,” Mehdi al-Alak, who heads COSIT, the Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology, said last week as Iraq launched its first five-year statistical plan.

Iraq needs urgently to provide reliable, timely statistics, especially on the economy, to lure in investment, resurrect tattered infrastructure and broaden growth in a bid to stave off a resurgence in violence.

That is especially important as the burgeoning global economic crisis casts a dark shadow across the Middle East and fragile Iraq.

In the most recent World Bank ranking of national statistics capacity, Iraq scored 51 on a scale of 100, in between Tonga and Samoa. For a relatively developed country, strategically located in the Middle East and sitting atop the world’s third largest oil reserves, that’s not good enough.

Economists complain the government uses outdated data to calculate inflation, just one shortcoming. The population is believed to be about 28 million, but there has been no census since 1997.

Jorge Thompson Araujo, lead economist for Iraq at the World Bank, said that in the 1970s and 80s, Iraq was ahead of the curve in statistics practice. That changed after years of sanctions and isolation under Saddam Hussein’s iron rule.

“Under the repressive regime, people did not have the incentive to produce statistics the regime didn’t want to hear. Iraq got stuck in time,” he said.

TOO DANGEROUS

Certainly, the catastrophic violence that has plagued Iraq since 2003 has hindered the government’s basic data collection.

“Like other institutions, we suffered from the security situation, especially since our work is in the field,” Alak said. With giant car bombs and mortar fire rocking Baghdad daily, Iraq decided to postpone a census due in 2007, and it is now scheduled for October 2009.

“It was too dangerous. Your census-takers would have been killed,” said Farid Matuk, a former chief statistician for Peru who now advises COSIT in Baghdad as part of a $300-million U.S. project which aims to improve Iraqi administration.

Iraq’s high rate of internal displacement — people moving house or city to escape violence — presents another challenge.

At least four million Iraqis are believed to have fled the country or moved to different parts of Iraq.

But Iraq is moving to correct these weaknesses, the International Monetary Fund noted in a recent report.

Earlier this year, the government began conducting quarterly surveys of 20,000 households that seek to provide a snapshot of employment and economic activity, one of the largest such surveys in the developing world, Matuk said.

A household survey, backed by the World Bank, is expected later this year and will provide insight into poverty in Iraq.

“In the last few years we have seen a marked improvement, but it is still far from ideal,” Araujo said.

Among what is needed is a more accurate picture of economic activity outside the oil sector, he said, a task that is hindered by the country’s large informal economy — people selling cigarettes or sweets on the street, for example.

A MORE CLEAR PICTURE?

As violence drops to four-year lows, Iraq needs investment in oil works, electricity, industry and services.

A wave of foreign investment that Washington has been hoping for since 2003 has yet to materialize. While security remains without a doubt the top concern for prospective investors, more reliable economic data would certainly help.

“No investor will come to Iraq if they do not have correct and exact numbers,” said Ali Baban, Iraq’s planning minister.

Matuk expects the government will adopt a plan to triple COSIT’s budget and staff over five years.

Accurate figures are also needed as Iraq, led by a Sunni Arab minority until Saddam’s regime was toppled in 2003, struggles for political and sectarian reconciliation.

Violence began to drop last year, thanks to a boost in U.S. troops, the decision from former Sunni insurgents to join local policing efforts, and a ceasefire among Shi’ite militiamen.

But political reconciliation is proving more elusive. The Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is struggling to foster cooperation among politicians and build trust among warring ethnic and religious groups.

Some $100 million has been set aside already for the 2009 census, Matuk said: that may shed light on which groups hold majorities in sensitive areas of the country, such as the disputed city of Kirkuk.

“Maybe this information will be a path so every Iraqi entity knows its size, its ability. I think this is part of the path toward national reconciliation,” Baban said.

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