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World Humanitarian Day 2016: Staff profiles

Staff profiles: Fadel - Iraq

Nearly one third of Iraqis currently require some form of humanitarian assistance. The protracted conflict, now entering its third year, has led to 30 percent of people fleeing their homes. Food security remains one of the most worrying aspects of the crisis. Large tracts of prime agricultural land and many grain silos are currently under the control of armed groups, including ISIL, contributing to countrywide cereal shortages and a sharp rise in the cost of basic food commodities.

Fadel EL ZUBI has worked for the UN for over 20 years, and mostly with FAO where he is currently the head of office in Iraq. Fadel shares some of his experiences about his work in the country.

What motivated you to work in the humanitarian field?
I can’t imagine doing anything else as interesting, challenging, exhilarating, and rewarding as working in the humanitarian field. Working in the humanitarian community provides me with the opportunity to exert all efforts possible to save lives and give hope to disaster-affected people.

Can you give an overview of the scope of the emergency and what you’ve seen on field missions throughout the country?
The crisis continues to affect the overall food production in Iraq, as agricultural activities in key productive areas are impacted by lack of agricultural inputs, price fluctuations, reduced water supply, and insecurity. In areas retaken from ISIL, the pace and timing of returns is determined by factors related to security, services and compensation. Each district is impacted by complex internal dynamics, which are mediated and adjudicated by an abundant network of officials, security forces and local elites. In some cases, arrangements are agreed quickly and displaced families return relatively soon and safely, but most urban areas are riddled with IEDs which have to be cleared before being declared safe. In the majority of newly retaken towns, the stabilization phase is fraught with lengthy, delayed returns. We’ve seen thousands of displaced families feeling trapped, unwanted where they are, but unwilling to return to unstable, destroyed towns and villages.

Can you describe how the conflict has affected food security in the country? And what does that mean for the livelihoods of those that depend on agriculture?
The ongoing conflict is jeopardizing agricultural production, loss of assets and income opportunities from farming, together with disruptions in marketing activities and logistics, have exposed large numbers of people to severe food insecurity. Increasing number of displacement together with Syrian refugees is also putting huge pressure on host communities.

How is FAO responding to the crisis?
FAO is currently concentrating on supporting access to food and ensuring sustainable availability of staple foods to safeguard adequate food security, as well as coordination of food security response based on proper assessment of needs, challenges and resources to achieve sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition.

What is the current focus of FAO’s emergency response in Iraq?
1. Secure food production and incomes;
2. Protect livestock health and production;
3. Increase employment for displaced and host communities;
4. Coordinate an effective, needs-based response.

What do farmers/pastoralists in Iraq need most right now in terms of assistance?
Populations in areas under the control of armed groups have seen their food production and access to markets severely restricted. A large part of the cereal production belt is now directly under control of armed groups, impacting access to agricultural inputs, cereal harvest and post-harvesting activities in key production areas. Several post-harvest infrastructures (e.g. silos) have been plundered and damaged, forcing farmers to stock their grains in the open, exposed to weather. Displaced, returnees and host families, most particularly families with reduced income are struggling to meet basic needs. Farmers in Iraq need support where services are over-subscribed, to prevent families from relying on irreversible coping mechanisms with negative impact.

Describe the location of where you work
I work in Baghdad city. The UN works in Baghdad from the Green Zone that is a 10 square km area in the Karkh district in central city. The Green Zone is completely surrounded by high concrete blast walls, T-Walls and barbed wire fences with access only available through a handful of entry control points. Apart from Baghdad, I always conduct trips to Erbil city (350 km north of Baghdad) and other locations where FAO is operating.

What motivates you to work in the agriculture and food security sector?
Agriculture is the lead sector in reducing poverty. Increasingly, countries are counting on agriculture to produce more nutritious food and improve the livelihoods, especially the poor. It is incredibly meaningful to be a part of a proven solution to such a critical challenge.

Can you share your most inspiring moment in humanitarian work and what have you been most proud about?
I am proud of all intervention made during my work in humanitarian response. A case to be mentioned is the distribution of the laying hens with the feed to the internally displaced person’s (IDPs) from Ninawa in Iraq after the ISIS attack and occupation of Ninawa in June 2014. The impact of the eggs produced, which form an exceptional addition to the daily meals of IDP’s in addition to the food assistance provided by other agencies, was welcomed and praised to me by the beneficiaries. They were living in extreme poverty, and the extra eggs produced by the families added an income which could help to cover other demands and needs.

What is it like working in an emergency environment/conflict environment?
One of the challenges of working in a conflict environment is that it can be very unsafe. Fear of kidnappings and explosives are a constant threat. Even as security has improved for aid organizations in recent years, deepening political crises have made it increasingly risky for us as humanitarians operating in remote and unstable locations.

What are the biggest challenges for you and how do you cope?
The most important challenge is in following the “do no harm” approach, by ensuring that those provided with FAO assistance are not subject to any sort of exploitation, and that community-based participatory processes are in place. This principle helps us identify conflict-exacerbating impacts of assistance. Disconnecting from work can prove to be very hard also. Finding an outlet and setting aside work is challenging, yet I’m supported by colleagues and family on whom I can rely on.

What are the biggest challenges facing FAO in the location where you are?
Access remains a challenge, particularly in areas under control of armed groups. Transportation of inputs was also an issue, accessibility to villages and some areas proved to be very challenging. Passing security checks and obtaining official approvals is not easy as well. FAO is assuming a lot more risk and taking on a lot of the work that governments used to do.

What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do on the job?
To overcome the political obstacles which can deny aid and support to reach the most vulnerable people in need.