Religious bias in US aid cripples rebuilding and stabilization efforts in Iraq
Text: Emmaly Read
Since the inauguration of the Trump Administration their foreign policy for Iraq has circled around defeating ISIS and aiding religious minorities. Vice President Mike Pence’s religious tilt has ensured that humanitarian aid meant to go through the United Nations will now be fast-tracked directly through religious aid groups in Iraq to solely target minorities, prominently Christians and Yazidis. The US has also emphasized their continued support for the Kurdish military force (Peshmerga) to help stabilization efforts in Sinjar, the homeland of the Yazidis and a disputed territory between Kurds and Arabs. These efforts may seem noble and in line with American idealism, however implementation has fallen short once again.
Sinjar is located in the disputed territory between Iraqi proper and the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, making long-term stability inherently contradictory. Constant changes in authority and territorial control result in a lack of responsibility for the well being of the locals. The aid fast tracked by the Trump Administration is selected to be distributed to aid organizations solely in the Nineveh province where Sinjar is located. However, since the genocide of the Yazidi’s by ISIS in 2014 a majority of the Christian’s and Yazidi’s in Iraq are in the neighbor province of Duhok, meaning this aid won’t reach them.
Also, instability caused by a lack of security still imminently present, by bombing campaigns conducted by Turkey and militia groups controlling chunks of territory, makes distribution of aid, in particular aid targeted towards specific minorities, problematic. Humanitarian aid by nature is meant for the most vulnerable, which by circumstance usually equates to minority populations. However, in the situation of the Yazidis and Christians in and around Sinjar, unequal aid distribution favoring them may exacerbate the conflict and make them a target again. Christian minorities in Iraq have voiced their concerns recently about being a target in an ever-unpredictable environment.
The foreign aid policy pushed for by Vice President Pence is aimed at reducing funding for ineffective United Nations programs and instead to send aid directly through USAID and other faith-based partners to persecuted communities. Their reason for this change is a broader foreign policy shift towards favoring Christians over other religions. Examples being President Trump’s decision to only nominate a Pro-Life candidate for the vacant Supreme Court seat. Or Vice President Pence’s outward objection to the LGBTQ community and supporter of candidates from the same vein such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. This policy shift has been masked with the ever pleasing rhetoric of protecting religious minorities as a whole, which includes Yazidis.
Former aid officials say there are no statues barring agencies from funding religious groups as long as aid is not used to proselytize or discriminate based on faith. The reason, however, that aid has mostly been given through the United Nations is so that unbiased projects directly servicing the needs of the most vulnerable, regardless of religion or race, are implemented. Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA officer focused on Iraq and currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, stated that “Christians make up a tiny percentage of the population, and if they get a disproportionate percentage of aid, that’s going to look bad. It looks like the US isn’t committed to the general rebuilding and stabilization of Iraq. It will look like it’s more committed to its own special interest.” Time and again humanitarian aid is inefficient when a political agenda is attached.
The reality on the ground unfortunately is that humanitarian assistance in Iraq is still balancing between emergency assistance and long-term sustainability. Building infrastructure in a land of uncertain bombings, territorial political and military shifts, and relatively few returns of the local inhabitants is an inefficient policy before it even begins. Responsibility for the wellbeing of internally displaced people, including Muslims, have evaded Iraqi and the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) domestic policy implementation for some time now, and the United States’ policy shift influenced by religion undercuts their general rebuilding and stabilization efforts in Iraq as a whole. The displaced Christians, Yazidis and other vulnerable people affected by conflict have sought shelter in areas they believe are safer then their original home. If the Trump administration is serious about helping the most vulnerable they would continue funding the United Nations as well as research other organizations that have access to the people where they stay.
The Administration needs to separate religious and political policy goals from humanitarian assistance while paralleling political pressure on Turkey to stop their bombing campaign, Iraq to form a government and take responsibility for their people, and the KRG to work with the Iraqi government to reduce instability and begin planning for the future. Empowering ethnic and religious minorities through political and diplomatic dialogue is essential for strengthening sectarian harmony and stabilization efforts. Humanitarian assistance for the most vulnerable, regardless of religion or ethnicity, creates the foundation necessary for empowerment and jointly secures America’s national security interest in Iraq and the broader region.