Sunday, August 30, 2009

Life In Iraq Before and After The Invasion

One of the major points of contention over Iraq is whether the war has improved the standard of living for the average citizen. Obviously there is much more freedom now than under the previous dictatorial regime of Saddam, and Iraq is a fledgling democracy. Being able to vote however does not provide people with food, jobs or services. A comparison of aggregate statistics from before and after the 2003 invasion actually shows a mixed bag of results for Iraq.

In the 1970s Iraq was a developing country with an increasing standard of living. Health and education were both up. Iraq instituted a mandatory primary education system, and worked on adult literacy. People from around the Arab world went to Iraq to get a college education. Infant mortality and diseases also declined. This expansion was fueled by the growth in oil prices in the 1970s. In the 1980s Saddam decided to go to war with Iran, the first of many poor foreign policy decisions, which placed a tremendous burden upon Iraq's economy, and began a steady decline in the country. The invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, and the international sanctions in the 1990s had an even more devastating affect upon daily life. One U.N. study found that living standards dropped 2/3 from 1988 to 1995 as a result. By the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003 Iraq was in a sorry state. The looting that took place immediately after the overthrow of Saddam along with a slow reconstruction effort appeared to make things worse. In the last couple years however, parts of Iraq's economy and services have begun to recover and grow.

Per Capita Gross Domestic Product

The rising oil prices in the 1970s boosted Iraq's per capital Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By 1980 it had risen to $3,812. The Iran-Iraq led to a dramatic drop to around $250. The Gulf War and sanctions brought per capita GDP down to its lowest level at $180 by 1994, after which it steadily improved. By 2002 on the eve of the war per capita GDP was up to $770. The invasion brought it down again to $570, but then it started increasing again. By 2007 it was at $2,848, and in 2008 it was approximately $3,100. The numbers show that Iraq's economy was slowly improving even before 2003, and that in recent years it has gotten much better. The 2008 per capita GDP however, is still not at the level that it was in 1980, one of the high points in Iraq's development.

Per Capita GDP




approx. $3,700


approx $250










approx $3,100

Even with the improvements in the economy however, Iraq is nearly at the bottom compared to other countries in the region. When looking at purchasing power parity numbers for example, Iraq is second to last amongst 16 neighboring countries. Qatar was at the top with $58,004, Iraq was at $3,880, with only Yemen lower with $2,290.

Comparison Of Iraq's Purchasing Power Parity Figures With Other Countries In The Region





United Arab Emirates


Saudi Arabia




























Life Expectancy

Life expectancy in Iraq has declined since the U.S. invasion. In 1987 it was an average of 65 years. By 2006 it was down to 58.2 years. The violence in Iraq may have played a role in that, but the general poor quality of services was another major factor in this change. Again, when compared to other countries in the region, Iraq is at the bottom in this category. Iraq is also the 3rd least healthy country in the Arab world. Iraqis have a 19.4% chance of not surviving past 40 years old. Only Sudan at 26.1% and Djibouti at 28.6% were worse off.

Life Expectance In Iraq Compared To Region 2006-2008


Life Expectancy

United Arab Emirates

78.3 years


77.3 years


73.6 years

Saudi Arabia

72.2 years


71.9 years


71.4 years


70.2 years


61.5 years


58.2 years

Infant Deaths

Care for young children was another area that improved during the 1970s and 1980s, and has since recovered to those levels. In the 1970s there were 80 deaths per 1,000 live births. That dropped to an average of 40 deaths per 1,000 births by the 1980s. In 1984 for example, there were 30 deaths per 1,000 births. Deaths of children under five also declined during this period going from 120 deaths per 1,000 children in the late 1970s to 50 deaths per 1,000 children in 1984. The sanctions imposed in the 1990s however led to Iraq's health system falling apart. In 1990, the year of the Kuwait invasion, there were 50 deaths per 1,000 live births, which then doubled to 101 deaths per 1,000 live births by 1999. Fatalities for young children also increased from 62 deaths for children under 5 per 1,000 to 122 per 1,000 in 1999. These two areas have improved since 2003 up to what they were during the 1980s. In 2006 there were 35 deaths per 1,000 live births, and 41 deaths of children under 5 per 1,000. Again, despite the better numbers, Iraq is still worse off compared to other Arab countries. In Kuwait there are 11 deaths per 1,000 live births and 26 deaths per 1,000 live births in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 2006.

Infant Mortality Rate/Under 5 Mortality Rate In Iraq per 1,000

Infant Mortality Rate

Under 5 Mortality Rate
















2006 Infant Mortality Rates Iraq Compared to Arab Countries


Infant Mortality Rate


11 per 1,000


15 per 1,000

Saudi Arabia

26 per 1,000


26 per 1,000


35 per 1,000

Child Malnutrition

Other statistics for children have only slightly improved since the invasion. Child malnutrition for example is only marginally better. The rate for stunting children under five declined from 22.1% in 2000 to 21.4% in 2006. That meant 1 in every 5 Iraqi children was under nourished. Iran, Syria and Jordan did better in this category, with only Yemen at 53% doing worse. Iraqis in general largely rely upon the government's food ration system, the largest in the world. This was set up during the 1990s sanctions under the Oil For Food Program. Before the war 60% of Iraqis relied upon the rations, the same amount today.

One area that has seen a big improvement since the war is education. Iraq already had a reputation for a great higher education system before its series of wars. That was largely devastated beginning in the 1980s, but schooling overall has improved since 2003. A 2006 United Nations survey found 78% of Iraqis were literate, 86% for men and 70% for women. Access to education varies across the provinces from a high of 89% in Diyala to a low of 57% in Dohuk. Overall however, this is one category where Iraq is comparable to its neighbors like Jordan where 86% have access to education, and 75% in Syria. Students in Iraq's primary, secondary, prep, colleges, and post-graduate schools have all seen increases, with only those in kindergarten going slightly down since the invasion.


School Level






Primary (1st-6th)



Secondary (7th-12th)



Prep (10th-12th)










Until recently inflation was a major cause for the decline in living standards in Iraq. The inflation rate for fuel and electricity from 1996 to 2002 was 18%. After the invasion in 2005 the government ended subsidies for these two products causing the inflation rate for them to skyrocket to 71.6%. Fuel and energy expenses grew 590% from 2002 to 2005 as a result. They continued to go up 129% from 2005 to 2006. In the 1980s and 1990s an average Iraqi family spent 11% of their money on fuel and energy. That went up to 35% by 2006. In the last few years Iraq's Central Bank has gotten control of the problem, and greatly decreased inflation overall. That has improved the spending power of Iraqis.

Economy Overall
Iraq's overall economy is in some ways worse off than before the invasion. It is much more dependent upon oil now than ever before because of the decline in other sectors. Oil now accounts for roughly 70% of Iraq's GDP, while services are 22%. Industry went from 9% of GDP before the war to less than 1.5% afterward. Farming went from 35% of the GDP in the 1970s to 6.5% after 2003. Oil is also not a labor-intensive industry, and only employs about 2% of the work force. That means 98% of Iraqis are employed in businesses that only contribute around 30% of the GDP. This is the reason why the government is the largest employer in the country, because not only is it safe and steady work, but it provides one of the few opportunities in Iraq since the private sector is so small. In turn, the labor market is distorted as the government starves businesses of workers.

U.S. attempts to improve the economy have only made the situation worse. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) tried to implement free market and free trade reforms. This led to the lifting of tariffs that opened up the country to a flood of cheap imports, which caused major problems for many small businesses and farms. The CPA also cut support for Iraq's state-owned industries that accounted for 90% of industrial capacity and employed around 500,000. Eventually the CPA decided to help some of these businesses, but by then 2/3 of them had closed. Since 2007 the U.S. has tried to bring back many of these companies to very mixed results.


This is only a review of a few factors in the lives of average Iraqis. They can only tell so much as there are large variations from province to province, between rural and urban areas, and between classes. What the numbers provided do show is mixed living standards before and after the invasion. Per capita GDP is better now than before 2003, but not up to the level it reached in 1980. Life expectancy and child malnutrition have declined, but infant mortality is back to what it was in the 1980s. Education and inflation have both gotten better, but the economy overall is in a worse state for those looking for work. In most of those categories, Iraq also ranks at near the bottom compared to its neighbors. Those who want to argue that the U.S. intervention has improved Iraq or not can find numbers to argue both sides. What everyone can hopefully agree upon is that Iraqis deserve much better.


Collier, Robert, “Imports inundate Iraq under new U.S. policy,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/10/03

Cordesman, Anthony, “The Changing Situation in Iraq: A Progress Report,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4/4/09

Fairweather, Jack, “Iraqi state enterprises warily reopen,” Financial Times, 6/16/08

Government of Iraq, “Iraq National Report on the Status of Human Development 2008,” 12/31/08

Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit, “Iraq Labour Force Analysis 2003-2008,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, January 2009

McGeary, Johanna, “Looking Beyond Saddam,” Time, 3/10/03

Reuters, “Iraq must cut food rations in 2008-trade minister,” 12/6/2007

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09
- “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 4/30/09
- “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 7/30/09

Whitelaw, Kevin, “After The Fall,” U.S. News & World Report, 12/2/02

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