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
Per Capita GDP
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
Life Expectance In Iraq Compared To Region 2006-2008
United Arab Emirates
Infant Mortality Rate/Under 5 Mortality Rate In Iraq per 1,000 Infant Mortality Rate Under 5 Mortality Rate 1984-1989 30 50 1990-1994 50 62 1999 101 122 2004 32 40 2006 35 41 2006 Infant Mortality Rates Iraq Compared to Arab Countries Country Infant Mortality Rate Kuwait 11 per 1,000 Syria 15 per 1,000 Saudi Arabia 26 per 1,000 Jordan 26 per 1,000 Iraq 35 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
26 per 1,000
26 per 1,000
35 per 1,000
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.
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