Friday, February 10, 2006

Program; not Programme

Reading the previous issue of the New York Review of Books, I came across a review of the Volker Commission’s full report on the UN Oil-for-Food Program. I expected to find what I already knew; that the program was an immense failure, that a number of UN employees used the program for their own personal gain including Kofi Annan’s son Kojo, and that Saddam was able to obtain considerable kickbacks from the program.

Many of these accusations, which came out before the Volker Report was released, turned out to be either untrue or wildly exaggerated (William Safire was especially guilty of this). For example, it turns out that the accusations against Kofi and Kojo Annan were dismissed by the report. Only one UN employee has been accused of receiving illicit money. I say only because previous reports made the corruption seem more widespread than it was.

The news reports also made the program out to be a total failure that only made Saddam much richer. Although Saddam did make a considerable amount of money off the program through kickbacks, he made much more through the illegal sale of oil to Jordan and Turkey. The Security Council knew about this but turned a blind eye because those two countries were suffering as a result of the sanctions against Iraq.

There was an obvious flaw of the program - it allowed Saddam to select the contractors. With this power, he could request kickbacks to his administration as well as choose to give out the contracts to firms in countries that might support him in the United Nations. I haven’t seen a good explanation for why Saddam was given this power.

In the end, I think we can say that the program was relatively successful; food and medical supplies were sent to people who needed them. But administration in this case was a serious problem - a function of the United Nations as an institution. The UN has no structure for dealing with unique programs like this one and is unlikely to set one up. As long as this is the case, similar programs will face similar problems. Hopefully the press will be a little more patient next time before throwing around wild accusations.