United Nations Archive 1

Oil for Food Program: RIP

By Bill Miller

Perhaps the final shovel of dirt will soon be heaped on the coffin of the United Nations Oil-for-Food Program (OFFP) that the media have covered ad nauseum, and in some cases unprofessionally, over the past few years. May it rest in peace! Fortunately, many constructive lessons have been learned that will strengthen the UN in the 21st Century and will improve its public administration effectiveness in future programs.

Paul Volcker, the highly respected former Federal Reserve Chair and head of the UN Oil-for-Food Program Inquiry Committee, recently released the final report of a very exhaustive investigation that spanned 18 months and cost $34 million. The report consisted of interviews with over 1,100 people in 20 countries, examined 12 million pages of documents, and arrived at some very important conclusions in the 623 page report.

The Oil-For-Food Program (OFFP), operating from 1996 until 2003, was established to allow the Iraqi government to sell oil. The proceeds were to be invested in the purchase of food, medicine, humanitarian goods, and rebuilding the infrastructure, which ultimately would reduce the suffering of the Iraqi populace. As Volcker mentioned, the program was relatively successful because it provided basic provisions to the Iraqis but was achieved at a “heavy cost” since there were some problems with mismanagement, ethical lapses, and corruption.

On the positive side, the program fed 80% of the 27 million Iraqis; raised the average daily caloric intake of the people by 83% from 1,200 calories to 2,200 calories per person per day; and decreased the malnutrition rates over 50% throughout most of the country. Tragically, the Iraqi caloric level and standard of living have declined dramatically since the 2003 American-led invasion.

Some of the major conclusions of the inquiry were the following:

-- Apparently, the major culprits involved in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein were the 2,265 out of the 4,758 oil companies, such as Daimler-Chrysler and Volvo. Some of the companies were unaware this practice occurred on their behalf.

-- Another administration problem was with the UN Security Council (called the 661 Committee) that controlled many of the “key administrative responsibilities,” rather than delegating them to the Secretary General and various UN personnel. The lines of authority, programmatic responsibilities, and areas of accountability were blurred. Actually, the 661 Committee held virtual control over the approval and dispersion of the various contracts and knew fully about the flow of illegal oil to Jordan and Turkey. Of approximately $12.8 billion in illicit funds going to Saddam, about $10.2 billion came from smuggling and trade outside the OFFP, of which the UN staff had NO control over this activity.

Ironically, Benon V. Sevan, former director of the OFFP and the individual who alerted the 661 Committee to many of the irregularities, has been accused of receiving $147,000 in kickbacks, though this is yet to be proven. No action was taken because the goal was to allow the sale of oil under Article 50 of the UN Charter to countries that were suffering under the sanctions and whose economies had been ravaged due to the 1991 Iraq War.

-- Over the course of the investigation, there was “no evidence” that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had been involved in any illegal activities to rig the bidding process or direct contracts to Cotecna, a Swiss-based firm who had employed his son Kojo. Although Annan was vindicated of any wrongdoing or corruption, he was criticized for his lax managerial oversight of the OFFP and for not conducting a more thorough investigation of his son Kojo's employment with Cotecna. Volcker has consistently indicated that the UN staff had been very cooperative in helping with his investigation.

One of the report’s main messages was that UN administrative reform should begin immediately through:

(1) Establishing clear mandates and delegation of authority from the Security Council to the Secretariat and UN agencies, with unambiguous “lines of reporting responsibility.”

(2) Strengthened administration and creation of a Chief Operating Officer position that has direct access to the Secretary General and the Security Council.

(3) Improving auditing and investigative capacity and creating a strong independent oversight board with adequate resources.

(4) A more effective coordination of UN agencies, especially with agreed upon memoranda of understanding and the use of common accounting and auditing standards.

Paul Volcker has impeccable credentials as a no-nonsense public administrator who excelled at several public administration tasks he undertook, especially in the area of financial management. A major criticism of Volcker is that he, perhaps, bent over backwards to assuage the rabid and vicious media attacks on his character and credibility when he began the investigation. Also, he could have provided a more forceful defense of Kofi Annan and explained in greater detail how most of the corruption actually came OUTSIDE of the OFFP under the watchful gaze of the US and other 661 Committee members, far from the reach of the UN staff.

Some politicians, such as Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), and media outlets, e.g. the Washington Times, Fox News, US News and World Report, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, the Heritage Foundation, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, through their myopic and biased coverage, seem to have embarked upon a personal vendetta against the UN, and especially Kofi Annan. The media should be encouraged to legitimately criticize the UN because there is much to criticize; however, they should also attempt to be more objective and not develop tunnel vision about reporting mostly negative news.

Just as a suggestion, if the media would like to cover other important and timely issues that are of interest to the public they might look into the following that have received little publicity. For example:

(a) Several UN agencies are spearheading a successful relief effort to help the tsunami disaster victims in Asia get their lives back together. Also, several UN agencies pitched in and offered assistance in the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane disaster.

(b) The international climate change follow-up conference to the Kyoto Protocol made a major breakthrough and developed a manual of the rules to implement the treaty.

(c) Israel’s status and clout improved at the UN since it’s ambassador became Vice-President of the General Assembly, and the UN commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camps and pledged “never again” to tolerate future genocides.

(d) The UN blasted China for its “widespread” human rights violations.

(e) The Bush Administration and Secretary General Annan have some excellent proposals to reform and strengthen the UN, such as moving forward with the new Human Rights Council and the Peacebuilding Commission. Unfortunately, the acerbic US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has been diplomatically inept in garnering international support to implement the reforms.

(f) The UN is quietly working under the radar to help people in Iraq by setting up elections and implementing education and humanitarian projects, such as providing school supplies, developing nutrition programs for pregnant women and combating polio and malaria.

If the media would like to report on more corruption, fraud, abuse and incompetence, it should focus on:

(a) The mysterious disappearance of nearly $10 billion unaccounted for funds distributed by the US controlled Coalition Provisional Authority that Jerry Bremmer administered in Iraq.

(b) The millions allegedly swindled by Halliburton and other contractors through no-bid contracts in Iraq and the Gulf Coast.

(c) The gross inability of the local, state and federal agencies (especially FEMA and its incompetent director Michael D. Brown) to assist Katrina victims.

(d) The Downing Street Memo reference to “fixing” the facts to justify an invasion of Iraq and many of the media’s failure to accurately report the Administration’s mendacity and duplicitness in convincing Congress and the American public to go to war and to undertake what is now becoming widely viewed as an unnecessary, costly and militarily unwinnable war. All reputable investigators have reported that no WMDs were located, Saddam apparently was not involved in the 9-11 attack, and Hussein did not have an operational link to Al-Qaeda.

(e) A recent C-SPAN interview with David Walker, Director of the nonpartisan US Government Accountability Office, who gave the Department of Defense a “D” grade due to the waste, fraud and abuse that is rampant in this agency and the wastefulness in its bloated $450 billion budget.

Malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance appear to be thriving in some governmental and private sector programs. Obviously, both the US and the UN need to reform and improve their management and public administration capabilities. Hopefully, the double standard of requiring the UN to be absolutely perfect and the US agencies to fail without penalty is coming to an end. Journalist Gay Talese was quoted as saying, “The real problem is what to do with the problem solvers after the problems are solved.” Americans, the UN, and the world should be so lucky that ALL the problems would be solved!