Global Policy Forum

Oil-for-Food: Far from a Failure


By Benon Sevan*

International Herald Tribune
September 12, 2005

After nearly a year and a half and more than $35 million spent, the Independent Inquiry Committee Into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Program (IIC), led by the former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, has faulted the management of the program, which I ran for six years. It is easy to apply formal management and audit criteria after the fact to a massive multibillion-dollar humanitarian program, but as the recent crisis in New Orleans shows, what is critical when people are dying is to bring food and medicine to affected populations as quickly as possible. This we accomplished. There are many thousands of people alive today because of the oil-for-food plan.

There is a misconception, reinforced by the familiar echo chamber of the Murdoch press, The Wall Street Journal, the UN bashers in the U.S. Congress, and neocon think tanks, that the program was a failure of epic proportions, riddled with corruption and pliant to Saddam Hussein's every manipulation. The reality is that the oil-for-food program was highly successful in its fundamental mission of addressing the acute humanitarian crisis caused by sanctions imposed on Iraq, in channeling all but a very small percentage of Iraqi oil revenues into food, medicine, and other approved humanitarian supplies, and in helping to maintain international support for sanctions, which in turn prevented Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction during the course of the program.

Volcker's 'public' and other political constituencies are nevertheless demanding heads on a platter, and the latest IIC report, sadly, appears to capitulate to that pressure by unfairly targeting the Secretariat, including the Office of the Iraq Program (OIP) and me, for problems that were essentially inherent in the design of the program and in the inevitable reality of politics among member states.

The program was created by a series of Security Council resolutions that carefully defined - and limited - the role of the Secretariat. In particular, the Office of the Iraq Program did not have responsibility for monitoring, policing or investigating sanctions violations. That role was specifically reserved to the Security Council; its so-called 661 Committee, which monitored the overall sanctions regime and oil-for-food; and member states. The IIC knows or should know this. Yet the IIC insists repeatedly on blaming the OIP for functions, such as investigating sanctions violations, that lay beyond its mandate.

The IIC also faults the secretary general, the deputy secretary general and me for failing to provide information regarding Iraqi demands for illicit kickbacks and surcharges to the Security Council through formal rather than informal channels. But in setting forth its charges, the IIC seems to confuse the decision not to convey information through official channels with a decision not to convey the information at all. On no occasion did OIP or I personally withhold material information from the Security Council members, the secretary general and his deputy. OIP informed the 661 Committee not only on surcharges but also on at least 70 occasions of contracts reflecting suspicious pricing (and hence possible kickbacks), yet the committee declined in every instance to act. Similarly, I informed the U.S. government, effectively the policeman for sanctions violations in the Gulf, of maritime smuggling on a massive scale that was occurring, to no avail.

It is now known that the United States and other member states purposefully allowed this smuggling to occur, in addition to the massive daily shipment of oil by land routes, putting billions of dollars directly into Saddam's pockets in violation of sanctions in order to support Iraq's trading partners, Turkey and Jordan, which are also U.S. allies. It smacks of hypocrisy to criticize OIP for a political compromise made to help the economies of American allies.

The IIC also engages in a lot of second-guessing as to whether I delegated too much authority to senior managers on the ground in Iraq instead of to bureaucrats in New York. I disagree with these criticisms. Micromanagement from 8,000 miles away would have been a recipe for disaster in an immense and complex program like oil-for-food.

It is important to consider what those, including Security Council members, who were observing our performance in real time had to say about its management. Among others, in October 2003, Ambassador John Negroponte of the United States, the president of the Security Council (and now President George W. Bush's director of national intelligence), speaking in his national capacity, commended "the outstanding work" that we had "done both in New York and in the region over the years in the implementation of the program, as well as the "exceptional professionalism and thoroughness" of OIP staff "despite the obstacles and challenges that they face daily."

The program was not perfect, nor was it ever expected to be. It was implemented within the context of a very rigorous sanctions regime, carried out in six-month extensions (and hence always on the verge of closing down), beset by conflicting political pressures, situated in a country in crisis and hindered by fundamental design problems - most notably, the Security Council's decision to allow Saddam to select his own contractors for oil exports and imports of humanitarian supplies, as well as to implement the program in the 15 governorates in the center and south of Iraq, which all but guaranteed political manipulation.

At the same time, my colleagues and I were faced with the grave responsibility of providing basic life necessities to a highly vulnerable population. We took that responsibility both seriously and personally. As the recent tragedy in New Orleans demonstrated, there is a cost to overly bureaucratizing a crisis relief effort that the IIC chooses to ignore. The people of Iraq desperately needed humanitarian relief in real time. Thanks to the oil-for-food program, they received it. That is the essential purpose of a humanitarian program, and we accomplished that purpose, in nearly impossible circumstances. Despite its shortcomings, the program made a major difference in the lives of the Iraqi people.

About the Author: Benon V. Sevan is former director of the oil-for-food program for Iraq

More Information on Iraq
More Information on the Oil-for-Food Programme
More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.