There has been much discussion lately about the "scandal" of the U.N.-run oil-for-food program. The Iraqi Governing Council charges that hundreds of Iraqi officials, foreign companies and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein skimmed 10% or so from the humanitarian contracts.
Investigations by the United Nations and the Iraqi Governing Council are now probing where the money went. The implication is that Iraqi civilians were suffering in desperate poverty because those funds were going to corrupt foreigners, possibly including U.N. officials, and to finance Saddam's palaces.
But let's be realistic. Iraq's economy plummeted from $60 billion a year in output to $13 billion. That's what brought about the terrible impoverishment. Imagine if the U.S. lost three-quarters of its economy. The results would be disastrous for every part of society. Had Saddam put each cent from the U.N. program into the economy, the situation would not have differed much. It still would have meant a virtual collapse of agriculture, industry, education and health care.
Maybe the U.N. missed or turned a blind eye to those inflated contracts. But so did every Security Council member, including the U.S. And let's not forget what the U.N. did accomplish in Iraq. In the 15 districts of southern and central Iraq, the U.N. ensured that food was distributed efficiently and equitably to millions of people. U.N. monitors ensured that every canister of chlorine was used for water purification — and was not diverted to military use.
In fact, in northern Iraq, the U.N. functioned as the government. It gave employment to thousands, ran water projects, generated electricity and worked effectively with local leaders to build a civil society. Under U.N. governance, northern Iraq was stable, well run and far more prosperous than it had been before.
Though the U.N. is not yet involved in rebuilding Iraq, the U.S. is. But is its track record so much better? Have we forgotten that massive no-bid contracts were handed out to U.S. corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton? Or that Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi Governing Council member leading the investigation into the oil-for-food charges, fled embezzlement charges in Jordan?
The U.N. is the better choice for nation-building with integrity and competence.
Joy Gordon teaches philosophy at Fairfield (Conn.) University and is writing a book about Iraq sanctions for Harvard University Press.
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