On October 27th, an independent inquiry released its final report on the UN Oil-For-Food Program. In essence, the so-called “Volcker Report” describes the manner in which the Iraqi Regime manipulated the OFF program, dispensing contracts based on political preference and receiving illicit payments from firms awarded oil and humanitarian goods contracts. The report charges more than 2,200 firms from 66 countries with involvement in a system of OFF kickbacks, totalling over $1.8 billion in illicit income.
As these findings were made public, this writer coincidentally found himself on holiday in India. The Volcker Report named both Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and the ruling Congress Party as ‘non-contractual beneficiaries’ — immediately triggering a media circus. Day after day, an Indian media narrative played out regarding the ‘scandal’ and its consequences for the political establishment. Since this time, Mr. Singh has been forced to resign and accusations of complicity have been leveled at the Congress Party by its BJP opponents.
(more below the break)
What is most intriguing here are not the particulars of this scandal but rather the terms by which discussion of it was framed. As a progressive, I rationally know that the public narrative held in the US regarding issues such as international diplomacy, questions of morality, and our place in history are highly skewed. However, the intensity of our polarised narrative has forcibly drowned out all competition. We are two small war camps slinging vitriol at one another across a wide canyon of indifference. Alternatively, in India I found myself pleasantly immersed within a completely different narrative.
In the American narrative, OFF is generally framed as a symbol of the endemic flaws of international political frameworks as represented by the United Nations. According to the frame, it aptly demonstrates how ungovernable, deeply corrupt, and counter-American such international systems will always be. Since the system is not in our interests, it should be dismantled wholesale. OFF becomes a convenient weapon with which to bludgeon opponents a la John Bolton. Unfortunately, little in the way of counter-argument makes its way into the public narrative. (a great exception is Kofi and the Scandal Pimps)
Something quite different occurs in the Indian version of this dialogue. Most importantly, the narrative actually provides some context. That is, that the Gulf War and ensuing economic sanctions effectively lowered Iraqi standards of living to those of a pre-industrial state. OFF, in fact, was an very effective humanitarian effort to address this situation. For example, from 1996-2001 the average Iraqi’s daily food intake increased 83% to 2,200 calories per day, and childhood malnutrition was cut in half. (see this excellent report)
The Indian narrative seems to offer a more balanced perspective on the OFF scandal itself. It is recognized that Hussein only managed to siphon about 2% of total OFF funds. In fact, OFF is viewed more as a corporate rather than a UN scandal. For example, much is made of the fact that many US firms have been implicated in the kickback schemes. Indeed, the US obtained 36% of all Iraqi oil exports under the program. Finally, it is acknowledged that UN member states, including the US and UK, were responsible for OFF oversight and signed-off on every contract — including bogus ones.
Indians seem to have healthy doses of both empathy and skepticism. Questions about the morality of economic sanctions that kill 500,000 children or civilian war casualties are not casually dismissed. The corrupt actions of a few does not invalidate the value of humanitarianism and international systems. The motivations of rabid American policians crying for UN blood are openly questioned. While there is indeed great respect for America in Indian culture, there is also an undercurrent of apprehension regarding the balance of American power and particularly its involvement in Iraq.
Some of these differences can surely be attributed to India’s bloody colonial past, insightful thinkers like Gandhi and Nehru, its highly visible poverty, and its incredibly diverse cultural heritage. All of these perhaps lend themselves to a more nuanced view of the world. While India is by no means devoid of its own problems, I believe we have much to learn from her.
“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?”
– Mahatma Gandhi