Global Policy Forum

Food Aid Essential for Iraqis


By Christopher S. Wrennited

New York Times
October 20, 2000

The administrator of the United Nations "oil for food" program in Iraq said today that although that distribution system ranked among the world's best, the lot of ordinary Iraqis has failed to improve because their living conditions remain mired in chronic deprivation."People have become so poor in some cases that they can't even afford to eat the food that they are given free, because for many of them the food ration represents the major part of their income," the administrator, Tun Myat, said.

With the average income of a junior public employee eroded to barely $2 or $3 a month, he said, "to sustain their livelihood, they sell part of what they get" in food and medicine to pay for clothing and other necessities. Despite an individual ration of 2,470 calories a day, Mr. Myat added, "the upturn in nutrition that we would want to be seeing is not happening."Mr. Myat, a Burmese-born lawyer who previously worked for the World Food Program, came here from Baghdad to brief the Security Council sanctions committee and encourage it to release $2.25 billion in contracts for civilian goods that the Iraqi government has requested. The United States and its allies have blocked the sale, contending that the goods could be used for other than humanitarian purposes.Mr. Myat said, for example, that more than 34 percent of applications to buy equipment for Iraq's battered electricity grid were pending.

Since 1996, when Baghdad accepted the Security Council conditions for selling oil to pay for food and medicine, $33 billion worth of Iraqi oil has been exported in quantities that are now unlimited. The aid deliveries, which started in 1997, have gone beyond basic needs to encompass oil- pumping machinery, electrical transformers and a wide variety of other equipment to renovate Iraq's physical plant, which was badly damaged in the Persian Gulf war and subsequent air strikes.

In an average month, Mr. Myat said, Baghdad imports 150,00 to 200,000 tons of food and other goods through the program, to feed a population of 23 million."I think the Iraqi food-distribution system is probably second to none that you'll find anywhere in the world," he said. "It gets to everybody whom it's supposed to get to in the country."But he followed up with a caveat. "You can give all the food and medicine you want," Mr. Myat said, but living standards would not improve unless housing, electricity, clean water and sanitation and other essential services were restored.Mr. Myat said medicine was bought in bulk and distributed through a network of pharmacies and hospitals. But some inhalers imported for Iraqis suffering from asthma have turned up for sale in Damascus and Beirut."Human nature being what it is," Mr. Myat said, "I'm quite sure there must be a few enterprising people who might have taken it across the border, and that's what I'm trying to find out."

Mr. Myat's observations were useful because, as Secretary General Kofi Annan told the Security Council last month, Baghdad has not allowed independent experts into the country to assess the effects of the sanctions in place since Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990. The Council said sanctions would be lifted after it had determined that Iraq no longer had chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as the means to make them. But President Saddam Hussein has refused to let United Nations arms inspectors return to resume the verification broken off nearly two years ago.

Mr. Myat was appointed the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Iraq in March after two predecessors, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, quit in protest against what they described as the suffering that sanctions inflicted on the Iraqi people.Mr. Myat told reporters that he would keep doing his job because if the oil-for-food program foundered, Iraqis would have nothing to fall back on. "Let's not forget that's the only game in town," he said.

More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq
More Information on the Oil for Food Program


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