Monday, January 17, 2005

The lessons of UNron 

"Perhaps Paul Volcker, head of the United Nations-authorized inquiry into the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, was speaking solely of graft when he said recently that the internal audits of Oil-for-Food contained 'no flaming red flags.' But if he meant anything beyond outright criminality, he was surely wrong.

"On that score, previously secret U.N. internal audits of the multi-billion dollar program, finally released last week by Volcker's own investigating commission, are packed with bombshells enough to shatter any normal business - let alone a U.N. program supplied with $1.4 billion to cover its administrative costs in monitoring $111 billion worth of deals done under UN sanctions by Saddam Hussein."
So write Claudia Rosett and George Russell (hat tip: Dan Foty).

What are the lessons?

Primarily, that one of the dichotomies so beloved by the left - two big business legs bad, four government legs good (with apologies to George Orwell) - is seriously flawed. Conservatives who, unlike the progressives, have a rather dim view of human nature, are not surprised that all or at least some of the seven deadly sins are ever present in all human projects. No organization, be it public or private, is fully staffed by angels, although we can all argue on the case-by-case basis about the respective proportions of the workforce.

The difference, though, is how you deal with the constant presence and consequences of human failings. In the private sector, offending businesses go bankrupt and the void is quickly filled by the competition. In the public sector, both national and international, mistakes are far more readily buried (sometimes literally - see Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda or Sudan, although even in all these places it's the locals and not the UN who actually had to bury the dead). Businesses are held accountable by the market forces, politicians by their electorate; but who watches bureaucracies? Until this question receives a satisfactory answer, all the talk about the naturally higher ethical standards of people committed to public service is just a smokescreen badly disguising a self-serving and flowed vision of human nature.


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