Missing in Action

Iraq barely makes it into the news anymore, does it? It’s a story of neo-conservative, neo-colonial hubris that we all think we’ve heard too much about already. Now that Bush is out of power, the bombs have stopped exploding every week in marketplaces, and the beheadings have ceased, we’ve just stopped paying attention.

So an Iraq story in The Guardian caught my eye. And this was a particularly interesting story: about how the Iranians might have played a lead role in the abduction of the recently-released British hostage, Peter Moore. Moore was abducted two years ago while in Iraq setting up a system to track the billions of international funds in circulation there. The Guardian piece suggests that the Iranians abducted Moore in part to prevent his tracking system from revealing exactly how much of those funds had been diverted to Iranian militant groups working in Iraq. Of course, the Iranians’ motivations were more complicated than that, with tit for tat hostage taking occurring between and among the Iraqis and foreign occupying forces, particularly the Americans. Still, the Guardian quite clearly posits that a key driver for the Iranians was to avoid revelations of widespread graft that had lead to an estimated $18 million going missing, much of it, apparently to the Iranian militia.

Fascinating story, really, hinting at the hidden hand of the Iranians in the Iraqi quagmire, muddying our sense of exactly which “foreigners” have been meddling in Iraqi affairs. And here I was obsessing about those aid numbers again. It’s always the numbers that catch my eye; anyone who reads my blog will know that. In this case the number was $18 billion. I know that the notion of millions and billions doesn’t hold much currency anymore, but just think about it. $18 billion. That’s how much has reportedly “gone missing” from all the international aid money invested in Iraq following the invasion.

Talk of so-called “missing” aid money incenses me. “Missing”. As though it were dog that couldn’t find its way home; a child running amok in a department store. Of course, none of this money is actually missing; many people know exactly where it is. “Missing” in the case of aid money actually means siphoned off into powerful hands. (This is true of doctors and nurses in rural clinics, heads of state, or guerrilla groups – who each holds a greater degree of power than the public they claim to serve.) So 18 billion dollars intended, at least ostensibly, to “reconstruct” Iraq, has only further fuelled its destruction. Why? Because for both humane and political reasons, authorities pour mind-boggling sums of money into broken systems hoping they’ll fix them.

When I got past the $18 billion figure, I lingered on the next piece of troubling information. That some British computer boffin was working as a contractor to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance to set up a system to track aid donations in Iraq, four years after the US invasion. Four years. Surely establishing such a tracking system should have been among the first orders of business for the mandarins overseeing the “reconstruction” – right after making sure hamburgers were available in the Green Zone. Surely, fifty years since the reconstruction of Germany, some sort of standard aid tracking system should exist, with adaptations used from Liberia to Lebanon to Laos. It doesn’t. Inexcusable oversight? Or maybe it’s in the interest of those who give the money, who officially receive it, and those who siphon it away — to ensure that such tracking systems don’t exist.  Aid is inherently political, and making vast sums of money available in resource-scarce environments usually means the most powerful people get their hands on it. And that’s why charity is tricky. Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s so very hard to get it right. This abduction case proves that. And the people who most profoundly miss out are the Iraqis, themselves.

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