Have a nice day . . . on 54 cents

Observations on Iraq

On my personal list of pointless things in life - below Prince Charles, the Dome, decaffeinated coffee and Living Marxism, but just before Izal toilet paper and the new edition of Christopher Hitchens - is a very specific entry: e-mails that say: "Visit this website, it's great." The site always takes half an hour to load and then shows you Blair dancing or a picture of someone on the toilet. These are the information superhighway's equivalent of those little plaques that read: "You don't have to be mad to work here . . . but it helps."

All the same, I would like to recommend a website. It has no cut-and-paste pictures of George Bush buggering Osama Bin Laden, nor any wacky cartoons. But call up www.un.org/depts/oip/ - it's the UN Office of the Iraq Programme Oil-for-Food site, and it details the supplies and equipment that reached Iraq between March 1997 and the end of July 2002. Since March 1997, Iraq has been allowed to sell its oil through oil-for-food, a "humanitarian" scheme. Once its bank accounts are topped up with oil money, Iraq requests goods, which the UN sanctions committee has to approve. Officially, it is the main route through which goods enter the country because Iraq is economically isolated from the rest of the world.

The UN figures appear innocent enough. In the five and a half years of the oil-for-food programme, the country has had $24.6bn worth of goods. This covers goods for all necessities: food, medicines, education, agriculture, telecommunications, water sanitation and treatment, electricity generation and oil equipment.

But 23 million people have had to divide that $24.6bn between them. So each Iraqi citizen has received $1,069.56 worth of supplies. Over the 1,978 days the programme has been running, that works out at 54 cents a day to cover each Iraqi's needs, somewhat less than the dollar a day normally taken as the threshhold below which people sink into absolute poverty.

Many will say the programme represents the "legal" import of goods and that Iraq has a black market. Well, thank goodness it does. Without it, the entire nation would have died and not just the estimated million or so Iraqis who have needlessly perished since sanctions were imposed.

There are no reliable estimates for the size of the black market, since black marketeers don't file accounts and copy them to the UN. But the UN has repeatedly said that, even with the unquantifiable black market, the present situation cannot meet the Iraqis' basic needs. That has not stopped the US and the UK from fighting hard to maintain the situation. Next time Tony Blair or George W Bush talk of how Saddam Hussein doesn't care for his own people, it is worth remembering that they have 54 cents' worth of care for Iraqis - less than the price of a chocolate bar.

Some say that the only way to solve this humanitarian disaster is to go to war. However, the UN currently deducts 25 per cent of Iraq's oil revenues to pay for war reparations, much of which go to Kuwaiti oil companies. Some have estimated the coming war will cost the US $200bn. Who will pay for that? The answer is that the very people who will have bombs dropped on them will pay for those bombs, yet again. Welcome to the new world order, where 54 cents a day is a humanitarian effort and a human life isn't worth a Dime Bar.

Mark Thomas's regular fortnightly column appears next week