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UN DESA's Centers May be Discontinued, As Nagoya Center Funding Disappears, Sources Say

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, June 19 -- As questions have grown around the far-flung centers of the UN's Department of Social and Economic Affairs, departing DESA head Jose Antonio Ocampo has agreed to launch an internal investigation to assign blame for at least one of the centers, that in Thessaloniki, from which the donor, Greece's government, has demanded $5 million back.

            At a press conference Tuesday that was, at least initially, about the ageing of the world's population, Inner City Press asked Mr. Ocampo about the status of audits of the Thessaloniki Center, and about discrepancies that have arisen about DESA's Center on Regional Development, based in Nagoya, Japan.

            The Nagoya Center has satellite offices in Bogota and in Nairobi, for "training-cum-research activities." Based on concerns raised to Inner City Press, a request was made to disclose the budget, over time, of the Nagoya Center. DESA staff, saying that DESA does not have its own communications office, sent their answer to the Office of the Spokesperson for Ban Ki-moon, from which this arrived:

Subj: DESA fwd, Policy Committee, thanks 

From: [Deputy Spokesperson at]

To: Inner City Press

Date: 6/5/2007 5:06:28 PM Eastern Standard Time

DESA response: Regarding the United Nations Centre on Regional Development:  It was established in 1971 under an agreement between the Government of Japan and the United Nations. The purpose of the Centre is to promote training, research, advisory services and technical assistance in the exchange of practical experience in regional development. and related fields. The Centre is funded through voluntary contributions by the Government of Japan, who have contributed on average $3.5 million annually during the past 6 years.

            But informed sources tell Inner City Press that the Japanese government's funding for the Center has fallen from $6 million in 2002 to $3 million in 2006. Not only is the $3.5 million average not accurate, these sources say, it also obscures the basis for the declining funding: a loss of faith in the UN Center due, among other things, to what these sources say was a "disappearance" of $1.5 million in Center funds.

            In the run-up to Tuesday's "Development in an Ageing World" press conference, Inner City Press sent Mr. Ocampo and another DESA staffer the following questions:

In an investigative inquiry following-up on the referral to OIOS of DESA's Thessaloniki Center, sources have told us that the government of Japan's annual contribution to the Center has declined from $6 million in 2002 down to $3 million now -- please confirm or deny. This is also a request for your comment on your awareness of staff / employment complaints regarding Kazunobu Onogawa as well as his predecessor... Sources have described an amount of money that went missing -- this is a request on deadline that you confirm or deny and state your knowledge.

            The context of the questions was Mr. Ocampo's non-appearance at the last press conference he had been scheduled to give on May 30, and his associates' promise that he would however launch this ageing report in person. Just before the press conference began, a staff member said, "Questions only about the report." But Mr. Ocampo, to his credit, said he would be willing to take some questions "as well [on] some of the weaknesses we have shown over these years." Video here, from Minute 23:40.

"Development in an Ageing World"

            On the report, Inner City Press asked about its projection of rising fertility rates in developed countries. The response came not from Mr. Ocampo but from the chief of DESA's Mortality Section, John Wilmoth, who said the increase was speculative, based on incentives some governments have begun to offer to increase their "native-born" birthrates. (Russia comes to mind.) Mr. Ocampo said that in keeping with the "Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing," adopted five years ago, the report's ideas about pension plans will be promoted through, among others, the UN Development Group.

Fuzzy, was he? Relatively, no. J.A. Ocampo taking questions, June 19, 2007

            On "other matters," along with requesting an update on the Thessaloniki Center investigations, Inner City Press asked, more vaguely than in writing due to the venue and Mr. Ocampo's approach, whether he could confirm a decline in funding for the Nagoya Center and state the reason and any awareness of irregularities in the Center's operations. Video here, from Minute 42:40.

            Mr. Ocampo delivered a three minute response about Thessaloniki, saying that the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services has made four recommendations, three of which have been agreed to. He would not disclose the recommendations, although he mentioned that OIOS is contesting two contracts as unnecessary. Due to the poor management of the Center, Mr. Ocampo said, he had decided that the contracts had to be entered into from New York, to "maintain a minimum level of service."

            "It may be that it is a better solution to keep a limited number of these centers, or not have these centers... Discuss with my successor," said Mr. Ocampo, referring to Sha Zukang of China, who begins on July 1.

            Reminded of the outstanding Nagoya Center questions, Mr. Ocampo referred to "initial enthusiasm... that tends to decline," indirectly confirming the decline in funding which has been reported to Inner City Press (but which was obscured by the first formal response, above, which provided only an annual average of funding). Mr. Ocampo's reference to "no mal-performance" at the Nagoya Center does not jibe with what informed sources have been saying.  Well-placed sources say that the disappearance of funds was not pursued, nor were complaints, on which we intend to report further, against UNCRD director Kazunobu Onogawa as well as his predecessor. Those knowledgeable about the missing-funds incident include the UN's former Controller Jean-Pierre Halbwachs and certain of his "proteges."

      These questions will continue to be pursued, as well the case of an individual whose name surprisingly did not come up at Tuesday's press conference: Guido Bertucci, who is reportedly preparing to cash out his pension, before the Thessaloniki and other investigations are complete. He will still apparently preside over the seemingly surreal "Building Trust in Government" conference slated later this month for Vienna, although it is no longer clear if Ban Ki-moon will attend. The brochure distributed at Tuesday's press conference no longer lists Mr. Ban, but does have a photograph of the UN Development Program's Hafiz Pasha, presiding most recently over the hard currency and seconded staff scandal surrounding UNDP in North Korea, and now Myanmar.

            In the run-up to the tenure of Amb. Sha Zukang as Mr. Ocampo's successor, a description is emerging in which the UN, particularly through DESA, accepts funding from the host country of its Centers, then allows the host country to dominate and even "freelance" with the Center and the UN powers it brings, in exchange for funding some of which, at least in this case, reported "disappeared."

            Sometimes the arrangements breakdown publicly, as with the UN Thessaloniki Center, regarding which the Greek government has demanded to get its money back. (In that case, DESA had formed a competing "partnership" with the Italian government, resulting in a Naples Center that undermined the questionable work of the Thessaloniki Center.  But who, sources ask, would compete with Nagoya?) Sometimes, as with the UN Center on Regional Development in Nagoya, disputes appear to be swept under the carpet, quid pro quo style. Developing...

    Again, because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540