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On UN Accountability, Many Words But Few Answers, "Growing Mistrust" Noted

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

UNITED NATIONS, November 20 -- When high UN officials give talks about accountability, expect extensive statements followed by the dodging or deferral of questions. This is one lesson taught by the UN University's public forum Tuesday at the African Union's office. Under Secretary General for Management Alicia Barcena began the proceedings with a comprehensive 24-minute speech ranging from the protection of whistleblowers to the release of internal audits, which she said should only happen after discussions between auditors and their targets. Afterwards there was time, UNU said, for only five minutes of questions. Inner City Press asked for the Secretariat's position on whether whistleblowers at UN funds and programs should be able to go to the UN Ethics Office established by the General Assembly in 2005, or should be relegated to the in-house officers such as that recently set up the UN Development Program. Ms. Barcena said that UN Ethics Officer Robert Benson, on the next panel, would answer.

   Likewise, when Inner City Press asked about a statement she made about making public the UN's financial disclosure forms for senior officials, Ms. Barcena said that Benson should be the one to answer. The only question Ms. Barcena did answer concerned when the "compacts" between the Secretary General and his USGs will be made public. "In 2008," she said. We'll see.

            On the panel that followed, Robert Benson told an interesting story about his previous job in Canada, in which the office's budget was online. "The Internet has wider dissemination than the New York Times," Benson said, calling online disclosure the best accountability mechanism. The next speaker, Jane Holl Lute of the UN's Department of Field Support, did not seem to agree. She derided those who say that transparency means letting everyone know everything all the time. That's "gossip... which is also prevalent" at the UN, she said. Inner City Press asked her after her talk about the UN's $250 million no-bid contract with Lockheed Martin's subsidiary PAE, which documents show she began pushing on a sole source basis as far back at April 2007. She replied that this was not the right forum to discuss a particular contract, but that all rules were followed.

            In fact, rules were waived to circumvent bidding. The outgoing chairman of the UN's Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions Rajat Saha, sitting next to Jane Holl Lute, publicly advised her that more planning should have been done, earlier -- that is, that that $250 million contract should have been put out to bid. In fact, Tuesday in the Fifth Committee Russia demanded an investigation into the no-bid contract and how it was awarded, adding its voice to those of the African Group, Egypt and even Canada the previous day. "I wasn't in the Fifth Committee yesterday," said Jane Holl Lute. Word to the wise: unless it's viewed as gossip, the session are taped, and are available in the basement just outside the meeting room.

Rajat Saha in the Congo, PAE contract(s) not shown

            Mr. Saha, speaking in his personal capacity, said that in the past ten years he has seen a "breakdown of trust between the Secretary General and the member states." Saha specifically condemned the Secretariat's propensity to demand more money for more posts without even rationalizing or consolidating the posts that had already been funded. An audience member was reminded of Mr. Saha demanding answers from the head of the Office of Human Resources Management Jan Beagle, with ever increasing directness. "We need to address this concept of mistrust," Mr. Saha said. Indeed. His rare public speech should shortly be available, in edited form, on the UNU website.

            After his panel presentation, Inner City Press asked Robert Benson about the release of financial disclosures. Benson explained that the Secretary General signed off a few weeks ago on a process by which he, Benson, will seek the consent of USGs to the release of their, but not the spouses' or dependents', financial disclosures. He said that the policy will cover UNDP's Administrator and presumably anyone else with USG rank. He expressed a willingness to come and briefing the press. On the jurisdiction of his office, he stated that the recent Chief Executive Board meeting had decided that each fund and program will have its own ethics officer, but that whistleblowers who end up feeling that this is not independent enough may be allowed to appeal to Benson's office. He said this will be spelled out in a forthcoming Administration Instruction by the Secretariat. Inner City Press asked Ban's spokesperson Tuesday when this will come out. We'll tell you when it does, was the answer. And that's accountability.

Later in the UNU program, two officials from the UN Development Program spoke: controller Darshak Shah and Jen Wandel of UNDP "Center for Business Solutions." Meanwhile, UNDP reported moved 52 boxes of documents from North Korea to its building in Beijing, but will not bring them to New York, on the theory that they could somehow be tampered with. By who?

* * *

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  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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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

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