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After Botched Procurement in Burundi, UNDP Denied Documents to UK & Belgian Board Member, Who Was Then Hired

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

UNITED NATIONS, January 17 -- Using Belgian and British aid funds, the UN Development Program in mid-2007 undertook to purchase medical equipment in the Central African nation of Burundi. During the procurement process, one bidder's information was improperly given to a competitor and UNDP quietly tried to cancel the project, documents obtained by Inner City Press reveal. The Belgian Mission to the UN, and Sue Hogwood of the UK Department of International and Foreign Development both demanded explanations and evaluation reports. UNDP refused to provide these funders with the underlying documents. See UNDP letter, here.

    Geert Vansintjan, then the Belgian Mission's Development Counselor, wrote to UNDP Controller Darshak Shah, conveying his government's analysis that "you can give money to UNDP, you will not get access to what they call internal documents... UNDP procedures not at all transparent... We can improve on the UNDP without falling into the U.S.-trap." In response, rather than provide the documents or clean up the procedures, it was arranged for Mr. Vansingtan to get a job with the UN, with UNDP's sister agency the UN Office of Project Services. And in late December, in preparation for a UNDP Executive Board meeting starting next week, UNDP released a draft "Accountability Framework" in which it could still withhold even from funders any documents affecting "staff, third parties or a country government" -- that is, precisely the type of documents of financial impropriety withheld from Belgium and the UK in this case.

Request for UK comment was submitted Thursday morning

            UNDP's letter, from Country Director Antonius Broek, was also sent to Norway, apparently because the botched procurement also involved the UN's Peacebuilding Fund, PBF. Broek refers to an "anticipated increase in procurement volume from the PBF funded projects." Broek, along with the UK's Ms. Hogwood and the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Burundi, had received the complaint of the vendor, Hospital Medical Services Bujumbura, which protested that UNDP had divulged to an eliminated bidder the details of HMS' financial offer. UNDP's Richard Barathe, "Senior Advisor for Strategic Partnerships," had received a summary:

"Three million Euros was received from Belgium for the '2006 Burundi Emergency Program Open Trust Fund... The Contribution Agreement, which itself is not dated... there is another request from the Belgians for clarification focusing on the procurement irregularities."

            On August 9, 2007, the Belgian Mission's Geert Vansintjan wrote to Darshak Shah regarding "Burundi UNDP Trust Fund," stating

"I did not yet get any feedback from your own office on the case mentioned above... Lessons learned: you can give money to UNDP, you will not get access to what they call internal documents... UNDP procedures not at all transparent... local ownership is gone... damage control is paramount. The most important asset of UNDP is its reputation. You should be able to project an image of taking procurement seriously. I want this reaction because I want to show my field office that they are not alone and that we can improve on the UNDP. without falling into the US-trap."

            Upon receipt of this message, viewed as a threat, UNDP's Darshak Shah wrote to Krishan Batra, "please ensure that the response is sent asap. I suggest we also meet with Geert. Belgian Mission is an important supporter of UNDP."

            Less than two months later, UNDP's sister agency UNOPS hired Geert Vansintjan, on a "special" and thus non-competitive basis, as "Senior Partnership Manager for the North American Office. UNOPS' executive director Jan Mattson, previously at UNDP, wrote to staff that "since mid-2003 he has represented Belgium on UNDP / UNFPA and UNICEF boards as a delegate, actively participating in the change management process, working on accountability frameworks, results-based management, strategic plans, and UN reform." The "UNDP / UNFPA board also oversees UNOPS. And that he turned around are took a job at the agency he was supposed to oversee.

Voting in Burundi while UNDP plays games

News analysis: when embroiled in scandal, UNDP often emphasizes that while it may not be giving information to the press, it is accountable and transparent to the member states which give it money and sit on its Executive Board. But in this case, two countries which funded UNDP were denied access to basic records of an admittedly irregular procurement exercise. Belgium, it should be noted, is becoming the vice-chair of UNDP's Executive Board. To give a job to the Belgian mission's development counselor, who was pushing to get information that UNDP did not want to provide, is an example of how UNDP's top management manages to escape, rather than embrace, accountability.

  Looking forward, there is a growing sense that just as the Secretariat promulgated a set of Post-Employment Restrictions, albeit weak, rules are needed to prohibit those who oversee or audit agencies from going to work for them for a set period time after leaving their oversight role.

   Shorter term, these specific conflicts of interest, the availability of audits, the lack of oversight that led to contracting with Corimec and the $280,000 housing subsidy windfall of UNDP's head of Millennium Campaign, are all topics for the upcoming Executive Board meeting.

* * *

These reports are also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

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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Other, earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available in the ProQuest service, and now on Lexis-Nexis.

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

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