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At UN, Leaked Memo Shows Low Morale and Commuting in Afghan Mission Amid Arrivals of de Mistura and from Dubai

By Matthew Russell Lee, Exclusive

UNITED NATIONS, February 22, updated -- A UN memo leaked to Inner City Press about the UN's embattled mission in Afghanistan UNAMA paints a picture of low morale and a closed down recruitment system as relocated staff prepare to return from Dubai, to Afghan locations from which they'll have to commute.

  The memo, sent out by UNAMA chief of staff Peter Schmitz on February 22 and nearly immediately forwarded to Inner City Press, concerns relocation and safety issues in the continuing aftermath of the "Bakhtar Guest House tragedy...  in which the UN was directly targeted for the first time."

   It announces that by the end of February, 30 additional housing units will be become available. They will, however, be where "the commute takes a lot of time" and exposes staff "to additional risks."

The memo acknowledges that "in the second half of 2009, virtually no new staff joined the mission. Partly, we have ourselves to blame." Now, the UN in Afghanistan and Iraq (UNAMI) have been "given the special authority to issue mission specific one year contracts." 

  The memo acknowledges that since the UNAMA budget has twice doubled, it is "important that we do not lose credibility in the eyes of the ACABQ [Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions] and Fifth [Budget] Committee."

  The testing time is now. Kai Eide, the UN's top envoy who quit in the wake of allegations he covered up Hamid Karzai's electoral fraud, will leave on March 6, when his successor Staffan de Mistura, who even the New York Times described as a faceless bureaucrat, will arrive. According to the memo, "we will be able to discontinue the relocation arrangement in Dubai by 8 March 2010 and have all staff return from there to Kabul."

  The memo concludes with some cheerleading to tell de Mistura what works and what doesn't. Given the UN's lack of whistleblower protections, and di Mistura's insider connections, will such candid recommendations be made or implemented? We'll see. Below is the memo.

   After publishing the article above, Inner City Press asked UN spokesman Martin Nesirky about the memo at the February 22 noon briefing:

Inner City Press: on Afghanistan, a memo has emerged from the Chief of Staff of UNAMA, Mr. [Peter] Schmitz, saying among other things, that virtually no new staff have joined the mission in the second half of 2009, and that new units are being, that the relocation from Dubai will take place by 8 March. Can you, one, can you confirm that the move to Dubai will be finished by 8 March? And two, how can it be, what does it mean if the budget is doubled that no new staff have been hired? Galaxy is closed, which used to be the way that they recruited staff. If Galaxy is closed, what’s it been replaced by and what are the plans to actually spend the money that’s been allocated to UNAMA?

Spokesperson Nesirky: Okay. A lot of questions there, and I can’t really go into detail on each of them. What I can say is the Secretary-General has said very clearly that he is concerned about the slow pace of recruitment for positions in UNAMA. There were some fairly stark reasons why that was the case, and he is certainly keen that people should be able to take up posts as soon as possible and should be able to apply for position as soon as possible. On the details, the various technical parts -- I’ll have to come back to you on that.

  While still waiting for the "technical" answers, the memo has been syndicated by the WaPo FP, with credit, here.  The memo is below.

UN's Ban, de Mistura and Hamid Karzai, low morale and commuting not shown

Kabul, 22 February 2010

Dear Colleagues,

Since 15 December 2009, when we sent the last circular on the security and relocation issues, there have been a number of developments that should improve the situation of the Mission in the weeks and months to come.

Secure Accommodation and Office Space

As you know, the need to provide secure accommodation that meets the higher standards established after the Bakhtar Guest House tragedy, has been a major bottleneck for UNAMA. The good news is that by the end of this month, 30 additional housing units will be come available in UNOCA. Moreover, a further 50 units will be completed by the end of April. As a result, we will be able to discontinue the relocation arrangement in Dubai by 8 March 2010 and have all staff return from there to Kabul.

With 80 units available by the end of April, we should also be able to accommodate the new staff coming on board over the next few months.

It is understood that UNOCA is not an ideal location for those staff who have their offices or frequent meetings in the center of the city. The commute takes a lot of time and exposes them to additional risks even though the use of armoured vehicles has now been mandatory for some time. Therefore, we continue to look for additional accommodation and office space inside the city and we have identified some promising options. Once the negotiations on these options are completed, we will inform staff who wish to be closer to the city.


At the beginning of the year with the 2010 budget coming into effect, UNAMA had a vacancy rate of 44%. The situation had reached a point where the SRSG felt obliged to alert the Security Council that if the staffing back log were to continue, UNAMA would not be able to implement key elements of its mandate.

UNAMA is not the only mission suffering from this situation. We all know that the more stringent recruitment procedures required by the new contractual arrangements, in particular the introduction of a review by the newly established Field Central Review Boards (FCRB), created delays to a degree that in the second half of 2009, virtually no new staff joined the Mission. Partly, we have ourselves to blame because we started too late with the implementation of the new procedures. As a result, numerous recruitment cases were returned to the Mission by the FCRB for further clarifications.

The Department of Field Support and the Office for Human Resources Management have realized that UNAMA (and UNAMI) had reached a choking point. Therefore, we and UNAMI have been given the special authority to issue mission specific one-year contracts to staff who have been interviewed by the Mission and recommended to be placed on the roster concerned for selection.

Moreover, the Field Personnel Division (FPD) of DFS sent a team led by Masaki Sato to assist UNAMA in addressing the back log of cases pending endorsement by the FCRB. As of mid-February, exercising its new authority, UNAMA has issued 53 mission specific contracts. The selected staff should be arriving over the next two months, providing a desperately needed respite. Nevertheless, there are still numerous vacancies yet to be filled. Stephani Scheer, the Chief of Mission Support, together with the team from New York and the Section Chiefs have prioritized the vacancies and established interview panels that will pursue the necessary recruitment steps.

A key element in this context is the issuance of mission specific vacancy announcements. Since the Galaxy system is closed, and since many of those who applied previously never intended to come to Afghanistan, FPD has established lists of candidates who indeed are willing to join UNAMA. If we cannot find any suitable candidates on these lists or if we know of eminently suitable candidates who are not currently in Galaxy, mission specific vacancy announcements can be issued.

We will continue to get help from FPD. However, the brunt of the time-consuming interview work will have to be borne by us. While it is understood that the steps involved in recruiting staff seem arduous and take time away from our daily work, we must approach this task with a sense of urgency. If we don’t prioritize recruitment now we will not be able to get out of this slump. Moreover, UNAMA’s budget virtually doubled in two consecutive years, 2009 and 2010. This not only shows that Afghanistan is still high on the international agenda, it also places a lot of responsibility on us. It is important that we do not lose credibility in the eyes of the ACABQ and the Fifth Committee which placed a lot of trust in our ability to utilize the additional resources in an effective and efficient manner.

Field Issues

From my regular visits to UNAMA’s field offices, I know that our colleagues in the field have particular hardships to endure. They live in remote locations and their offices and living accommodations are more often not at the standard we would like them to enjoy. Moreover, with the new MOSS and MORSS requirements, many field locations need to be upgraded to a higher category. Where premises cannot be upgraded, new locations have to be found. The CMS has established a priority engineering plan to address these issues. She is also making every effort to improve internet and Lotus connectivity, crucial tools of communication, particularly in remote office locations

Reimbursement of Additional Security Cost

The new security requirements, in particular the need for internal guards (Gurkhas), have increased the cost for office and accommodation security exponentially. The Security Management Team (SMT) has before it a proposal to increase the amount reimbursable to staff for security upgrades. The SMT’s decision is expected shortly. Staff should not suffer financially because of the additional security requirements. The CMS is devising a policy for the various housing situations to ensure that nobody will incur financial losses.

In this context it is important, that those staff members who were the primary lease holders for one of the many guest houses that had to be vacated following the Bakhtar guest house tragedy, approach their landlords to recover any rent they may have paid in advance. The Legal Office will provide assistance, if necessary. In the event that landlords decline to return rent paid in advance, they should make this known to the CMS. A separate circular will be issued in this regard providing more details.

We should, however, keep in mind that efforts to homogenize the salaries and entitlements of all entities in the UN System have not yet come to pass. UNAMA staff will have lesser entitlements than the staff of the agencies, funds and programmes. Hence, while we are trying to interpret our rules and regulations with the maximum benefit for staff in mind, there are things that we cannot not do within the current regulatory framework.

Staff Morale

Following the Bakhtar guest house incident in which the UN was directly targeted for the first time, we all felt somewhat depressed. Moreover, the rather tumultuous unfolding of the elections last year led to vehement and often unfair criticism of the Mission and UNDP ELECT which, no doubt, left some scars on our self-esteem. How we perceive our work and how our work is perceived by others clearly has an effect on our morale.

Two weeks ago, I convened a meeting with all Section Chiefs to address these issues. They raised many of the problems mentioned above relating to secure accommodation and staffing. They also put forward a number of ideas and proposals that we will follow up upon in the near future.

A key to staff morale is also the relationship between staff and their supervisors. Particularly in the remote locations in the field with little opportunity for other than office related activities, inter-personal relations can become strained. Such situations should be addressed in an open and transparent spirit in discussions with the supervisor. No purpose is served if conflicts are left to fester and then turn into formal complaints to the Conduct and Discipline Unit. I would appeal to all managers and supervisors to actively engage with their staff and to nip interpersonal conflicts in the bud.

New Leadership

Mr. Staffan de Mistura has been appointed as the new Special representative of the Secretary-General in Afghanistan. He will have in-briefings in New York during the first week of March and is expected to arrive in Kabul in the course of the second week. Kai Eide will leave on 6 March. A new Deputy Special Representative for Pillar I is expected in early April.

For quite some time, UNAMA has been suffering from the fact that one or the other position of the leadership troika was vacant. With the full complement of senior leaders in place, we should be able to make UNAMA’s structures work in the way that they were designed to.

Invariably, a new SRSG will make changes and adjustments. Change can be a challenge, but it should also be considered as an opportunity. We should all strive to help the new SRSG to settle in and take on his heavy responsibilities. Please be frank in pointing out to him what you believe works and what doesn’t. There is always room for improvement.

There are many challenges ahead, but with an open and collegial approach we can master them.


Peter Schmitz
Chief of Staff

* * *

Susan Rice of US Insists UN "Misconstrues" Somalia Aid Restrictions

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, February 19 -- Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, accused the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden of "misconstruing" US restrictions on aid. Ambassador Rice asserted a "diversion of resources" to the Islamist group Al Shabab. Since it is on US terrorism lists, US law requires the restrictions the US is demanding.

   But what are these U.S. restrictions? Bowden, while publicly complaining about them, would not provide any description. Rather, he said that when he went to Washington to discussed them with US aid officials, they told him the issue was "above [their] pay grade."

  Inner City Press asked Ambassador Rice about precisely this quote. She insisted that it is Al Shabab which is responsible for the lack of aid. Video here, transcript below.

  But what of Bowden's quoting of US aid officials? A US State Department official in Washington, described as "irritated," has said of Bowden, "We're going to talk to him." The quote reminded on UN observer of "something from the Sopranos," or the Mafia film "Good Fellas."

 When Bowden's boss, top UN humanitarian John Holmes, stood before a UN microphone on Thursday evening, Inner City Press asked him to explain what Bowden had said, and to describe the US restrictions to which the UN is publicly taking exception.

  But Holmes responded that the message was only that the UN needs more funds. Even pressed, he declined to follow or back up Bowden. Video here, last question.

  Was this "good cop, bad cop," an observer mused afterwards. Or was Holmes showing his political stripes, declining to criticize the U.S. as, for example, his predecessor Jan Egeland did after the tsunami?

Susan Rice back on Jan. 26, US Somalia aid restrictions not shown

  Following Ambassador Rice's two responses to the Press about Somalia, she went in to a Security Council meeting about Haiti. Speaking first, from a prepared text, was the UN's John Holmes. So goes diplomacy at the UN.

Footnotes: While Ambassador Rice also took two questions about Iran's nuclear program, the Press was not able to ask for her views on developments in Sudan and Darfur, or on anti-democratic moves in Niger and Cote d'Ivoire, nor the incorporation of a presumptive war criminal into Guinea's interim government. But the answers on Somalia, although of a piece with Washington's script, were appreciated.

  Thursday a UN official told Inner City Press that "Susan Rice, as an expected future Secretary of State, is playing it safe. She will not, for example, criticize [former South African president Thabo] Mbeki about Sudan." Until questions are asked, and answered, we'll stick to an open mind.

From the US Mission to the UN's transcript:

Inner City Press: On Somalia, the U.N. has said that the U.S. is politicizing aid, and has made restrictions that make it impossible to feed people in southern Somalia. Could you say what the restrictions are and what the reasons for them are?

Ambassador Rice: Well, first of all we utterly reject that claim; we think it's false and unfounded. The reason why aid is not now proceeding to the people of southern Somalia is one reason alone and it's quite clear: it's Al Shabaab's attacks on WFP and other U.N. agencies, its kidnapping of innocent relief workers, its extortion of funds which prompted WFP on January 5th to take the decision that it could not and would not continue to deliver life saving assistance in southern Somalia. That's an unfortunate development but it is a direct consequence of Al Shabaab's attacks and efforts. The U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Somalia, we have been consistently over many years, and in 2009 we contributed $150 million in humanitarian assistance to Somalia. So, as I said we reject that claim as false and unfounded.

Inner City Press: One follow up, Mark Bowden of the UN had said when he traveled to Washington and met with USAID officials they said to him that the decision was above their pay-grade and was being made by the State Department on a political basis.

Ambassador Rice: He's conflating and misconstruing two different things. The reason why the people of Somalia in the South are not able to receive the assistance that we and others have traditionally provided at present is because WFP took a decision, a decision they felt compelled to take and we understand why they had to take it, that they could no longer continue to provide assistance safely, given Al Shabaab's harassment, attacks, and terrorist activities. The question of how the U.S. government has responded, and we have been in discussions with humanitarian delivery agencies about the fact that we have grave concerns about the diversion of resources to Al Shabaab and other terrorist organizations in contravention of U.S. law. And we have had those discussions, they have been ongoing but nonetheless, the U.S. provided $150 million of humanitarian assistance to Somalia last year. We remain, as we have been for many years, the largest donor, and what is precluding the delivery of assistance to people in southern Somalia is Al Shabaab.

 Click here for an Inner City Press YouTube channel video, mostly UN Headquarters footage, about civilian deaths in Sri Lanka.

Click here for Inner City Press' March 27 UN debate

Click here for Inner City Press March 12 UN (and AIG bailout) debate

Click here for Inner City Press' Feb 26 UN debate

Click here for Feb. 12 debate on Sri Lanka

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

* * *

These reports are usually 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

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