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At the UN, Amid Ethiopia Questions, Who Investigates WHO Remains Unanswered

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

UNITED NATIONS, JULY 25 -- As the situation in the Ogaden or Somali region of Ethiopia remains described as volatile and "restive," amid reports of blocking and diversion of humanitarian aid, one UN agency has nothing to say: the World Health Program.  WHO has administered a polio vaccination program in Ogaden that the NY Times of July 22 reported, with four sources, is being put to military use, and vaccine not distributed.

            Early on July 25, Inner City Press sent questions about this to WHO, and to UNICEF, which provides the vaccine. Among other things, the agencies were asked who investigates them. With UNICEF, as this year's North Korea inquiry shows, the UN Board of Auditors has jurisdiction. But what about WHO, which earlier in the year acknowledged in begrudging response to a question from Inner City Press that it has provided $10 million to the government of Kim Jong-il?

            UNICEF, after quickly confirming receipt of the questions, responded by deadline that it "would support a coordinated response to look into these allegations, which would be undertaken by OCHA," the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

            An identical message sent to WHO's acting Director of Communications, Christine McNab, resulted in an auto-responder:

I will not be checking emails regularly. If you need urgent assistance... send an email to mazuyc [at]; or chaibf [at]"

            Inner City Press did exactly that, to both, sending:

Subj: Fwd: Hi, Qs for WHO on Ethiopia, who investigates, UNCG, DPR
Korea, thanks
Date: 7/25/2007 8:58:32 AM Eastern Standard Time
From: Inner City Press Press

  Hello. These are press questions concerning what steps WHO has taken and will take to investigate the allegations concerning the WHO-administered polio vaccination program in Ethiopia, particular in Ogaden. We've asked spokespeople here at UN HQ, including yesterday USG John Holmes, about the NY Times report that

"Mr. Kalif... described a scheme with a United Nations polio program, which was corroborated by two former administrators in the Ethiopian government and a Western humanitarian official, in which military commanders gave prized jobs as vaccinators to militia fighters, and in the end, much of the polio vaccine was never distributed. 'Army commanders are using the polio money to pay their people, who don't pass out the vaccines, so the disease continues and the payments continue,' said Mr. Kalif. 'It's the perfect system.' United Nations officials in Geneva said they did not know whether that was happening, but that they would investigate."

On Monday, OCHA gave us a statement including that "[t]he WHO program in the country is unaware of any funds being diverted from the our polio vaccination program to members of the Ethiopian Defense."

  On Tuesday, USG Holmes said the charges are "not substantiated by WHO or UNICEF." When I asked who was investigating the charges, Mr. Holmes said, we are looking at it with them, apparently referring to OCHA.

  But who has investigated so far? And if there any chance or likelihood that anyone outside WHO (or OCHA or UNICEF) will assess the charges? Similar allegations concerning UN DPKO get investigated by the Office of Internal Oversight Services; issues concerning DPR Korea are, at least at UNDP, UNICEF, UNOPS and UNFPA, being looked into by the Board of Auditors. Who carries out such oversight of WHO?

Mr. Ban and WHO's Margaret Chan, April 2007

And, on DPR Korea, could you describe WHO's current programs and spending, whether WHO works or would work in all parts of the country, and whether any "audit" has been held since January 19, 2007?

  Finally, could you describe WHO's participation in the UN Communications Group...

  The Ethiopia question is timely and on deadline, the UNCG question is second-most timely, the DPR Korea question slightly longer-term. Thank you in advance.

            Despite sending this to three separate WHO spokespeople, about a topic the agency is reportedly investigating itself, and with the notation "on deadline," no response whatsoever was provided, not within 16 hours, not within 24. Arrogance? Incompetence? A media strategy? It is unclear. For now we note that, apparently without responding to questions, WHO has slated $63 million for Ethiopia in 2008-2009, which according to an industry publication will represent an "opportunity for local drug producers and regional players such as South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare and India's Cadila Pharma." And, if the New York Times is to be believed, also an opportunity for anti-rebel military forces. We'll have more on this.

* * *

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about the National Reconciliation Congress in Somalia, note the cancellation of the UN's pre-Congress flight to Mogadishu.

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