Friday, April 16, 2010

Pricey Peacekeeping: Ban Gets Blasted for Billion-Dollar Mismanagement


A U.N. report charges Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office with repeated failure to police its soaring blue-helmet budget — though Ban says he's doing fine.

Frustration is rising fast at the United Nations over Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's inability to police the organization's huge and fast-growing peacekeeping budget, which looks sure to exceed $8.4 billion this year.

That budget, which covers the period from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, is still under intense debate, especially among the 37 of 192 countries at the U.N. that pick up virtually all of the peacekeeping tab. By far the biggest contributor is the U.S., whose share this year amounts to 27.17 percent of the total, or nearly $2.3 billion. Others include Japan, Germany and Britain.

The issue is not only how much money is being spent, but how the U.N. is spending it. Donor countries are expressing, in undiplomatic terms, their concern at the way Ban's Secretariat has handled the huge peacekeeping enterprise in the past. And so is Ban's independent Board of Auditors.

A report issued just weeks ago by one of the General Assembly's main budget oversight committees, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), and obtained by Fox News, takes Ban harshly to task. The 11-page document was labeled for general distribution, but only went to selected members of a working group attached to the "special committee on peacekeeping operations," which began to meet on April 4 and is still in session.

The report keys in on the U.N.'s peacekeeping performance in the 2008-2009 budget year — when peacekeeping cost only $7.1 billion — and cites, among other things:

• the U.N.'s mismanagement of huge amounts of peacekeeping property at various sites around the world, including "inaccurate" and "unreliable" record-keeping, and "high stock levels" of property that "will result in waste, deterioration and obsolescence as well as possible loss due to theft";
• procedures that excluded "reputable vendors" from its procurement procedures at various missions in Africa;
• "widespread" irregularities in procurement in "many" peacekeeping operations, including in contract awards and monitoring of vendor performance;
• over-budgeting of expensive air transport resources;
• major gaps in Ban's methods of measuring and improving his top officials' performance of their duties to manage peacekeeping better.

Moreover, the report charges that Ban's lack of effective management has become a disturbing habit.

In the U.N.'s customarily congested language, the report says the ACABQ "continues to be concerned" with the U.N. Secretariat's "persistent non-compliance" in implementing Board of Auditors recommendations to improve the situation, and adds that it is "of great concern" to the committee that "effective remedies have not been applied."

Chief among those remedies, the report makes clear, is making U.N. managers more accountable for their actions — or in many cases, inactions, "at Headquarters and in the [peacekeeping] missions."

The sheer scope of the U.N.'s expanding peacekeeping operations is a major part of the challenge. The Board of Auditors' report covers 14 of 16 current U.N. peacekeeping operations and notes — not for the first time — that a mammoth overhaul of the U.N.'s computerized management and accounting systems, known as an enterprise resource planning system (ERP) is far behind schedule, and will not be ready until 2014, at the earliest.

Specifically, the committee notes that "there was no documentary evidence to fully substantiate the actual performance at the United Nations Operation in Cote d'Ivoire (UNOCI)," and that a similar fogginess surrounded the remaining U.N. mission in Kosovo.

The committee also emphasized that the Board of Auditors had complained for three years running about "significant discrepancies" between the U.N. records for "expendable and non-expendable property at various missions" — meaning that the organization could not really account for the huge amounts of goods it had — or did not have — on hand.

The problems of "deficiencies in the monitoring of the inventory" also applied to the main U.N. logistical base for peacekeeping in Brindisi, Italy, where supplies seemed to languish despite the rapid growth in missions that ostensibly needed them.

The same gap between supply and demand occurred in peacekeeping aviation budgets, where the committee and the auditors noted that the U.N. seemed to budget for many more hours of air transport time than its records showed it used. In other words, expensively-contracted aircraft and helicopters were often just sitting around.

Other "irregularities" were also noted, including a $5.3 million overpayment to a vendor in Darfur, and another $3.3 million worth of equipment that was delivered but not used due to various bureaucratic snafus.

In terms of managing peacekeeping personnel, the committee also found the U.N. wanting. Vacancy rates for needed personnel ranged as high as 35 percent, or nearly twice what the organization was supposed to accept — which in turn raised the potential stress on existing staff.

The solution to all this, the committee concluded, was that that Ban and his officials should actually implement the measures that auditors had long suggested for rectifying the problems, especially holding management feet to the fire when required.

The fact that it hadn't happened so far, the report concludes, was an indication of "weaknesses in administration at all levels of management."

Click here to read the committee report.

Not surprisingly, Ban has taken considerable exception to those conclusions, in a 55-page companion document responding to the auditors' comments, also obtained by Fox News, that offered his own assessment of how well the U.N. Secretariat had done in accepting its auditors' recommendations.

Among other things, Ban noted that his administration "has achieved significant improvements in ensuring that the indicators of achievement and outputs ... are formulated as specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound."

In other words, he and his officials were doing as well as could be expected in measuring their accomplishments. Ban added that consideration also had to be given to the political climate where peacekeeping missions operated, which often limited outcomes.

On issues such as the use of expensive aircraft, Ban pointed to his administration's rebuttal in the auditors' own report, to the effect that "forecasts could not be exact owing to the nature of emergency situations. It was preferable to have sufficient capability on the ground than to be faced with a shortage when a crisis occurred." (But Ban's Administration also admitted that in the case of peacekeeping in Darfur, at least, it was cutting its planned use of aircraft in the future by nearly 50 percent.)

Ban also pointed out that even the auditors felt that his administration had done better this time than in the previous year — by lifting the rate of implementation of audit recommendations from 32 percent to 40 percent, as of March 2010. The rate was even better for those deemed of the "highest priority." Still others, he declared, were "in progress" or had target dates set for completion.

Click here to read Ban's response to the auditors.

However, Ban's rebuttal also said that there was no target set at all for 11 of the auditors' highest priority recommendations.
His rebuttal did not mention what those recommendations were.

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.

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