UNDP: Part of the Problem, Not the Solution

Before you can get help for a problem, you must first admit you have one.

On that score, the United Nations deserves some credit.

The U.N. system is a sprawling operation that often works awkwardly, even at cross-purposes, hampered by poor coordination and miscommunication.

Its institutional, managerial and political weaknesses have resulted in a litany of scandals in recent years, including Oil-for-Food, procurement corruption and sexual abuse by U.N. personnel.

The U.N. recognizes it has problems. That's a big step. Unfortunately, the world body has proven more successful at talking about reforms than in actually implementing them.

Consider the High-level Panel on United Nations System-Wide Coherence. It released a report last fall titled "Delivering as One," which contained proposals aimed at streamlining U.N. operations in countries worldwide.

"Delivering as One" hit the mark with its key recommendation: eliminating duplicative and outdated U.N. mandates.

The U.N. system consists of dozens of specialized agencies, funds, programs, departments and offices, leading to costly duplication and competition for resources.

"Delivering as One" notes that, "In some sectors, such as water and energy, more than 20 U.N. agencies are active and compete for limited resources without a clear collaborative framework. More than 30 U.N. agencies and programmes have a stake in environmental management."

The report rightly urges consolidation or elimination of duplicative funds, programs and specialized agencies in order to clarify responsibility, eliminate duplication and reduce burdens on recipient and donor governments.

Still, it ignores the simplest way to make that reform happen: Have the U.N. General Assembly conduct a comprehensive mandate review and adopt sunset clauses for mandates.

Such a mandate review is indefinitely stalled in the General Assembly. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should press aggressively for a review of all mandates and also name the U.N. mandates he thinks should be eliminated.

Unfortunately, the bad recommendations outweigh the good in the report.

One of the most egregious mistakes was the recommendation to place overall responsibility for U.N. country coordination with the U.N. Development Programme. UNDP has demonstrated such weaknesses and misjudgments that it should be disqualified from such a prominent and important role.

Take the questionable ties the UNDP has with some of the planet's worst regimes.

The agency's staff knew, for example, about North Korea's propensity to counterfeit U.S. currency. But instead of attempting to stop such shenanigans, staffers held counterfeit $100 bills in an office safe for years.

Similarly, UNDP let the North Korean government set the terms of its involvement in the country. The government controlled who UNDP hired, how funds were spent and prohibited the organization from freely visiting the projects it funded.

When these practices — which violated UNDP's own rules — came to light, the U.S. rightly demanded that UNDP activities in North Korea be halted or brought into compliance with UNDP rules.

UNDP finally suspended its work in North Korea in March — months after questions were first raised about its activities in North Korea — when the DPRK failed to meet conditions set by the executive board following U.S. demands.

UNDP has spun an audit requested by the Secretary-General of U.N. activities in North Korea as an exoneration of its actions. It was nothing of the sort.

The audit was preliminary, but it confirmed that UNDP did indeed permit the government of North Korea to dictate who UNDP could hire, restricted access to UNDP-funded projects, and demanded that all UNDP payments to staff and projects go through the government.

The report clearly states these practices violated UNDP rules.

Defenders of UNDP point out that the auditors claim to have found no evidence that the government misused UNDP funds, but this conclusion strains belief considering that the North Korean government would not permit the auditors to visit.

How can the auditors verify that no funds were misused if they cannot even verify that UNDP funded projects exist at all?

North Korea is hardly the only example of UNDP's willingness to support repressive regimes.

In Thailand, UNDP has fully backed and praised the economic plan of the military leaders who seized power in 2006, suspended the constitution, dissolved Parliament, cancelled upcoming elections, banned protests and political activities and censored the media.

In Zimbabwe, the UNDP office has been accused of aiding a diamond-smuggling operation using UNDP vehicles.

In Burma, a human-rights group has accused the UNDP of helping the ruling military junta "expand military control over the population while divesting itself of the cost of operating programmes and simultaneously legitimising its policies in the name of development."

Another mistake in "Delivering as One" is its recommendation to expand the role of the U.N. in development — again under the leadership of UNDP. Doing so would contravene the dominant theme in the report: removing duplication and overlap.

The World Bank, not UNDP, would be more appropriate as a country-level development coordinator, based on its expertise, in-country presence and resources.

Indeed, it makes more sense to eliminate or consolidate the UNDP and regional economic commissions in favor of international financial institutions such as the World Bank to avoid duplication and lack of coordination.

The record of UNDP argues for a full inspection and audit of its activities world-wide — not rewarding it with more influence and control over U.N. activities.

Secretary-General Ban is still in his first year on the job, so when he endorsed the "Delivering as One" report, he may have been making a rookie mistake.

To fix the U.N., Ban will need to recognize when "reforms" will help resolve the organizations myriad problems and when they will make it worse.

It's not always easy to see the difference. Luckily UNDP has made its unsuitability for this responsibility abundantly clear and Ban should revise his endorsement of the parts of the report that would grant UNDP more authority over U.N. activities.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. From 2003-04 he was an assistant for international criminal court policy in the Office of the
Secretary of Defense.