The United Nations, which is quietly planning a major aid program to North Korea despite U.N. sanctions against the regime, also intends to ship hundreds of millions of dollars to Burma, another brutal Asian dictatorship, despite allegations that the country also known as Myanmar is trying to acquire nuclear weapons technology.
At least one U.N. organization, the United Nations Children's fund, or UNICEF, has now found the Burma issue too thorny to tackle — for the moment.
UNICEF has discreetly postponed approval of a four-year plan starting next January to spend $198.5 million, including $115 million in additional donated funds, for its programs in the country at least until the fall — while the nuclear weapons concerns have a chance to die down.
UNICEF's plans, prepared in close collaboration with the Burmese government, were originally intended for approval at a four-day meeting of the organization's 36-nation supervisory Executive Board, which ended June 4.
According to a UNICEF spokesman, Christopher de Bono, the plan won't be formally approved until the Board's next meeting, probably in September.
The Burmese bomb-making program was allegedly developed with help from nearby North Korea — whose own nuclear weapons program became enmeshed in scandals involving U.N. aid programs.
Just three years ago, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) closed its offices in North Korea amid allegations — later confirmed by an "independent investigative review panel" — that it had handed over hard currency and sensitive equipment to the bellicose Kim Jong Il regime while it was successfully circumventing international sanctions sparked by its own nuclear weapons program.
The UNDP office in North Korea is in the process of reopening, after making changes in its procedures.
In the case of Burma, a dissident organization known as the Democratic Voice of Burma late last month released a documentary summarizing what it called a five-year investigation of the military regime's clandestine nuclear quest. It included claims by an alleged defector from the nuclear program who says the regime wants "nuclear warheads."
When Fox News asked the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, for comment, IAEA spokesperson Gill Tudor replied: "The Agency has seen the media reports and continues its analysis of information on, as it does with information on other countries."
The UNICEF program aims to support infant vaccinations and feeding supplements, bolster clinical care for children and expectant mothers, expand water and sanitation networks (especially in schools), fight the spread of AIDS and bolster early childhood education. The programs also include hefty amounts for "communication activities promoting and engaging child participation" and awareness of childrens' rights, plus extensive funding to help the Burmese regime collect social and health data.
As is common with U.N. agency in-country plans, the execution of the plans will largely be in the hands of the government and its various branches. The current UNICEF in-country staff of 220 international and local personnel would be expanded to support and monitor the programs through 10 field offices, but the bulk of the work would be carried out by government doctors, educators and other officials.
"I have been worried about Myanmar for years," says John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, and a longtime critic of how — and how much — the U.N. spends. "UNICEF needs to be clearer about its obligation not to be manipulated by governments for their own ends." (Bolton is also a Fox News contributor.)
When it comes to monitoring whether the programs actually are implemented as planned, however, UNICEF sounds confident of its abilities. A spokesman says that official permission is required to monitor "certain parts of the country," but he adds that "we have no recent experience of permission being denied."
Hundreds of millions of dollars of other U.N. program aid also hangs in the balance in Burma and the issue of monitoring what the government does with the money has been very much at issue in the immediate past.
Case in point: some $320 million in aid from the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Malaria and Tuberculosis (GFAMT), a public-private venture based in Switzerland that gets funding from Bill and Melinda Gates and from a variety of governments — including the U.S., which kicks in 28 percent of the Fund's budget.
The applicant for the five-year Global Fund grants is a "country coordinating mechanism" in Burma that includes, along with representatives of the regime's health services, representatives of the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO), UNDP, the U.N. Joint Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), as well as the British government's foreign development agency.
The recipient, if the grants get their final sign-off, is another U.N. agency, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which according to its website provides "technical and administrative support" to other U.N. agencies.
But "none of these grants are signed yet," says Global Fund spokesman Jon Liden, because the Fund got badly burned once before by the Burmese government — precisely on the issue of monitoring what was going on with Fund money.
In July 2005, just months after the Global Fund had spent nearly $10 million of anti-AIDS, anti-malaria and anti-TB funding worth $98.4 million over five years, the Fund abruptly bailed on the program.
It charged the Burmese regime with reneging on its written agreements to allow Global Fund staff, U.N. personnel and non-government organizations unimpeded access to areas where programs were supposedly underway.
The government also put new barriers in the way of Global Fund review of supply procurement for the programs, meaning the Fund could no longer be sure the government was buying what it said it was buying in the way of medicines, among other things.
After the Fund left, the programs went ahead anyway, thanks to support from yet another outside donor known as the Three Diseases Fund, which was created in 2006 by, among others, the governments of Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden, plus the European Commission. UNOPS managed the fund.
But in November 2009, Burma and the U.N. organizations working there came back to the Global Fund for more. Whether they will get it is still unclear.
At the time, says Lidon, "The Global Fund reiterated that none of our procedures or requirements had changed and that they would not in any way be relaxed" if Burma reapplied. Grant negotiations, he added, "are ongoing."
That by no means exhausts the amount and variety of U.N. agency activity in Burma. UNOPS, for example, also manages another $100 million fund known as LIFT — Livelihoods and Food Security Trust — provided by European donors.
For its part, UNDP in January extended its separate, three-year "Human Development Initiative" in Burma by an extra year, meaning it will have spent another $65 million by the end of 2011. The organization currently aims to present a successor program to its executive board in either June or September of next year. According to a UNDP spokesman, "The details and budget estimate will be developed over the coming months."
A lot has happened in Burma since the Global Fund last cut off its medical grants in 2005, including Cyclone Nargis, the horrific typhoon that devastated the country in 2008 and left at least 138,000 dead.
In response to that disaster, the world sent hundreds of millions in aid to the stricken country via the U.N. and other institutions, without much thought for what other uses the regime might have for the money.
The official recovery from the Nargis calamity is supposed to end this year.
Now, with the alleged help of the dangerously unstable North Korean regime, a different kind of catastrophic threat might be in the offing.
And how the U.N. — and the Burma regime — accounts for its money might have everything to do with the outcome.
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.