More than a year after a WFP administrative document revealed that the agency’s internal auditors had discovered “numerous” irregularities in the way the program reported its multimillion-dollar financial and commodity management in North Korea, WFP’s 36-country supervisory Executive Board is about to allow curious nation-states—including those, like the U.S., that are its biggest donors --to look at similar confidential audit documents for the very first time.
But only if they ask precise questions and promise to behave once access is granted.
And as for any internal WFP audits from the past—including those that itemized WFP’s “lapses,” “anomalies” and inconsistencies in reporting what happened to food aid and financial management in dictatorial North Korea—they will remain secret forever, so far as the food agency is concerned.
Nonetheless, WFP itself is hailing the action as an affirmation of its “commitment to transparency and accountability in all its activities and decision-making.”
That transparency, however, is still notably lacking in the case of North Korea, a habitually belligerent country that has been under international financial and other sanctions for years in a bid to stop, or at least slow down, its illegal nuclear weapons program. Only relief supplies for the neediest of North Korea’s starving millions of people have been trickling in.
Those efforts at financial pressure have not been far successful. Even as WFP’s Executive Board prepared to approve its new and still limited disclosure policy at a four-day meeting that starts Nov. 8, press reports have indicated North Korea is preparing for a third illicit nuclear weapons test.
WFP’s circumspection about its internal audit documents has been longstanding. But it reached a crescendo of sorts in September, after Fox News revealed the highlights of an internal audit that found “inconsistent data and unreliable information systems” and “numerous anomalies” in reporting management of WFP relief supplies in the country.
WFP claimed that there were only “a small number of inconsistencies in commodity accounting that have subsequently been addressed.” But the document uncovered by Fox News strongly suggested otherwise. Click here to read more on this from Foxnews.com.
The agency regards the audits as management tools—as do many other U.N. agencies and programs. Even powerful contributors like the U.S., which traditionally provides at least 22 per cent of WFP funds, WERE barred from viewing them.
According to the guidelines WFP’s Executive Board is about to approve, curious nations must apply in writing, and name the specific report they wish to read. They must also supply their reasons for wanting to look, and promise to keep anything they read confidential. Just to be sure, they won’t get a copy. They will instead be allowed to read one only in the office of WFP’s inspector general. No copying or note-taking is allowed during what the rules call a “consultation.”
Even that scrutiny may take a long while. Before agreeing to make a copy of any report available, WFP will notify any government specifically singled out in the audit, giving them a chance to read it as well, and comment. The new disclosure period says that reaction can take a “reasonable time,” without spelling out what’s reasonable. And if the report is deemed sensitive enough, it can be redacted--or even withheld entirely.
Adding to the potential complexity is that fact that some of WFP’s biggest food aid recipients are also on its Executive Board—a circumstance that any bureaucrat might consider very sensitive.
Among them: Sudan, the strife-torn area where WFP conducts a program that it says is its largest in the world; Democratic Republic of Congo, where WFP spent $259 million last year and, according to its website, wants to spend $198 million in 2010; Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest nations; and battered Haiti.
Three of those countries—Haiti, Congo and Sudan, in that order, are listed among the worst on Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index; Burkina Faso sits back in the middle of the international pack at Number 98.
George Russell is Executive Editor of Fox News