EDITOR'S UPDATE: After this story was published, IIMSAM removed from its website the picture of a youthful Barack Obama described in the article below.
A little-known United Nations-affiliated organization is using members of President Obama’s Kenyan family -- as well as Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona -- to promote the idea that a type of algae is the solution to world hunger.
The grandly-named Intergovernmental Institute for the Use of Micro-Algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition (IIMSAM) proudly advertises that President Obama’s Kenyan grandmother, Sarah, and his Uncle Said are “goodwill ambassadors” for the organization, helping to sponsor a feeding and education program in Kenya and raising the organization’s profile throughout the region.
A youthful photo of Barack Obama himself, posing with his grandmother, is prominently displayed on the IIMSAM website. The photos are attached to an IIMSAM press release dated November 6, 2008 -- just two days after President Obama’s election victory.
The Obamas are also highlighted in an IIMSAM financial report for 2009, which says they play a “pivotal role” in IIMSAM’s future expansion in Central and East Africa. What that role is, the report does not specify.
There is one problem: a White House official queried by Fox News says IIMSAM does not ring a bell in the White House.
IIMSAM’s elaborate website declares the organization’s purpose is to make spirulina -- formally known as spirulina platensis, a nutrient-rich species of algae that grows in semi-tropical ponds and that is sold in the U.S. as a food supplement and a fish food -- “a key-driver to eradicate malnutrition, achieve food security and bridge the health divide with a special priority for the developing world and the least developed countries.”
Its 2009-2010 annual report adds that “Spirulina has proven that it is a nutritional supplement with immeasurable benefits to those individuals that suffer from Sickle Cell Anemia, HIV/AIDS, malnourishment and physical handicap.”
Despite that claim, IIMSAM has not yet proven how it intends to turn algae production into a “key-driver” of world food security.
Founded on the basis of a pair of 2000 treaties among a handful of developing nations and Italy, IIMSAM was accredited as a U.N.-recognized intergovernmental organization in 2003. The treaties themselves, as IIMSAM literature frequently attests, are officially entered into a U.N. registry -- which is not surprising, since the U.N. aims to record all international treaties, no matter how small and obscure.
Over the next few years after its U.N. registry, the organization’s main activity at the U.N., apparently, was to fund-raise, issue statements that extol the nutritional impact of spirulina, oratorically support a wide variety of sometimes unrelated U.N. development goals, and make its presence known on the ubiquitous U.N. social circuit, as numerous photos on its website testify. A photo of IIMSAM Director General Remigio Maradona, with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, is featured on the organization’s home page.
Until it moved into a new suite of offices last year, IIMSAM’s headquarters address was a post-office box on Dag Hammerskjold Plaza not far from the U.N. Secretariat. Its listing with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) includes a second address in Rome. Prior to launching a new website in August 2008, IIMSAM’s web address was listed as www.pomun.org -- now the website of an online gambling casino.
IIMSAM has dramatically expanded its outreach and its organization. It has built a lengthy roster of staffers (many that the organization refers to with the formal title of Ambassador), “facilitators” and “goodwill ambassadors,” as well as an expert advisory panel and a lengthy list of legal advisers. It has opened “pilot projects” for its spirulina efforts, among them a “Greenlife” project in Fallujah, Iraq, which includes, according to an IIMSAM press release, a “Micro Pool Spirulina Kit for the school children to explore the fantastic knowledge of growing their own health food.”
The organization’s centerpiece project, however, is the IIMSAM Dar Al-Muamineen Center in Kisumu, Kenya -- the town nearest to the Obama family village of Kogelo, in western Kenya, where the president’s grandmother Sarah lives.
The center combines the feeding of hungry children, including the disabled, with education and facilities for actually growing algae. IIMSAM also runs a soccer camp in Kogelo, known as Camp Maradona, where some 700 Kenyan children, according to IIMSAM’s annual report, have received equipment and the chance to play.
The soccer camp, according to IIMSAM, has “greatly contributed towards local socio-economic empowerment by providing employment to the local population and an outlet that provides community building and encouragement.” It was inaugurated by former Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona, who is, according to Remigio Maradona, the IIMSAM director general’s first cousin.
IIMSAM is now located on midtown Manhattan’s East Side, where Director General Maradona maintains a small headquarters staff. The organization has formed a U.S. not-for-profit foundation to aid in its fundraising efforts.
“We are fortunate to have the Obamas to help us,” Maradona told Fox News in an interview, adding that the president’s family members have been “catalysts for us” in getting IIMSAM to be more widely known in Africa. Maradona told Fox News that President Obama himself knows about IIMSAM, its works, and his relatives’ involvement. “I don’t know to what extent he knows about their involvement,” Maradona said. “But he knows.”
But according to a White House staffer who spoke on background to Fox News, “The White House is not familiar with this organization.” Nor did the official know that President Obama’s photo with his grandmother was pasted on the IIMSAM website.
IIMSAM has made another claim that drew a blank from a U.S. government official -- a statement in numerous IIMSAM press releases that it has “a de facto diplomatic status on U.S. soil.” A U.S. State Department official queried by Fox News about that term, said he had never heard of it and did not know what it meant. (In diplomatic parlance, it is apparently a rare state of affairs that can mean, essentially, passive acknowledgement that an organization or state exists, without granting it any formal rights or privileges that go with formal diplomat recognition.) Non-governmental organizations and other organizations associated with the United Nations General Assembly and with ECOSOC do not get any diplomatic privileges, immunities or status as a result of their U.N. relationship, the State Department official said.
When pressed, IIMSAM’s Maradona admits, “We are not officially recognized in the U.S.,” but he adds, “We are what we say we are: we are people recognized by countries in a treaty.”
But IIMSAM also does not appear to be one thing it claims to be on its home web page and in a number of press releases: a “permanent observer” to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which calls itself the U.N.’s “central forum for discussing international economic and social issues and for formulating policy recommendations addressed to Member States and the United Nations system.”
In fact, permanent observer status does not seem to exist for any intergovernmental or non-government organizations recognized by ECOSOC, although the term “permanent observer” is used for some organizations recognized by the U.N. General Assembly.
Instead, according to the most recent list Fox News could obtain of ECOSOC intergovernmental organizations, IIMSAM has the less exalted status of “participation on a continuing basis,” meaning that its presence as an observer is renewable, not permanent.
IIMSAM’s curious hyperbole about its credentials extends to at least one other major claim on its website: that it “initiated” a draft resolution in the U.N. general assembly in 2005 that officially endorsed “the use of spirulina to combat hunger and malnutrition and help achieve sustainable development,” and called for “assisting national activities” for its production.
In fact, IIMSAM had no formal power to “initiate” any resolution before the U.N. General Assembly -- only national governments can do that. Nonetheless, a draft resolution on spirulina sponsored by several countries, including Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, went to the U.N.’s Second Committee (on economic issues) on November 8, 2005.
Second Committee records show, however, that it was subsequently withdrawn from consideration by the Dominican Republic on December 9, 2005. In other words, the draft resolution no longer has any official existence -- except, perhaps, on IIMSAM’s website.
Even IIMSAM’s existence in the treaties that give it official intergovernmental status appears to be slightly attenuated. According to the document registered with the U.N. as Treaty No. 37542, an institution called the “Intergovernmental Institution for the Use of Micro-alga Spirulina (Spirulina Program)” is designated as an “affiliated body” to yet another organization called the Collaborative Inter-governmental Scientific Research Institute (CISRI) whose creation is the main aim of the treaty, and which also lists itself on its website: http://www.cisri.org/ as based in Rome.
Despite the fact that CISRI is Rome-based, the document was originally signed only by representatives of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was in the midst of a mammoth civil war at the time, and the Republic of Guinea.
A second treaty, No. 37543 in the U.N. registry, announces creation of “The International Centre for Food micro-algae Against Malnutrition (ICFAM), with “the goal to promote study and production of food micro-algae in favor of people in need.” Once again, CISRI is prominently named, as the “depository” of the treaty. That agreement only came into effect with the adherence of Italy, six months after the original 2000 signing. In between, two other small African nations signed on.
A senior international diplomat familiar with the U.N. treaty registration process at the time the spirulina treaties were signed confirms that the two documents were considered to be “an Italian initiative.”
(In a recent press release, IIMSAM declares that signatories to its founding treaty as of July 31, 2009 include Jordan, Benin, Kenya, Gambia, Cameroon, Burundi and strife-torn Somalia --where the government’s writ is sometimes considered to cover no more than part of its capital of Mogadishu.).
A U.N. spokesman hinted to Fox News that in the past IIMSAM might have been considered to be abusing at least the symbol of its affiliation with the world body, which is a modified version of the U.N.’s blue-and-white logo, with the words “We Believe” included. Said the spokesman: “The United Nations has on several occasions communicated with the representatives of IIMSAM informing them that they are only authorized to use the U.N. emblem in accordance with the conditions communicated to them in October 2006.”
These conditions include the fact that the size of the U.N. emblem is never supposed to exceed the size of IIMSAM’s own insignia.
Whatever difficulties may have erupted in the IIMSAM-U.N. relationship, however, neither organization apparently sees any need to sever those ties. And in IIMSAM’s case, the aim is to use the momentum it has gained so far—from the Obama family, among others—to grow their advocacy effort further.
“It would be great to see all 192 countries in the U.N. to have a little pilot project for spirulina in each country, so we can categorize spirulina as a real savior,” Director General Maradona told Fox News.
“We have people that are now trying to help us with the U.S. government in Washington. We are trying to get Washington aboard to push for the spirulina agenda.”
That seems an intriguing goal for an organization that already claims a special kinship with the family of Washington’s foremost resident.
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.