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US, other nations quietly maneuvering to rein in sprawling, inefficient UN system

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May 6: U.N. headquarters in Vienna, Austria. (AP)

Frustrated by the epic inefficiency, sprawling disorganization and free-spending of their money by the United Nations, a group of Western donor nations, including the U.S., has been meeting quietly to develop a strategy to rein in the world organization’s more than $20 billion a year in anti-poverty assistance – which even parts of the U.N. concede hasn’t done much to relieve poverty.

The donor group’s aim is to produce some kind of workable reform agenda for the bloated system that will actually achieve greater efficiency, less duplication and fragmentation of efforts, less corruption and a greater ability to see where their money actually goes.

So far, the would-be reformers are mostly trying to figure out how cost-efficient U.N. programs are, and what management tools the widely differing U.N. organizations can be pressed into adopting.

The U.N. organizations themselves — including such high-profile entities as the United Nations Development Program, UNICEF, the World Food Program, the World Health Organization and more than 30 others —are not invited to the meetings.

According to a document summarizing one of the closed-door sessions obtained by Fox News, the group of 17 reformer nations is aware that they have a long march ahead to reshape the chaotic U.N. system, make it more rational, or even more financially comprehensible.

Another cause of frustration is the spaghetti-like tangle of ways that donor nations contribute money to the UN system.

The document summarizes the most recent meeting of the reformers in the Swedish capital of Stockholm last November, and also looks forward to their next strategy session, known as the Senior Level Donor Meeting on Multilateral Reform, in Berlin next  April.

When queried by Fox News for information about the meeting, a spokesman for Germany’s federal Ministry for Economic Development Cooperation merely acknowledged that the session was taking place.

According to the Stockholm document, the donor nations, which include most major Western European nations, as well as Canada, Australia and the U.S.—but not Japan—are not trying to cut costs, but rather are about “achieving more with available resources.” 

In response to questions from Fox News, a spokesperson for Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), one of the major forces behind the reform exercise, says that “U.N. agencies know that cost effectiveness is an important priority for the U.K.—it is one of the criteria DFID used to assess the value for money of U.N. agencies in the U.K.’s multilateral aid review, which we are updating later this year.”

But in rare public discussions of the exercise, participants from Britain, for example, have also pointed to recent small but significant cuts to the administrative budgets of a few of the bigger agencies, amounting to about 5 percent, as fruit of their nearly year-long efforts.

And Britain has already been more draconian than that. DFID, widely considered to be one of the most aggressively reformist of donor organizations, announced in early 2011 that it would walk out of four smaller U.N. agencies that it had found in its original multilateral aid review had contributed little “value for money” for Britain’s investment, and were ranked “poor” in terms of their impact.

When questioned by Fox News about the British statements on administrative budget cuts, a spokesman for the largest U.N. development agency, UNDP, declared that the organization had cut its proposed 2012-2013 “institutional” budget by about $49 million, “equivalent to a 5 percent reduction” from the previous two-year total.

But the spokesman also said the reductions “formed part of a process initiated by UNDP in exercising budgetary discipline, for example, by eliminating non-essential services and identifying cuts to lower priority functions.”

At Stockholm, the reformist group agreed that “donors and multilateral organizations alike need to look at the causes of proliferation and fragmentation and possible options for their reduction.”

One possible translation:  fewer and better-organized U.N. agencies — though the agencies themselves may have different views than the countries who identify that problem.

The U.N. system is a major cause of frustration and confusion for those who pay the bills—as well as those who are supposed to benefit from them. The U.N. system includes 37 agencies and organizations that spend money on “development-related operational activities,” as a U.N. summary document puts it. The biggest is the United Nations Development Program, the U.N.’s anti-poverty flagship, which according to a U.N. study accounted for 33 percent of all of the world organization’s resources for “development-related activities.”

Another cause of frustration is the spaghetti-like tangle of ways that donor nations contribute money to the U.N. system, through annual dues-like assessments, voluntary contributions for specific projects or themes, collective contributions through organizations like the European Commission, or through an increasing stream of private contributions that the governments of wealthy nations do not control.

Another is the U.N.’s awesome inefficiency, both in terms of bang for the buck and in terms of actually alleviating the desperate poverty that opens Western wallets in the first place.

A variety of expert studies, including one published in May 2012, have rated U.N. agencies at the low end of effectiveness among organizations, governments and institutions around the globe, and ranked them equally as low for their willingness to discuss their finances and operations.

And as recently as last month, the United Nations Development Program’s executive board learned from its own internal evaluators that their organization’s anti-poverty efforts often have “only remote connections with poverty.”

The maze-like complexity of the U.N. system is one reason why the donor nations who will meet in Berlin have put the issue of “proliferation and fragmentation” high on their list for reform. How they hope to do that is still unclear.  According to the document obtained by Fox News, Germany’s federal Ministry for Overseas Cooperation and Development, or BMZ, will lead discussion on the issue by means of a study of “the incentive structures” beyond the increasing bureaucratic tangle.

The Stockholm document also underscores the remarkable amount donor nations do not know about the welter of U.N. organizations, which do not keep track of costs or program spending in similar ways, do not manage their efforts or staff effectively in terms of results, do not conduct audits in similar fashion, and do not promote or enforce the same rules on combating corruption.

As just one example, in Stockholm, donors “discussed the lack of capacity in [U.N. executive] boards with regard to audit expertise,” which was highlighted in a study by host Sweden. (The U.N.’s drastic lack of such expertise has also been highlighted by a U.N. watchdog, which also pointed out that the auditors are often overly dependent on the people they are supposed to be auditing.

The Stockholm conclave agreed that “there was a continued need to discuss reform and to form coherent messages to drive change,” as well as continued “coordination among donors” and even “clarity on what success looks like.”

The donors have also agreed to institutionalize themselves through an organization they created a decade ago, known as the Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network, or MOPAN. This year it will establish its own permanent Secretariat.

CLICK HERE FOR THE STOCKHOLM DOCUMENT      

The big question — which is unlikely to be answered at Berlin in April—is whether a new organization of U.N. donors with another strange acronym will truly help to cut back on the bewildering U.N. bloat and inefficiency — or add further to it.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter@GeorgeRussell

Click here for more stories by George Russell