EXCLUSIVE: As the United Nations begins to gear up for its new session this month, there are signs that austerity is reaching even the highest levels.
Romano Prodi, former president of the European Commission and onetime prime minister of Italy, is being, in effect, downsized as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s part-time special envoy for the vast and turbulent area of sub-Saharan Africa known as the Sahel, one of the world’s poorest regions.
U.N. money watchers have successfully urged that Prodi might be able to do his job better -- and more cheaply -- if his staff was actually located in Africa rather than in plush U.N. surroundings on the outskirts of Rome. Prodi himself is based in Bologna, his longtime political stronghold.
For another, the size of that planned retinue has also been cut back substantially, from a projected staff of 19 mostly highly paid U.N. diplomats, communications experts and secretarial assistants to a more modest 13, with some of the support work being done by bureaucrats already attached to Senegal, Mali and other countries of the region. Total savings: about $470,000 on a planned budget for 2013 of $4.1 million.
Further savings can be expected when fewer staffers have to fly back and forth to the region once they are installed in new offices in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, starting next January.
The shrinkage and relocation of Prodi’s entourage is part of the climate of austerity among the relative handful of nations that pay the U.N.’s bills -- and may also reflect concern with the U.N.’s tendency to generate bureaucracies that are long on process and short on outcomes. The United States pays about 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular expenses and 28 percent of anything related to peacekeeping.
In passing on its suggestions for a reduced Prodi budget, the U.N.’s chief budget advisory committee dryly encouraged Secretary General Ban to “emphasize the importance of formulating indicators of achievement to better reflect what can realistically be accomplished by the office itself and activities for which the office could be held accountable.”
In terms of Prodi’s mission, international donors also are being asked to contribute to a new layer of bureaucratic coordination between themselves and the battered governments of the Sahelian region nations of Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, most of which they are already engaged in helping.
Getting those contributions is apparently not going well. According to the U.N.’s chief budget advisory committee, the “mobilization of resources” to back Prodi’s effort “presented some challenges in the current global situation.” The watchdog committee also observed that “in his discussions with several Member States, the Special Envoy had been informed that there would be more willingness to provide ‘in-kind’ rather than financial contributions.”
When asked further about the nature of those “in-kind contributions,” a spokesman for Ban replied that “This work is ongoing and its results will be presented in due time.” A spokesman for Prodi , when asked the same questions, simply passed on the secretary general’s answers.
The need for help among the impoverished nations of the Sahel, however, is unquestioned. These are some of the planet’s most desperate countries, many of them on various forms of international life support for years, which have been bludgeoned by sectarian warfare, international drug-smuggling and drought, leaving millions homeless and constantly on the verge of starvation. Some, such as Mali, have become new centers for international terrorism.
Indeed, their dire problems are so well known that much of the developed world is already involved in trying to help them. As Secretary General Ban himself noted, in March 2012, the European Union launched a new strategy for security and development in the region. This was followed last December with an E.U. Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative; in March the E.U. also appointed a special representative to help oversee its efforts.
Not only the European Union, but the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Islamic Development bank and a number of other donors, Ban declared in a June report on his special envoy’s role, “have developed strategies to support peace and development in the Sahel.” A substantial number of U.N. agencies are also already on the ground, along with numerous non-governmental organizations, offering aid and assistance.
In fact, the sheer number of institutions already trying to help is the main reason, Ban has argued, for Prodi’s role. His job is supposedly to “improve coordination” among Sahelian governments, “the international community, including international financial institutions, the local people themselves (“by reaching out to them through existing United Nations civil society consultation mechanisms”) and “the various entities of the United Nations system.”
Prodi has apparently been doing that so far largely by holding meetings: with “China, France, Germany, Japan, the Russian Federation, Saudia Arabia, the United States, the European Union, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, and United Nations agencies, funds and programs.”
Last December, Prodi convened what Ban called “the first ever coordination meeting with special envoys and mediators for the Sahel.” In April 2013, he hosted a conference on “women’s leadership in the Sahel, looking at issues involving women as economic and political drivers of change.”
And in June, he produced a “United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel,” intended to “foster system-wide unity of purpose and to provide a basis for coherent United Nations engagement in the Sahel.”
In essence, the strategy envisages Prodi as taking over the central role in the Sahelian development business, except for the paying portion. He would head a “coordination platform” that would “focus mainly on regularly updating regional infrastructure priorities, identified through a bottom-up process involving local academics and experts and coordinated by my Special Envoy, in key areas such as agriculture, water management, integrated infrastructure, including telecommunications, solar energy and health care and education.”
Donors would then be “encouraged to provide support, either financially or in-kind, for the agreed and vetted regional priorities, which would be updated regularly by the above-mentioned coordination platform. The support would go into a “Sahel action fund,” managed by a “pool of international financial institutions.”
The “coordination platform” would then hold meetings every six months with the “main multilateral donors” to “review their strategies, ensure that needs are met and overlap avoided”—things, in all likelihood, that multilateral development banks might already be well familiar with.
While the effort to generate more enthusiasm -- and, more concretely, support -- is ongoing, Prodi intends to hold more meetings. These include, as Ban himself outlined it, “another meeting of special envoys for the Sahel to consider the regional infrastructure priorities,” and discussions about the management of the proposed Sahel action fund.
As busy as he has apparently been, however, Prodi has also found time, even in the midst of his Sahel meetings, to agree to stand for nomination as the President of Italy. That position is chosen not by direct election, but by nomination and voting in the Italian Parliament.
In mid-April, while Prodi was acting in his role as U.N. special envoy at a meeting in Mali, amid a welter of voting on the presidency his name was put forward by members of his leftist Democratic Party. According to a spokesman for Secretary General Ban, Prodi “did not run or campaign for the office of the Italian presidency while working as the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General”; his nomination was “impromptu.”
Nonetheless, had he won, Prodi presumably would have abandoned his high-profile and avowedly significant U.N. job --it’s illegal for U.N. employees to hold national office. Instead, he lost to incumbent Giorgio Napolitano.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell