Published December 10, 2013
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has a very U.N.-style idea about how to help out a little-known financial watchdog at the world organization that is one of the few in-house lines of defense -- by no means a strong one -- against bloat, inefficiency and aimless spending.
His nostrum: propose to make the watchdogs more like the rest of the U.N. bureaucracy, by showering them with high diplomatic rankings, more perks and bigger salaries worth an extra $100,000 per person per year — not to mention diplomatic immunity, as full-time officials of the U.N. General Assembly, a status that the ostensibly independent watchdogs do not currently enjoy.
The aim is to include the measures in the two-year budget for 2014-2015 that the 193-member Assembly is currently debating — and which is expected to be passed, as usual, in an orgy of wheeling and dealing that culminates late on Christmas Eve.
Overall, the changes would add up to a hefty 15 percent increase in the $8.5 million budget of the watchdog organization, bringing it to about $9.7 million.
By contrast, “a U.S. Congressman makes $174,0000 a year,” observers Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. finances at the conservative Heritage Foundation, comparing that to the $183,040 — tax free — that watchdog committee members would earn under Ban’s proposal. That would come along with education grants, relocation grants, U.N.-paid home leave travel allowances and health insurance worth tens of thousands more.
Ban’s proposal to bring the advisory budget-watchers further into the U.N. mainstream is contained in a letter sent to the Assembly last month with a bland enclosure entitled “Operational arrangements and conditions of service of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions” — the full title of the watchdog organization, usually known as ACABQ for short.
The ACABQ is known as an advisory committee precisely because it is not part of the U.N.’s official legislative mechanism, where donors are vastly outnumbered by nations that hardly contribute at all to the world organization’s mushrooming budget (The tally estimated so far for 2014-2015 is about $20 billion for the Secretariat alone, which doesn’t include approximately $8 billion for just one year of peacekeeping.)
The ACABQ, is “part of the checks and balances of the organization,” says a Western diplomat who is familiar with the institution,again, precisely because it is not part of the U.N.'s legislative system.
“It makes recommendations to the budget committee about what should be adopted, and the General Assembly most of the time agrees with the expert body,” says the Western diplomat. He estimates that “about 80 percent of its recommendations go through.”
The 16-members of the ACABQ are elected to three-year terms from nominees presented by countries in the General Assembly to “assist” the U.N.’s regular budget committee, essentially by screening all of the Secretariat’s administrative and budget proposals in advance, as well as an ever-swelling flood of other paperwork.
Then it produces another paperwork gusher of its own: according to Secretary-General Ban’s submission, in 2012-2013 the advisory group was expected to consider 420 submitted reports of various kinds — more than double the number of 2000-2001— and issue 172 reports on its own deliberations.
The “volume and complexity” of that paperwork, according to Martin Nesirky, Ban's official spokesman, is a major reason “consideration could be given as to whether the present working arrangements of the Advisory Committee are any longer optimal.”
One way the advisory committee has dealt with the paper avalanche has been to grow in size itself, most recently from 13 to 16 members. The same inflation has applied to the ACABQ working year. As recently as 2000-2001, the ACABQ met for a little less than 35 weeks a year.
Now the number of working weeks for ACABQ members, according to a Western diplomat familiar with the U.N.’s budget committees, about 41. And at the U.N., according to the same source, 44 working weeks a year, for diplomats anyway, is considered a full-time job.
With the exception of the ACABQ chairman, however, none of the budget watchers are considered full-time U.N. staffers. Some of the ACABQ’s members are attached to their country’s New York missions during their terms, and their salaries come from that source. But others are, in effect, contractors, who are paid an official U.N. per diem rate of anywhere from $321 to $530 when working in New York. Only three of them, by U.N. rules, must be “financial experts of recognized standing.”
Only those from the richest countries, are likely to see salaries anywhere near those of the U.N., which routinely exceed those of the U.S. civil service — according to formulas that almost nobody else can analyze or understand.
Just as importantly to many, they lack the cushy education benefits, health care schemes, relocation allowances and other perks of U.N. life.
In effect, Ban would change all this by proposing that all the committee members become part of a full-time U.N. standing committee, with each member getting a status equivalent to the fifth-highest rank at the world body, but under a different category: “officials other than Secretariat officials.” Their other perks would be adjusted accordingly.
According to Ban's official spokesman Nesirky, however, “any decision on the level of compensation is solely a matter for the General Assembly.” The same goes for any of Ban's other suggestions.
The ACABQ's chairman already belongs to the category that Ban suggests for the others, but at an even higher U.N. ranking. Moreover, cost-of-living hikes in his compensation and other benefits are linked to those of “the most senior officials in the Secretariat” according to one of Ban's official reports. The chairman's salary alone is currently $215,000 a year — again, tax free.
Not surprisingly, the notion of discussing a similar upgrade in pay, perks and status for the committee has its supporters.One of them is the ACABQ chairman, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, a Mexican diplomat whose correspondence back and forth with Ban apparently sparked the latest proposals. “I believe it is important for the General Assembly to take this opportunity to have an in-depth discussion on ways to further strengthen the advisory committee,” Ruiz Massieu told Fox News in an official statement.
Especially, he added, “given its role as the pre-eminent institution on budgetary and administrative matters in providing advice to the [U.N. budget] Committee and other governing bodies in the U.N. system."
The ACABQ's pre-eminence is of course relative — and when it comes to spending, its advice is often more at the margins than directed at the question of whether the U.N. should be involved in the areas where it spends money at all.
“The United Nations is doing lots of things it doesn't need to do,” says the Heritage Foundation's Schaefer. “A lot of these things are legacy problems” — meaning, among other things, programs and projects that hang on long past the point of usefulness — "and these often go un-addressed."
Nonetheless, Schaefer says,linking members into the U.N. salary and perk system “raises interesting questions about conflict of interest.If the ACABQ is expected to oversee the budgetary questions of the organization, but is compensated in the budget, that seems to me a problem.” The ACABQ's “only value is that it remain independent.”
According to Ban spokesman Nesirky, however, “the proposal for the advisory committee to become full-time is based on the importance of ensuring that the arrangements of the committee are best suited to carry out its functions in support of the General Assembly. Members would continue to be appointed by the General Assembly in their individual capacity. The proposal, if approved, would not make members of the Advisory Committee staff members, or under the authority of the Secretary-General.”
In the same vein, to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, Ban's proposals were not screened by the ACABQ, which would be the normal course of events, but have gone directly to the General Assembly.
Whether the boost in status, perks and pay for ACABQ members will be included when the dust settles in the year-end budget melee is still in doubt. Among other things, the idea is strongly opposed by some of the nations that pay most of the U.N.’s bills (the U.S. pays 22 percent of the proposed $5.4 billion “regular” budget in which Ban’s proposal is included, which in turn is about a quarter of the total Secretariat spending).
In exchange for boosting the ACABQ members status and salaries, many of those countries would like to see, among other things, more professionalism — most ACABQ members are current or former diplomats, often round-tripping graduates of the U.N.’s own main budget committee — tougher conflict of interest rules that would prevent members from moving on immediately on to jobs with the U.N. Secretariat they oversee — and above all, a much tougher attitude toward U.N. spending.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell