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Study: UN spending billions on partnerships, often without oversight

The United Nations is spending billions annually on partnerships with private organizations, governments in the developing world, and think tanks, often without knowing where the money is going or how well it was spent, according to a report from a U.N. watchdog.

The partnerships, which number in the tens of thousands, stretch across economic development and humanitarian relief efforts to such things as “peacekeeping, disarmament, human rights and good governance,” it says.

The report, with the bland title of “Review of the management of implementing partners in the United Nations system,” was released earlier this month by a U.N. watchdog known as the Joint Inspection Unit, or JIU, the only organization mandated to carry out inspections across the constellation of U.N. organizations, funds and programs.

It apparently also reflects growing concern among U.N. member states over what the report calls “the lack of adequate managerial control over programs and projects carried out by third parties on behalf of the United Nations.”

The inspectors also cited concerns raised by the U.N.’s own auditors about money transfers from the U.N. to its “implementing partners,” and what the report delicately calls “the lack of robust mechanisms to provide assurance that partners are spending funds as intended, and projects are executed efficiently and effectively.”

The UN may not know what it is doing, how well it is doing it, or even who its partners are.

In short, under such partnership arrangements, the U.N. may not know what it is doing, how well it is doing it, or even who its partners are.

Even when U.N. organizations are trying to deal with the problem by installing new forms of accountability, the report notes, “most organizations reported their status as ‘work in progress’ and ‘too early’ for assessing their implementation and success.”

Moreover, the huge spending numbers for such partnership deals are likely to be rising fast. According to the report, only a partial accounting for the partnership splurge amounted to about $12 billion in the U.N.’s biennial budget for 2010-2011, the latest years in which the watchdog was able to get figures from the U.N.’s sprawling array of organizations. 

CLICK HERE FOR THE  PARTNERSHIP SPENDING NUMBERS

The numbers for partnership spending, based on fragmentary U.N. reporting, appear to be far from complete. But even so, on a single-year basis they are equivalent to roughly 15 percent of all U.N. revenues, which totaled about $39.4 billion in 2011 according to official U.N. figures.  

In many cases, it appears, the money the U.N. dispenses is merely being transferred from one pocket to another. According to the JIU report, the U.N. itself is one of its biggest partners, earning back some $370 million in a partial tally of its earnings as an “implementing partner” in a variety of unspecified activities.

The U.S. share of that 15 percent is likely a lot. Washington pays roughly 22 percent of U.N.  regular expenses (28 percent when it comes to peacekeeping), but the total varies greatly up and down when it comes to “voluntary” funds given to U.N. organizations, which made up more than half of the total U.N. revenue figures for 2011.

In 2010 the U.S. spent at least $7.6 billion on the U.N., according to U.S. government figures. The Obama administration ceased to publish the tally starting in 2011.

And since then, the U.N. has committed itself even more emphatically to partnership deals worldwide. They are seen as the main way to tap into broad new sources of financing for the U.N.’s anti-poverty, environmental and other goals, and its expanding strategy of becoming a global social-services middleman between rich donors and on-the-ground organizations that do the U.N’s work for it as so-called “implementing partners,” or IPs. 

But even as these organizations have become “indispensable partners” in the U.N.’s many lines of business, according to the watchdog report, they are inadequately supervised, audited, or even itemized. They are often selected on the basis of information that they themselves provide -- or not assessed at all prior to selection.

The same lack of judgment can apply after they begin work as contractors. As the report drily puts it, “Performance evaluations of IPs and their work are not systematically done in most [U.N.] organizations.” Often, when they occur, the Inspector-authors of the report note, “monitoring of IPs continues to rely mainly on the progress and final reports provided by the IPs themselves.”

What does the U.N. itself do to monitor the work being done on its behalf? Often not much, according to the JIU inspectors.

“In many cases there is no verification by United Nations staff of the information provided,” their document notes. “Field visits to the project sites, spot checks and availability of supporting documentation, such as receipts, vouchers etc. …are for some country offices the exception rather than the rule.”

In some countries, the report notes, U.N. officials often do not have any access at all to the people who are supposed to be benefiting from their activities, and “hence there is complete reliance on the reporting by the IPs without sufficient verification of the data and information submitted.”

Indeed, the report says the U.N. often does not know who is involved in the partnerships, whether they have done well or badly on U.N. projects in the past, whether they are billing separate U.N. agencies for the same thing, or even who is working for the U.N., and under what types of agreement, in any country at the same time, even though these activities are supposedly coordinated by top U.N. bureaucrats, led by the U.N.’s local Resident Coordinators.

U.N. organizations often compound the difficulty by breaking up deals with their partners into “multiple agreements of smaller amounts covering parts of the programs/projects.” This is ostensibly done to speed up approval processes in the notoriously cumbersome U.N. machinery, but it also makes evaluating -- and possibly even identifying -- projects and partners much harder, adds to the general bureaucratic confusion and probably adds significantly to the U.N.’s costs.

One of the signs that make the authors of the report most suspicious is that amid that sea of ignorance and lack of coordination about who is doing what with its money, official U.N. reports of fraud related to the partnerships “remains relatively unknown.” The watchdogs call that an “ostensibly rosy picture” that “should be a matter of concern to management and [U.N.] legislative bodies alike.”

One reason for the rosiness, perhaps, is a U.N. habit of deciding to check on things only when the checking is easy.

As the report puts it, “IP programs would be visited in a specific region because they are easy to access, while remote program sites, although of “higher risk,” were never inspected or visited. In other cases, low-risk project sites were visited because they happen to be in the same geographical area with other projects scheduled to be inspected.

One of the major reasons that the partnership problem is growing more acute is due to the increasingly U.N. reliance on a strategy known as “national execution,” in which money and other resources are handed over to national governments, especially in the developing world, to carry out mutually agreed programs.

The theory behind national execution is that the governments afflicted with social, economic, environmental and other problems are in the best position to analyze and solve them -- whether they are actually capable of doing so or not.

As the report notes, “Monitoring requires certain sets of skills, such as financial expertise, program management skills and specific technical knowledge of the programs and projects”-- and often neither the countries involved, nor the U.N. offices in them, have those skills. 

Moreover, the receiving governments and U.N. staffers both know it, according to the JIU report. It observed that when both groups were interviewed by the JIU inspectors the “majority’ indicated “that while the various declarations and United Nations resolutions expressed an overall commitment to the use of national systems and building national capacity, there has not been enough clarity on what in reality this meant.”

Indeed, when asked to comment on what was meant by such things as “operational oversight” of national execution projects, or the U.N.’s own role as an implementing partner on behalf of national governments, “managers and staff interviewed had difficulties answering or elaborating on these questions based on their working experiences.”

CLICK HERE FOR THE REPORT 

Under the circumstances, it is not too surprising that the issues raised by the JIU inspectors about the U.N. system overall have also cropped up in the cases where watchdogs at individual organizations have looked at the same issues.

Case in point: the United Nations Environmental Program, or UNEP, which bills itself as “the voice for the environment within the United Nations system.”

UNEP says that it “acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment.” But a confidential study by UNEP auditors in 2010 found a litany of failings in its proliferating partnership arrangements that closely mirror the findings of the latest JIU report.

UNEP told Fox News at the time that the problems were all being fixed.

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

Click here for more stories by George Russell.