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In Haiti, UNICEF handed out millions without proper oversight, report says

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In this file photo, a UNICEF staffer supervises the unloading of a planeload of aid at the Port-au-Prince airport.

Even while it was sending out urgent appeals for funds to help poor people in Haiti, the local office of UNICEF was handing out tens of millions of dollars to local partners without proper oversight, and losing track of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of vital medical supplies, according to an internal UNICEF audit.

The same local office of the United Nations Children’s Fund shifted millions of dollars intended for emergency relief to cover other parts of its budget due to funding shortfalls, and failed to keep donors apprised of how their money was spent, the audit said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, UNICEF Haiti had also failed, according to the report, to determine if it had been meeting any of its other 2013 priorities for helping the desperately suffering.

The absence of oversight led UNICEF’s watchdogs at the Office of Internal Audit and Investigations (OIAI) to conclude that “it was impossible to determine” whether any of the office’s intended results had been achieved, or even whether UNICEF had learned enough to avoid the same mistakes in Haiti this year.

The report, crafted in the carefully muffled language that the U.N. uses in examining itself, is due to be presented to members of UNICEF’s 36-nation supervisory Executive Board next week during their main annual meeting in New York.

The sad state of UNICEF’s Haiti performance is one of the latest examples of failed disaster relief for the poorest and most battered country in the Western hemisphere, where U.N. efforts to help have in some ways made Haiti’s calamities worse than they were before.

The worst example of that is the cholera epidemic that swept Haiti in the wake of its devastating 2010 earthquake, which itself killed hundreds of thousands of people. The epidemic, which has afflicted more than 700,000 people and killed more than 8,500 since October 2010, is widely acknowledged to be the result of bad hygiene practices among U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal who brought the deadly bacteria with them.

The U.N. has so far failed to acknowledge responsibility for the disaster, and has expressly rejected the notion of paying damages, citing its traditional diplomatic immunities. 

Protecting vulnerable children from cholera, as well as measles, malnutrition, bad sanitation and lack of education are among the main objectives of UNICEF’s Haiti office, which nonetheless was drastically downsized from about 287 staffers to 87 between 2012 and 2013.

CLICK HERE FOR UNICEF’S 2013 GOALS

One reason for the sharp cutback was finances: a U.N. spokesperson told Fox News that last year UNICEF got a little less than $7.5 million from donors against an appeal budget set at slightly more than $21 million. The situation had been just as drear in 2012: according to the auditors’ report, only $5.6 million had been raised, which in turn had set UNICEF to relying on emergency funds: about $15 million in 2012.

Despite the financial obstacles, according to UNICEF’s website the Haitian office performed heroically, developing a three-year plan to support the Haitian government in eliminating cholera, distributing 16,000 cholera prevention kits and vaccinating more than 113,000 people against the disease, while creating a number of potential disaster risk reduction “hubs” in 14 schools as pilot projects.

How well it did that, however, is more of an issue, according to the audit, which covered the period from January 2012 to June 2013.

CLICK HERE FOR THE AUDIT

Among other things, it notes that UNICEF handed out about $24.4 million in 2012, and another $6.4 million in 2013, to some 100 local “implementing partners” to accomplish its goals; in some cases it used streamlined procedures that required less documentation for what happened to the money.

But the report also says that the Haiti office did not do the required due diligence—known as an “assurance plan”-- under the streamlining protocols to make sure that the partners could be trusted to do the jobs as outlined without full accounting for the money.

In the case of the six unnamed partners who got $2.5 million over the audit period, the inspectors noted, there was no evidence that spot checks of their work supposedly conducted by the Haiti office had taken place.

Even the office itself worried that it was handing out too much money for too long without proof that it had been spent as desired: the audit quotes country managers as describing the situation involving nearly $2 million that had been passed along for nine months without being spent as “alarming.”

Much of the problem, according to the office, lay with the disorganized Haitian government, which often acted as an implementing partner through its ministerial departments. The money, however, usually went to the top official in the ministry before trickling down to the those actually expected to do the work in “an untimely manner,” as the report puts it.

When it came to monitoring the work that was actually done, and suggesting improvement, the auditors noted, the process was apparently more important than the outcome: “objectives were not formulated in terms of expected results, and there was no indication in the [monitoring] reports as to whether those results had been achieved.”

The same, apparently, went for UNICEF Haiti’s own fundraising. One element linked to the Haiti office’s dismal record at getting resources for its programs, the report noted, was that their 2012 strategy didn’t identify objectives or lay out an action plan for getting to them.

The same thing was happening, the report warned, for step-out plans for 2013-2016: among other things, the Haiti office had eliminated the jobs of the people responsible for fundraising and telling donors what happened to their money. 

Meantime, contractors costing $300,000 who were supposed to help UNICEF Haiti with a ”situational analysis,” including new demographic information, to ground planning for 2013-16 didn’t submit an acceptable report until the third quarter of the year, and the report wasn’t endorsed by the Haitian government until March 2014.

Meaning: among other things, as the report carefully put it, “there was insufficient data to support the new country program.”

The problems with UNICEF’s precious medical supplies apparently came from the same lack of coordination and oversight. The tracking of vaccines was supposedly carried out by means of an agency-wide computerized system known as VISION. But according to the audit, UNICEF Haiti’s warehouse unit “was not always getting timely distribution plans” from programs using it.

And, when it came to cross-checking backlogs in the warehouse, “there was no comprehensive mechanism to identify and address the causes of long storage of supplies. “

In other words, nothing was done to ensure that the medical supplies were not wasted.

To address all the failings that the auditors identified in UNICEF’s Haiti operations, the auditors tacked 17 recommendations onto their report—with the final deadline for their accomplishment being this June.

When queried by Fox News, a UNICEF spokesperson said the agency had accomplished nearly all of them—except for completing the due diligence requirements for “implementing partners” who will get cash in the future using steamlined payout procedures.

Meantime, UNICEF has set new and more ambitious targets for helping Haiti’s hapless residents. These include a target of 500,000 for anti-cholera vaccination, and improved sanitation for 134,000 in refugee camps.

CLICK HERE FOR UNIECEF’S 2014 HAITI APPEAL

All of that is expected to cost more than $42 million in 2014. So far, with the year nearly half over, the UNICEF spokesperson says that about 20 percent of the hoped-for total has come in.

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