As the World Food Program grudgingly prepares to vote on opening its sensitive internal audit system to inspection by the nations that pay its bills, a key United Nations oversight committee has protested that the proposed sunshine policy doesn’t go far enough.
It also suggests that the agency should go back to the drawing board and try again.
Whether the world’s largest food aid agency will do that remains to be seen. Its 36-nation supervisory Executive Board is supposed to vote on the original, more restrictive proposal from WFP management at the end of its regular three-day session on November 11.
The issue of U.N. agencies exposing their internal audits to the nations that support them—even the ones on their executive boards—has been an explosive one for years, with North Korea as a trigger.
In 2007, a scandal involving the United Nations Development Program’s North Korean operations boiled over after confidential internal UNDP audits disclosed that the agency had funneled tens of millions in hard currency to the brutal dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, hired North Korean government employees in sensitive financial positions, and other transgressions. (The existence of the audits were revealed by U.S. diplomats during the Bush Administration.)
UNDP ended up closing its offices in North Korea from 2007 to 2009—and handing over its functions as lead U.N. agency in the country to WFP.
Two months ago, Fox News revealed that a summary of WFP audits in late 2009 had discovered “lapses,” “anomalies,” and unexplained variations in the way the relief agency reported its financial and commodity management in the same country.
WFP refused to show the audit to Fox News, and disclosed that under its longstanding policy, even members of the Executive Board—including the U.S.-- did not receive the audits, which were deemed “management tools.” At the same time, it claimed there were only “a small number of inconsistencies in commodity accounting” involved, even though the document obtained by Fox News suggested otherwise.
That no-show policy is what is supposed to change this week—but as proposed by WFP management, it will only disclose audits in response to precise questions about the ones involved, and only to nations that sign a confidentiality pledge. Curious nations must also supply their reasons for wanting to look, and promise to keep anything they read confidential.
Just to be sure, they won’t get a copy to keep. They will instead be allowed to read one only in the office of WFP’s inspector general. No copying or note-taking is allowed during what the rules call a “consultation.”
The complaint about the overly-narrow policy of show-and-tell comes from a United Nations General Assembly oversight body called the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, or ACABQ—a standing oversight group composed of all U.N. members and currently headed by a U.S. diplomat, Susan McLurg. The ACABQ vets all financial proposals for the New York based U.N. Secretariat, and has the same function for WFP. Its recommendations are usually, but not always, accepted, as they carry the weight of the whole membership behind them.
In a terse, one-paragraph assessment dated October 29—WFP’s own proposal is dated September 24—the Advisory Committee calls the proposals “quite restrictive,” and “finds that the procedures lack clarity on the criteria that would be used for approval or denial of requests from Member States for access to internal audit reports.”
In muted fashion, it then suggests that “WFP may wish to explore ways to achieve greater transparency.” It does not specify what those ways might be.
The ACABQ document, which also deals with a number of other WFP items, was listed on the WFP website as “not available” until just before the current Executive Board session.
The ACABQ claims that its urge for greater openness is in line with a United Nations General Assembly resolution passed in 2005 about the reports of the U.N. Secretariat’s own internal auditing watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). That resolution made OIOS audit reports available to any inquiring U.N. member state. They could be withheld by the head of OIOS—but not the U.N.’s top management-- for confidentiality reasons, or if it harmed “the due process rights” of individuals under investigation for wrongdoing.
WFP’s position is apparently that, as a separate U.N. program, it isn’t bound by Secretariat rules, and has a policy more like that of the other controversial actor in the North Korean drama—UNDP.
Whether the nations that supervise WFP find that argument compelling will be better known after November 11.
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.