U.N. Insider: ‘There Is No Transparency’
An internal memo reveals the downward spiral of U.N. oversight and accountability.


Brett D. Schaefer

It’s often tempting, after the latest scandal, to think that the United Nations’ reputation for shoddy oversight and lack of transparency can’t sink any lower. And yet it keeps doing so.

The latest charges of mismanagement, corruption, and fraud come from the organization’s own bureaucracy. An internal memo by Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a Swedish auditor whose non-renewable five-year term as undersecretary-general of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) ended last week, charged U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and his associates of undermining efforts to combat corruption in the organization.

This has long been obvious to observers of the U.N. Efforts to improve accountability, transparency, and oversight are often attacked from within. Many member states become angry if their citizens are fingered for corruption, and U.N. officials seem fearful that any report of problems will damage the organization’s reputation. Thus the decision to eliminate the Procurement Task Force — the only truly independent investigatory and oversight body the U.N. has ever had — in December 2008 was a frustrating but not surprising example of how effective and independent oversight is discouraged and attacked in Turtle Bay.

This also explains why scandals keep occurring. A few notable ones include:

the Iraqi Oil-for-Food scandal that Saddam Hussein used to generate some $10 billion in illegal revenue, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office;

a huge corruption scandal in which more than 40 percent of U.N. procurement for peacekeeping was revealed to be tainted by fraud, leading to three U.N. officials’ being charged in American courts;

widespread incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel in Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Guinea, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.

Only rarely, however, are the efforts of those seeking to impede U.N. oversight reported by the media or otherwise brought to light. But now, we have first-person testimony from a U.N. official about just how effective the efforts to hamstring U.N. oversight have been. Among the harsh assessments relayed by Ahlenius to Ban in the summary of her end-of-assignment report, according to Foreign Policy’s Turtle Bay blog, is this:

There is no transparency, there is lack of accountability. Rather than supporting the internal oversight which is the sign of strong leadership and good governance, you have strived to control it which is to undermine its position. I do not see any signs of reform in the Organization.

I regret to say that the [U.N.] Secretariat now is in a process of decay. It is not only falling apart into silos — the secretariat is drifting, to use the words of one of my senior colleagues. It is drifting into irrelevance.

Additional comments attributed to Ahlenius in the Foreign Policy post placed the blame squarely on Secretary-General Ban:

Your actions are not only deplorable, but seriously reprehensible. No UN Secretary-General before you has questioned the authority delegated to the [undersecretary-general of OIOS] to appoint the staff in OIOS. Your action is without precedent and in my opinion seriously embarrassing for yourself.