A Bad Quarter for the U.N.
The international body has embarrassed itself plenty already in 2013 — and it’s only March.


Brett D. Schaefer

The United Nations Dispute Tribunal concluded that U.N. officials in Zimbabwe allowed “humanitarian considerations [to play] second fiddle to political issues.” It found them guilty of “not only managerial ineptitude and highhanded conduct but also bad faith” in the removal of the head of a U.N. humanitarian office in order to stifle reports of political intimidation by Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF and to prevent exposure of the Zimbabwe government’s lack of preparedness for a cholera epidemic that eventually claimed thousands of lives.  

The U.N. Development Program (the organization’s global development agency) commissioned a report on its development efforts that was leaked to Fox News earlier this year. Among its conclusions: “Many of [UNDP’s] activities have only remote connections with poverty, if at all” and “on the whole” UNDP “performs poorly in providing support to its national partners to extract and utilize knowledge based on the lessons that can be potentially learned from its interventions.”

Considering this record of embarrassment, ineffectiveness, and mismanagement, is anyone surprised about recent revelations that U.N. officials and delegates sometimes drink heavily during meetings?

The examples above arose in just the past few months. Far worse examples have been exposed with depressing regularity over the years (think the Iraqi Oil-for-Food scandal). This list also leaves aside long-standing issues such as bias against Israel in the U.N. Human Rights Council, misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers, and reports that the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) supports terrorism.

Western nations have long been frustrated over duplication, fragmentation, and low return on investment among U.N. funds, programs, and agencies (a May 2012 study by economists William Easterly and Claudia Williamson assessing best and worst practices among aid agencies ranked U.N. agencies among the worst), but few countries have persistently sought to address these problems. That may finally be changing, thanks to budget constraints in donor countries. In recent months, 17 donor nations, including the U.S., have met to coordinate efforts to reshape the U.N. system to address corruption and make it less fragmented and more transparent and cost-effective.

Individual nations have also begun to take action. Perhaps the best example is the Multilateral Aid Review of 43 organizations, conducted by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development. The review found that nine multilateral aid agencies offered “poor value for money,” including U.N. organizations such as UNESCO. DFID decided to stop providing core funding to four organizations and put four others on notice that funding may be stopped unless reforms are implemented.

Alarmed by these efforts, senior officials of over 20 U.N. bodies met in January. They acknowledged that the “U.N. Common System has been called into question, and its governance and mechanisms challenged.”

Unfortunately, the meeting was short on specific reforms. By far, the most detailed discussion centered on tweaking procedures for future meetings and developing “strong communication campaigns providing government representatives and lawmakers in our Member States with tools to justify to their constituents support of United Nations organizations.” Specifically mentioned is using the U.N. Foundation to assist their efforts, which may explain their recent campaigns to protect U.N. funding in the U.S.

PR campaigns are not going to resolve the deep-seated problems within the U.N. and its affiliated organizations. The member states, particularly the U.S. which is the largest contributor to the U.N. system, need to conduct a rigorous examination and evaluation of individual U.N. agencies, funds, and programs to determine what aspects of the U.N. are effective and deserve continued funding and, even more importantly, which ones do not. The U.N.’s year so far doesn’t bode well for how such a process might go.

— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.


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