Here’s one for the new ethics office at the United Nations: Not only do we now know that Secretary-General Kofi Annan accepted a $500,000 prize from the ruler of Dubai, courtesy of a judges’ panel rife with U.N. connections, one member of which Annan then appointed to a high U.N. job. Less well known is that Annan was advised to take the prize money by another senior U.N. official, Mark Malloch Brown–according to Malloch Brown himself in an interview this past February.
Since then, Annan has promoted Malloch Brown from U.N. chief of staff to the U.N.’s number-two post of deputy secretary-general. With role models like these in the executive suite, small wonder the U.N. remains gridlocked over reform.
Annan’s $500,000 purse was part of the Zayed International Prize for the Environment, given to a beaming Annan in February at a lavish ceremony in Dubai. Because the U.N. secretary-general is exempt from his own staff rules, no one is suggesting there was anything illegal in this; neither was it secret (although a press release from Annan’s office at the time noted the prize but neglected to mention the $500,000 purse). But there’s a case to be made that even if done in daylight, it is just plain wrong for the secretary-general of the U.N. to personally accept cash prizes, or any other form of gift, from anyone or anything connected with the U.N. in any way whatsoever.
And whatever the intentions of all concerned, conflicts of interest–or at least the appearance thereof–have been sprouting around Kofi’s cash prize like kudzu in a rainforest. As the Financial Times reported last weekend, Annan has now appointed as the new head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) a member of the same judges’ panel that awarded Annan the $500,000 prize–German environmentalist Achim Steiner. The panel also included two high-ranking U.N. officials who already owed their jobs to Annan: then-head of UNEP, Klaus Toepfer, and under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs, Jose Antonio Ocampo, as well as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N., Munir Akram, serving as an “observer.”
In a wide-ranging interview at the U.N.’s New York headquarters in February, shortly after Annan accepted the Zayed prize, Malloch Brown, then U.N. chief of staff, suggested to me that the $500,000 that came with the honor was no more than Annan’s due. Malloch Brown stipulated that Annan was in any event planning to use the funds for charitable purposes. Until this year, said Malloch Brown, Annan had turned over all prize money, including his Nobel purse, directly to the U.N.
But, added Malloch Brown, “In the case of this one, I advised him that he was now reaching the end of his term, and rather than just giving it to the U.N. he should indicate that when he did receive the money he would want to put it into a foundation for causes he particularly cares about–girls’ education and agriculture in Africa.”
Asked if such a project ought to count nonetheless as personal use of the funds, given that this would be a foundation set up and administered not as a U.N. project, but in line with Annan’s personal preferences, Malloch Brown replied: “Why on earth should a distinguished global figure not put prize money into a foundation to pursue development causes in the region of his origin?”
One might note, in passing, that to date, three months after Annan accepted the prize, there is no such foundation. If and when there is, Annan’s record of mismanagement at the U.N. itself–what Paul Volcker’s probe described as an administrative performance that “fell short” of appropriate U.N. standards–does not bode well for Annan’s future charitable ventures in Africa. It was in Annan’s native Ghana that the secretary-general’s own son, Kojo Annan, made false use of his father’s name to import a Mercedes duty-free in 1998 under U.N. auspices, reportedly without Kofi Annan having a clue–despite wiring Kojo $15,000 to help pay for the car. That led to awkward questions last fall, when Kofi Annan promoted the former U.N. resident representative in Ghana, Abdoulie Janneh, just after Janneh’s testimony had helped clear Kofi of complicity in the Mercedes-related abuse of U.N. privilege. As with Steiner’s recent appointment to head UNEP, Annan’s spokesman insisted that Janneh’s promotion was based purely on merit.
In the case of the half-million dollars in Zayed prize money, Malloch Brown told me in his February interview that Annan plans to set up an outfit that would be “administered under the most transparent, rigorous conditions.” So when does the transparency and rigor begin? Annan has provided zero information to the public about his planned foundation beyond the mention of farming and girls’ schooling.
But a more basic point is this: While it sounds nice that Annan plans to put all the prize money into charity, this is the same Kofi Annan (advised by the same Malloch Brown), who keeps exhorting the rest of us to lavish ever more of our tax dollars on the scores of humanitarian outlets that Annan currently administers, or appoints administrators to, at the U.N. So why, when it comes to the use of this $500,000 in prize money, does Annan himself prefer to bypass the U.N. and set up a foundation of his own?
And what kind of precedent has Annan set? Exactly how early in a secretary-general’s term does the U.N. now deem it appropriate for the top boss to start collecting personal cash prizes?–dedicated, of course, to his personal, charitable ventures after retirement. Is $500,000 per prize the limit, or just the beginning? Who polices the use of such funds? And which tycoons, monarchs, or dictators qualify as acceptable prize-givers? Is Hugo Chavez allowed to give Annan a prize? Or Iranian President Ahmadinejad? One has to wonder at what point a responsible U.N. member state–are there any?–might finally be moved to call the secretary-general to account for such stuff.
And where in all this is the new ethics office? Layered into the U.N.’s vast bureaucracy this past January as part of Annan’s promise of reform, this latest experiment in accountability appears to be sinking already into the fever swamps of U.N. procedure. In an interview in January, the U.N.’s new squad of ethicists said they were planning to designate a U.N. “Ethics Day” in early May. Annan’s spokesman now says no date has yet been set.
Asked back in February, and again this week, whether it is appropriate for a secretary-general to accept large cash prizes for his preferred personal uses, an official in the ethics office simply referred me back to–you guessed it–the secretary-general’s office. From there, the spokesman informed me by e-mail that “The Ethics Office does not respond directly to journalists,” and referred me to “a number of the noon briefing transcripts over the past months. They are all available on our web site.”
Yes, they are. But despite some pointed questions by the U.N. press corps, they contain not a hint of concern on the part of Annan or his senior staff about the secretary general taking the $500,000.
More illuminating is a quip that has for some time been making the rounds among the more junior personnel at Turtle Bay. It runs thus: “What’s U.N. shorthand for conflict-of-interest?–Cofi.”
Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.