The Magazine

Cash-for-Kofi

The U.N. secretary-general wins a half-million dollar prize in Dubai.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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DESPITE FREQUENT DECLARATIONS OF REFORM, it seems that United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has learned nothing from the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food scandal, in which Saddam Hussein's billions corrupted the U.N.'s entire Iraq embargo bureaucracy. Earlier this month, Annan accepted from the ruler of Dubai an environmental prize of $500,000--a fat sum that represents the latest in a long series of glaring conflicts of interest. Call this one Cash-for-Kofi.

Annan received his award at a glittering February 6 ceremony in Dubai, as outlined in a press release from Annan's office that noted the honor, but neglected to mention the half million bucks that came with it. Surrounded by presidents, businessmen, and nearly 130 environmental ministers, Annan collected this purse as winner of the biennial Zayed International Prize for the Environment, given out by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.

So entwined were Annan's own U.N. colleagues in the process that selected him for this award that it's tempting to relabel the entire affair as one of the U.N.'s biggest back-scratching contests. Chairing the jury panel, which voted unanimously for Annan, was the executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, Klaus Toepfer, and among the jurors was the U.N. undersecretary-general for Economic and Social Affairs, José Antonio Ocampo. Both men owe their current jobs to Annan. Serving as an "observer" of the jury panel was Pakistan's ambassador to the U.N., Munir Akram, who just finished a term as president of the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council, which works closely with Annan. On the website for the Zayed prize, the public relations contacts include a U.N. staffer, Nick Nuttall, listed complete with his U.N. email account and phone number at the Nairobi headquarters of the U.N. Environment Program.

But let us assume these folks were impartial. It's possible that with the Zayed prize already handed out in earlier years to Jimmy Carter and the BBC, the depleted global pool held no candidate more worthy than Annan.

The real issue is why on earth Kofi Annan thinks it a good idea while serving as secretary-general to accept $500,000--for any reason--from a high-ranking official of a U.N. member state. Sheikh Mohammed is not only the ruler of Dubai but the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. No doubt he bestowed this award as a gesture of appreciation. But if the other 190 U.N. member states were to follow his lead, Annan would be rolling in $95 million worth of personal prize money. Once the secretary-general allows himself to become a collector of cash awards, where's the line to be drawn? If Syria were to offer him a $10 million environmental prize, or China were to up the ante to $100 million, should he grab a suitcase and go pick it up?

Annan accepted the Dubai prize on the heels of setting up an ethics office within the U.N. Secretariat just last month. He has recently issued guidelines requiring staff to report any gifts of more than $250, down from previous guidelines that smiled on the acceptance of doo-dads worth up to $10,000. Staff rules do not apply to the secretary-general himself, who is presumed to operate as an exemplary civil servant. But one wonders what U.N. employees will make of their boss's big purse. Just last summer, a former U.N. procurement officer, Alexander Yakovlev, pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court to taking hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bribes involving taxpayer-funded U.N. contracts. Annan's secretariat has yet to get to the bottom of this still-spreading scandal in its own procurement department. Imagine for a moment that U.N. contractors were to start holding contests for the world's finest procurement officer, and began handing out big cash prizes to U.N. officials. Should the secretary-general then congratulate the winners--or investigate them?

Not unaware of appearances, Annan announced at the Dubai award ceremony that he would be using his prize as seed money for a foundation he plans to set up in Africa, devoted to agriculture and girls' education. To date, he has provided no information about what this promised foundation might be or who will run it, or what perquisites might go to its founder, or to anyone else associated with it. Asked recently for details, Annan's spokesman replied, "When we have more information, we'll pass it on to you."