The Magazine

Crying Wolfowitz

. . . while the United Nations bankrolls dictators.

May 28, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 35 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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Especially pernicious are the UNDP policies known as "country ownership" and "national execution." Under these arrangements, which account for the bulk of its projects worldwide, the UNDP turns over resources and on-site responsibility to client governments (charging "cost-recovery" fees in the process). The idea is that the UNDP, by encouraging client governments to design and run their own "development" projects, will persuade the likes of Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe, or the Burmese military junta to shape up. Too often, especially in the most corrupt and repressive countries, the result is that the UNDP rolls over, shoveling money and materials into the hands of national officials, taking a cut for its services, and slapping on top a UNDP seal of good housekeeping. The specifics of many of these projects are shrouded from public view under such stock labels as "Energy and Environment," or "Capacity Building for Development Cooperation" (the name of the UNDP project that in January covered the $12,000-plus business class airfare for a North Korean official to attend a UNDP board meeting in New York).

For an outsider, following the more than $5 billion that flows yearly through the UNDP system is like tracking Osama bin Laden through the caves of Tora Bora. Headquartered in New York, across the street from the landmark U.N. complex, the UNDP serves as the U.N.'s main development shop and coordinating network around the globe, employing 7,355 staff plus a host of consultants. The UNDP has offices in 135 countries, programs in 165; and in many capitals its resident representatives have long doubled as emissaries of the U.N. secretary general. (That's why a UNDP mission chief in Ghana was able to help Kojo Annan, son of former Secretary General Kofi Annan, clear a Mercedes duty-free through customs in 1998 under false use of his father's name.) In dispensing funds worldwide--currently $3.7 billion annually for its own projects, and $1.5 billion on behalf of other U.N. agencies--the UNDP handles more than one-quarter of the entire U.N. system's $20 billion annual budget.

To raise money, the UNDP relies not only on "core" donations from member states, but according to its comptroller also operates more than 600 trust funds, some thematic, some country specific, some project specific. None are particularly transparent. There are so-called public-private partnerships, in-kind donations, collaborations and cooperative arrangements with other U.N. outfits, NGOs, and foundations. In effect, the UNDP offers itself as a black box into which donors with almost any aim can contribute money from almost anywhere and have it used under the UNDP label for almost anything they might want to earmark, as long as the UNDP agrees--and apparently it often does. For instance, last year's jaunts abroad for North Korean arms experts were pet projects of the UNDP, the North Korean government, and donors in Sweden and Germany.

Murk pervades this maze. The UNDP does not make its internal audit reports available even to the 36 member states on its own executive board (which mixes democracies such as the United States and Britain with a gang of thugocracies currently including Algeria, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Guyana, and Belarus, as well as, of course, North Korea). What does seep out is not promising. The U.N.'s largely toothless "external" Board of Auditors, in a report released last year, expressed generic concern at "the increase in project expenditure not audited," and noted that among the nationally executed projects in 2004 and 2005 that were audited, reports for some $1 billion worth of spending were submitted late. As of mid-2006, more than one-quarter of these audit reports had yet to be submitted at all.

The UNDP's country offices have websites on which they post generic lists of "sustainable" goals and programs, but stunningly little is disclosed in the way of project details, and almost nothing about spending. At the UNDP's New York press office, staffers can be pleasant and work long hours, but often appear to have trouble obtaining information themselves. In response to pointed queries, the UNDP provided some documentation for two of the 30 projects underway last year in North Korea--including the "disarmament" project described above--then suddenly found it impossible to lay their hands on any more. The UNDP provides no regular press briefings. This month, the UNDP finally announced a financial "disclosure" policy. It is modeled on Annan's farcically empty measures introduced last year for the U.N. Secretariat, in which there is no requirement to disclose anything to anyone outside the U.N.