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U.N. Liaison Offices: Secretive and Out of Control?

Monday, September 29, 2008

By George Russell

To the many secretive parts of the sprawling United Nations system around the world that have been tarred by financial scandal, irregular management practices and lack of credible oversight, add a new one: the offices that link the major parts of the sprawling U.N. bureaucracy with the central headquarters and with each other.

Compared to the vast staffs and billions of dollars that the U.N. spends each year, the offices involved, some of which date back to the 1950s, are minuscule. According to a report that will reach the U.N. General Assembly today, they employed only about 170 people and spent less than $50 million in the two-year U.N. budget that ended in 2005 (the most recent figures in the document).

Yet according to the same report, that network of 26 outlying liaison offices (known as LOs) has been the focus of increasing frustration over the past decade on the part of the U.N.'s member states, as they have tried — without success — to find out what those offices do, how they interconnect, what resources they use, and who actually supervises them.

During that period, the liaison offices have also become vital connections between a sprawling global network of giant U.N. agencies, such as the Rome-based World Food Program, the Geneva-based World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Program. The LOs link many if not most of the numerous U.N. organizations with each other and with the headquarters offices of the U.N. Secretariat in New York and Geneva.

Moreover, they are still growing rapidly in importance — and apparently in autonomy, as the U.N. bureaucracies increasingly talk more among themselves about their plans and joint ventures than with the member states that ostensibly run and fund them.

In a sense, the offices seem to have evolved into a system of nerve cells within the U.N. that operate with a still-unknown degree of internal independence.

As the new report puts it in typical United Nations bureaucratese: "The most striking of all the evolving features of the work of liaison offices is the inter-agency coordination role which is today at the forefront of, even sometimes taking precedence over, the intergovernmental representation function."

But at the same time, the report asserts, those LOs also operate without adequate oversight, either internally or from U.N. member states, and without clearly expressed priorities. They are frequently leaderless, have sometimes followed bizarre staffing policies, and are in many cases not audited — in one case, "for many years."

The report also notes there have been "known cases of serious mismanagement" in the liaison offices in the past. But it does not go into details.

Those lapses are far from the only mystery about the LOs. It appears from the report that U.N. member states, in particular, do not necessarily know the full scope of what the offices do — except that in many cases the work extends beyond any normal definition of "liaison." One reason for the ignorance, the report notes, is that "no system-wide study had ever been conducted on the subject."

Another reason, which the report acknowledges only through a series of footnote references to other U.N. reports dating back to 1997, is that repeated requests by member states for information on staffing, budgets and activities of the liaison offices have been systematically ignored, blunted or stonewalled.

The study that tries to fill at least some of that gap was compiled by the United Nations Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), a small, independent branch of the U.N. that reports to the General Assembly and is mandated to improve the organization's efficiency and coordination through its inspection process. The findings are based on a questionnaire sent to 26 LOs around the world, buttressed by about 150 confidential interviews.

The inspectors were finally moved to action, it appears, by the "repeated" calls for investigation of the funding and staffing of the LOs, which have come principally from the General Assembly Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), which represents the entire U.N. membership.

Those calls are referenced only as a single dry footnote at the bottom of the first page of the JIU report. But when the source documents referred to in that footnote were examined by FOX News, they revealed a remarkable history of frustrated inquiry on the part of U.N. members, and an equally remarkable history of stonewalling on the part of top U.N. administrators.

In other words, the U.N. membership itself is having a tough time finding out what exactly is going on.

Originally, it was supposed to be a lot simpler than that.

The U.N. liaison offices were established, in most cases, on behalf of U.N. agencies like the International Drug Control Program, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Environmental Program and others that existed outside the main U.N. headquarters in New York and Geneva, to keep the U.N. member governments and the central bureaucracies informed of what they were doing.

As the JIU puts it, they were intended to ensure the "representation and coordination" of U.N. bureaucracies "on issues and activities of common interest."

But not any longer. According to the JIU document, the LOs have mutated into a "striking diversity" of operations, "with different staffing and funding, tools, styles, partners and political impact on the international stage." They have also proliferated, with some agencies maintaining two or even three liaison offices.

Many of the LOs have gone on a hunt for new partners outside the U.N. system, including universities and non-governmental organizations. Along the way, they have picked up new — and sometimes unexamined — sources of funding.

The report takes special note, for example of the activities of the liaison office of the $5 billion United Nations Development Program in Geneva, which has "drastically evolved over the last two decades, from the UNDP embassy in Europe to a specialized business place."

During that time, the report states, "the LO became the umbrella of several (more or less) autonomous units, with various funding sources, and a staff that performs on multiple fronts."

In its full-bore fundraising, the report notes, the UNDP office has gone deeply into the entertainment business, sponsoring star-studded soccer matches in support of anti-poverty efforts, along with "galas, concerts and sports competitions."

What UNDP intended to do with the funds remained, at the time the JIU inspector made his inquiries, something of a mystery. "The use of the major part of these funds had not been yet decided at the time of the inspection," the report notes, "months after income recording."

Indeed, the inspector noted elsewhere in the 23-page document, that UNDP's Geneva office, which he called "the most important in terms of funding," had not been audited at all "for many years."

An attempt by the World Food Program's New York office to try the same private sector funding route apparently met with less success. The report notes that for three years, from 2002-2005, WFP tried to raise cash, then outsourced the function. Hinting at a possible fiasco, the report notes that "Officials responsible indicated that the organization lacked the required in-house expertise to effectively carry out this function."

But while the liaison offices have lurched off in many directions, the report makes clear that they have not done much to turn all that new activity into measurable outcomes. The annual work plans of most of the offices, the report notes, usually lack expected results, or measures of achievement. "As a stand-alone practice," the report notes, "they constitute poor planning."

The report also dryly notes that impact, in terms of the office's work plans, "is not to be confused with the immediate outcome of meetings."

Along with the lack of clear, measurable purpose, the report faults the offices for a variety of confusing personnel issues, the overuse of consultants to perform regular staff tasks, and even "exploitative internships" paying at most 10 percent of the U.N.'s local daily subsistence allowance.

Other strange personnel practices abound. Some staffers have been in place for 20 years, the report notes, while other offices stay vacant for long periods. At the time the inspector made his rounds in New York, four of the 11 offices examined did not have a top boss; another had just filled the job after a ten month vacancy.

Nor do the employment lapses seem to inspire much curiosity. One LO director, the report reveals, learned for the first time of a posted job vacancy in her office from the inspector himself.

Along with weird personnel practices, the inspector also noted widely differing rates paid by the LOs for the same services, especially in information technology. LOs in New York were paying $2,000 per workstation for computer services, the report noted, while those in Geneva cost $1,200 — "a noticeable difference."

The main thrust of the recommendations in the JIU report is that the liaison offices should end their wildly differing methods of financing themselves, and be given resources out of regular U.N. budgets. That, in turn, would allow for correction of the other glaring lack in their operations — meaningful oversight, in the form of "adequate audit and evaluation coverage of liaison offices."

But the JIU recommendation is just that — a recommendation. To be put into effect, it has to be accepted by the top managers of the sprawling U.N. bureaucracy itself, who may have their own reasons for preferring the current arrangement.

Certainly, those top managers have not been swayed much over the past ten years by the repeated calls for a review of the proliferating LO system, to determine whether and how much that system was necessary.

An examination by FOX News of the documents underlying a single terse footnote in the JIU report reveal a long soap opera of frustration on the part of the main U.N. budgetary watchdog committee that represents all of the U.N.'s 192 member states, the ACABQ.

According to those documents, the ACABQ first began asking for a review of the proliferating LO system in 1997. It got nowhere.

Two years later, in March 1999, the same committee noted that "for some offices it is not quite clear what is actually being accomplished," and asked once again for a "thorough review."

The U.N. Secretariat, for its part, apparently stonewalled. In 2000, the ACABQ noted that the Secretariat's response to its 1999 demand "does not address the concerns raised by the Committee." The querulous member states instead got "a descriptive compendium of the various liaison offices without any analysis, nor is there any evidence that a review has actually take place."

Nor did the ACABQ find out whether any money from outside regular UN budgets had gone to the LOs.

In its weak response to the lack of information, the committee merely "regretted" the lack of a "substantive response," and once again called for an LO review.

No such luck. In 2003, the ACABQ tried again, and called for an analysis "aimed at the creation of a consolidated common liaison service" for the entire U.N., rather than the sprawling and mutating network that existed.

Instead, in 2004, the committee got a barebones report from the U.N. Secretariat that mostly totted up staffing and formally outlined the responsibilities of some of the main offices. Evidently, however, it also got the promise of the Joint Inspection Unit report, which examines the system through the U.N.'s 2004-2005 budget biennium.

(The document itself, however, was only written in 2007 and prepared for this year's General Assembly session in July, 2008.)

In 2006, the ACABQ tried again, noting its long history of calling for a review of the LOs, and questioning in particular a move by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) to open a new regional office in Washington, D.C., atop its liaison office in New York.

The committee called for a merger of the two offices. The JIU report makes clear that UNEP successfully resisted the call.

It remains to be seen whether the U.N. member states will continue trying to get additional information on a "liaison" system that seems to prefer inventing itself on its own.

The JIU, however, considers additional oversight "crucial."

"In strict financial terms," the report declares, the level of resources managed by each office may not justify frequent financial audits. On the other hand, the strategic importance of the LOs, and their relative isolation, involve certain risks, which go far beyond the financial resources at stake."

And far beyond, perhaps, the ability of any U.N. member state to know.

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