UN entities are over-audited and overcontrolled on trivia while big-ticket oversight is often missing in action. An unnamed diplomat memorably described new Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as having hit the ground stumbling in January because so many senior appointments were either lightweight or illsuited to their portfolio. To assert his authority and establish the leadership credentials of his senior staff, Ban could suspend scrutiny of staff finances until after a policy framework is crafted for identifying fraud without causing unnecessary irritation or disruption.
The accountability mechanisms should help to check, catch and punish wrongdoers without harassing overworked and overstretched senior managers. Present procedures do the opposite. They are amateurish, reactive and incoherent, possibly drafted by junior apparatchiks or bean counters. They also fall into the moral hazard trap of encouraging external auditors to fatten fees by prolonging and expanding their caseload. When control mechanisms and audit modalities cost more than they save, the war has been lost no matter how many battlefield victories may be claimed in justification.
UN watchers fall into three types. For the "blame everyone but the UN" groupies, UN shortcomings and flaws are always someone else's fault. Such fervent support is never unwelcome. Their opposites blame the United Nations "first, last and always." Because their fervent antipathy is equally ideological, no response by word or deed will ever suffice. To the John Boltons and Richard Perles of the world, the only good that the UN can do is to die and disappear. Best not to rise to their bait. The concerns of instinctive UN sympathizers about wasteful and corrupt behaviour must be assuaged. The problem is not huge, corruption is not out of control and much of the inefficiency results from micromanagement by member states.
Even with respect to the oil-for-food scandal, lapses and weaknesses in UN management culture and practices were minor. The really important UN deficiencies were supervisory and operational, not corrupt behaviour; the latter was true of companies dealing with the Iraqi regime, often under the noses of governments that should have been more vigilant. In the routine audits of individual UN officials, the scope of investigations, the level to which they reach down, and the rigor of follow-up checks should be proportionate to the scale of the problem. The only relevant question is whether officials have abused office for personal gain. The broadband categories in which the financial information is presently required conceal more than they reveal, especially for the purposes of monitoring financial movements from one year to the next.
A scheme appropriate to the Secretariat in New York cannot be imposed rigidly on the whole system around the world. I resented educating outside examiners on the nature and methods of operations of the UN University (UNU), and then being charged for the privilege. Financial disclosures should be required only from Assistant and Under Secretaries-General, plus others who handle procurement and other financial decisions. This would cut compliance costs dramatically.
The UN's top leaders are persons of eminence and seniority. Some might be corrupt, but not many: not much point in putting sticky fingers in empty tills. The big exception is officials responsible for procurement and purchasing decisions. Unless there are grounds for suspicion in individual cases, senior officials deserve courtesy and respect.
Whether people join the organization as paupers or billionaires is of no concern to the UN. Pressure to public disclosure of assets (salaries are public) would be folly, given the huge disparities in backgrounds, purchasing power parities, etc; promote financial envy and voyeurism; and lead to invidious comparisons. To disclose confidential financial information to an outside, non-UN body without advance written consent has a disturbing hint of a cavalier attitude toward the most sensitive parts of the right to privacy. And the choice of Pricewaterhouse Coopers is intriguing. Who chose them, on what basis and after considering which alternatives?
PwC's serial use of anonymous e-mail messages to randomly solicit further information is rude, insulting and offensive. While some of their technical terminology was incomprehensible to me, they seemed unable to understand that I do not communicate with anonymous correspondents. Their use of the Internet to receive financially sensitive information, at the very time that we are repeatedly cautioned by banks and credit card companies about widely prevalent Internet fraud, also raises concerns about the soundness of their judgment. Besides, financial details on the Internet may be secure today yet vulnerable to hacking tomorrow or the next year. Their demand for officials' and spouses' pre-UN pension details is prurient and invasive.
There are also concerns about the extra-territorial reach of US laws. Given the mounting evidence of petty vindictiveness and abuse of executive authority by some in Washington, why risk any US-based firm having access to the most sensitive financial data of all senior UN staff? The United Nations does not need lessons in public ethics from the American corporate sector with its record of lax financial probity. Nor from the administration in Washington on due diligence in the expenditure of public money or ethical behaviour of public officials.