Source Manila Times

MANILA, Philippines--AT the time of writing, it is 9 a.m. on Monday, May 9. So, by the time you are reading it sometime Tuesday morning, there may have been some significant developments in the world. By Tuesday, we may know, at least unofficially, who the next president of the Philippines will be.

Beyond the local horizons, there may also be a change in the direction of Russia's accursed war against Ukraine, as some announcement from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin regarding the war was expected to mark his country's annual Victory Day rites.

It is not without some dread that I am sitting here awaiting the outcome of both of these momentous events, but there is hardly anything to be said or done about them now except to sit back and watch the show.

In the meantime, the exposure this morning of yet another embarrassing controversy at the United Nations may be of some interest, particularly for a country like the Philippines that counts on a substantial amount of development aid from the world body.

An in-depth story in today's (Monday's) New York Times reported that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded, and received, the resignation of Grete Faremo, the executive director of the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) for multiple management abuses in her office.

The straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, and forced the ordinarily diffident Guterres to step in was Faremo's siphoning off $58.8 million of UNOPS' reserve funds in 2019 and directing them to a no-bid contract for sustainable housing development with a murky firm owned by one of UNOPS' other grantees.

A UN audit report found that these funds had gone up in smoke, along with millions of dollars' worth of other UNOPS outlays to questionable contractors, most with some conflict of interest with UNOPS personnel or other UN agencies.

What is UNOPS?

UNOPS was established as an "independent" agency — the "independent" designation is a little dubious as far as UN agencies are concerned, but that's another story — in 1995, and has a staff of about 12,000 people spread out across 80 countries, with its headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The main purpose of UNOPS is to serve as a project implementation and management agency for other UN agencies that, for whatever reason, cannot fully oversee projects on their own; most of UNOPS' work is in infrastructure building, procurement, personnel recruitment and payroll handling, financial management, logistics, and general project administration.

UNOPS is also one of the few UN agencies that actually makes money; in 2020, its revenues exceeded $1.16 billion and its gross assets rose to $3.9 billion.

In 2021, while most agencies were spending money at a phenomenal pace due to the Covid-19 pandemic, UNOPS was able to bring in about $700 million in new business.

That, of course, is a rather obvious source of moral hazards that have manifested rather spectacularly in the executive director being forced to step down in disgrace.

To be clear, apart from procedural violations and potential conflicts of interest there are not really any allegations of serious direct corruption like bribes or embezzlement, at least at the agency level (the contractors involved might be another story), but rather inept and irresponsible management that was perhaps bad enough to be fairly described as "corrupt."

For people who have worked with the UN, the UNOPS scandal probably is not as surprising as it may be to someone on the outside.

The UN as a whole is one of the most bureaucratic, inefficient, red tape-choked organizations on the planet, where even the most innocuous activity has a double-digit number of process steps, involves people in at least three different time zones, and will be done wrong and need to start from the beginning again at least once.

The UN does carry out a great deal of beneficial work, but much is lost due to inefficiency and, as the UNOPS case highlighted, inadequate oversight. Under Guterres' hands-off style of stewardship, the general perception is that things have gotten worse.

That is why the UNOPS case, while alarming, is ironically seen as potentially a step in the right direction.

The scandal has been brewing since late February, when the substantial losses of UNOPS were first uncovered.

Now-former director Faremo reportedly tendered her resignation on May 6, a resignation that would have allowed her to ease out of her position discreetly and even recommend a successor, which would have been accepted by Guterres because that's the way things are done at the UN.

However, The New York Times report inspired the Secretary General to a heretofore unseen level of responsiveness; his directive to Faremo to hand in her unconditional resignation reportedly came within an hour or two of his becoming aware of the news story.

It should have happened much sooner, but that it happened at all, and in a rather forthright manner, encourages some hope that the bloated mess the UN has become might be improved.