The UN World Humanitarian Summit Money Pit

UN humanitarian agency wastes donors’ money but is looking for more.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is organizing what is being billed as the first ever World Humanitarian Summit, which will take place in Istanbul Turkey on May 23-24 2016. Representatives from UN member states (including a number of heads of state and government), civil society, the private sector, crisis-affected communities and multilateral organizations are expected to attend the summit.

The summit's purpose is said to be no less than to provide governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and community leaders a global platform to "announce major commitments to action, launch new partnerships aimed at saving lives, and highlight innovations which help reduce suffering and uphold humanity in times of crisis." One of the most important goals is to inspire the creation of mechanisms for more reliable, multi-year financing for humanitarian and development programs combined. It sounds like OCHA is planning to dig an even deeper money pit for donors at the summit.

UN leaders have talked about a “grand bargain” in which UN organizations across the entire UN system would pledge to work together more cooperatively and to be more transparent in how they spend donated funds in return for enhanced, more predictable funding. “The donor base must clearly expand,” said OCHA's Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O'Brien, at a UN event on humanitarian financing last year.

However, when Mr. O’Brien spoke to reporters on May 2nd to highlight the importance of the upcoming summit's agenda and the so-called “Grand Bargain” it is intended to promote, he inexplicably declined to answer some key questions. This is especially concerning, since Mr. O’Brien had already called into question his commitment to genuine UN reform and transparency. He declared in an interview with IRIN last October, for example, that “the UN doesn’t have to change.”   

When asked at his May 2nd press conference how much the two day World Humanitarian Summit and preparations leading up to it are expected to cost, and where the money was coming from, Mr. O’Brien provided no numbers. He praised the host country Turkey for its generous contributions in helping to defray the full cost, without acknowledging Turkey's self-interest in whitewashing its own abysmal record on two of the issues the summit is supposed to address - forced displacement and gender inequality.

According to OCHA’s 2016 budget plan, OCHA itself will be paying $700,748 towards the summit cost. In light of the recent scandal involving alleged payments by groups affiliated with an indicted businessman to buy influence at the United Nations, the identities and profiles of all donors of monies to defray the cost of the World Humanitarian Summit should be made public. At this point, Mr. O’Brien would not even agree to publicly disclose the heads of state and government whom have accepted invitations to attend the summit.

When asked to provide figures on the proportion of contributions to UN humanitarian programs that actually reach those in need, Mr. O’Brien also declined. There is reason to be concerned with Mr. O’Brien’s lack of transparency here as well. The UN’s Office of Internal Oversight had concluded in its 2012 audit of OCHA’s management of the Haiti Emergency Relief and Response Fund (ERRF) that “OCHA Haiti’s governance, risk management and control processes examined were assessed as unsatisfactory in providing reasonable assurance regarding the sound management of the ERRF and the effectiveness of OCHA’s coordination mechanisms and oversight role for humanitarian activities in Haiti.”

As of August 2011, $86 million had been received in donor contributions, of which approximately $80 million had been programmed and allocated for projects, and about $57.4 million had been disbursed. The UN’s internal audit found “insufficient oversight over $86 million funding made available to OCHA by donors.” The rate of international staff salaries ranged as high as $32,000 a month, while the monthly salary of national staff ranged as high $18,000. Some vehicles were rented for as high as $6000 per month.

This is not an isolated instance that should raise concern about where OCHA-channeled money is really going. According to Nicolas Séris and Roslyn Hees of Transparency International (TI), “The top ten Priority countries featured in OCHA’s 2015 Consolidated Appeal all received very low rankings in TI’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index, scoring less than 25 out of a possible 100.”

OCHA’s total 2016 budget (funded mostly from voluntary contributions, supplemented by an allocation from the regular UN assessed budget) is $323,982,056 million. In addition, OCHA coordinates the donations of hundreds of millions of dollars to specific humanitarian emergency relief programs, such as the much-criticized Haiti Emergency Relief and Response Fund.  OCHA also spends funds to coordinate with politicized pro-Palestinian organizations.

Anyone who is serious about accountable, transparent delivery of humanitarian aid to people truly in need should think long and hard before making any further unconditional funding commitments to OCHA, including at the Turkish government-hosted World Humanitarian Summit.

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