Thank goodness for the Tsunami? Black humor indeed, but that is what we may cynically assume that senior UN officials are thinking. Shahshi Tharoor, the UN Undersecretary-General for Communications, publicly argued that the horrendous tidal wave enabled the UN to prove to a doubting audience that the global body can mobilize on behalf on mankind.
Undeniably, the UN spearheads the “largest humanitarian operation the region has ever seen.” And, as Tharoor argued, many UN agencies, such as UNICEF (with children) and UNHCR (for refugees), do have a lot to offer the world.
To be fair, it seems that they are trying to learn from the mistakes of the past. For the Tsunami effort, the UN accepted the pro bono offer of international accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCooper, to track the distribution of aid and investigate any allegations of fraud, waste or abuse.
However, when Tharoor claims “many UN agencies have established a global reputation for excellence,” he is not being fair to his readers. More than ever, UN agencies of so-called expertise are being exposed as offices of waste and incompetence, if not corruption.
We can cite the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, where a 219 page independent investigator’s report labeled the $64 billion program as riddled with political favoritism and mismanagement. What many commentators fail to mention is that the immoral gains will have been achieved at the expense of the Iraqi people, the very people who were meant to benefit.
Likewise UNICEF. Yes, the efforts on behalf of AIDS children in southern Africa are exemplary. However, the organization’s operations in the Palestinian territories have exposed how its fragile administration is open to abuse.
It is an accepted fact that Palestinian children have borne much of the brunt of the four-year Intifada. In contravention of the Geneva Conventions, kids have been recruited by Fatah and Hamas alike and then sent out as soldiers against the Israeli army. Even Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) protested. In 2002, he lamented in a Kuwaiti journal that “at least 40 children in Rafah lost their arms from the throwing of Bangalore torpedoes [a form of pipe bomb]. They received 5 Shekels [approx. $US 1.00] in order to throw them.”
Every year, the Palestinian Authority organizes summer camps for thousands of children, frequently in cooperation with UNICEF and UNRWA. These camps are named after homicide bombers such as Wafa Idris. Their programs, which are known to contain weapons training and inflammatory anti-Israel materials are unlikely to meet the standards employed by UNESCO, another United Nations expert body. Using Tharoor’s own terminology, UNICEF’s very “legitimacy” is thus threatened.
The UN’s agencies for peacekeeping are no less problematic. Kofi Anan publicly admits that swifter military action should have been taken to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. UNIFIL forces showed remarkable partisanship by filming, but not stopping, the kidnap of 3 Israeli soldiers who were later murdered. Current UN peacekeeping force scandals in the Congo bring into question denials of similar events in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.
It is the role of UNRWA, which is open for the most of the criticism amongst the UN agencies. UNRWA’s mandate is to provide welfare and educational services for Palestinians throughout the Middle East. Its annual budget regularly breaches the $300 million mark, before allowing for special projects.
Despite over 50 years of experience and employing around 25,000 local Palestinians, UNRWA simply does not do its job effectively. A recent World Bank report on the Palestinian territories noted that “55% of those who receive emergency assistance are not needy… 32% of the needy do not receive emergency assistance.” If UNRWA’s money does not help solve Palestinian poverty, then who are the true beneficiaries of its lavish funds?
Most Palestinians in Jordan have resolved their economic issues without UNRWA. The 1997 report from the Norwegian Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies compared the situation of the 13% of Palestinian Arabs in the Hashemite Kingdom who were being catered to by UNRWA to the remaining 87%. It concluded that the Palestinian Arabs cared for by UNRWA continued to live in destitution, while the others maintained a similar economic level to their fellow non-Palestinian Jordanian citizens.
UNRWA supposedly looks after the interests of around 1.4 million Palestinians in the Middle East. It is generally accepted that whatever the outcome of the Palestinian – Israel conflict, these refugees cannot be absorbed into the State of Israel without wiping Israel off the map. In other words, UNRWA’s failure to integrate refugees into their host societies promotes an agenda to destroy one of the UN’s very own members - a country that happens to be one true democracy in the Middle East.
Tharoor’s thesis cannot be allowed to cover up the misdeeds of vast layers of UN bureaucracy. Ironically, at the end of January 2005, it become known that the UN Development Program had transferred money to certain charities acting as a front for Hamas, an organization declared as terrorist by America and Europe. The New York Sun pointed out that, based on inaccurate information, Tharoor himself announced in June 2003 that the payments had ceased, even though they apparently continued until September.
The world has a right to expect more than mere ‘spin’ from the UN. It is not just that donor money disappears into the vast bank accounts of the agencies and to points undisclosed, with inadequate transparency. It is also the passive (and sometimes active) aiding and abetting of terrorists that prolongs conflicts and large-scale human tragedy. Waste and corruption often ensure that the very populations that major UN agencies are mandated to assist end up worse off than before.