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April 1, 1995

The U.N.'s Waste, Fraud, and Abuse

Sidebar to: We Aren't the World.


In 1992 and 1993, former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh served as U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Administration and Management with a specific mandate to evaluate the U.N.'s effectiveness. After a year on the job, he prepared a report on U.N. mismanagement and waste and tried repeatedly to galvanize the secretary general into effective action. In frustration, he went public with his recommendations and testified on March 5, 1993 before the House Subcommittee (of International Relations) on International Security, International Organizations, and Human Rights. Here are some highlights of his report and testimony:

Inspector General. Key recommendation: to uncover "waste, fraud, and abuse" within the Secretariat, an independent, professional Inspector General has to be named, with full subpoena power over U.N. personnel and records.
Peacekeeping Field Operations. A McKinsey & Co. management audit uncovered no less than $100 million in annual waste owing to duplication and overlap, managerial incompetence, and lack of communications within the field structures.
"Featherbedding." One example: 500 typists employed to transcribe the dictation of translators. Use of basic word processors would save about $20 million a year.
Financial Management. McKinsey & Co. recommended improvements in foreign exchange transactions, centralization of cash management, and automated payments. Projected annual savings: $12 million to $15 million.
Career Service. Nearly 90 percent of all staff assessments are positive. As Thornburgh notes, not only does incompetence carry no penalty, there is no incentive for meritorious service. Top jobs in the U.N. Secretariat are compensated up to 150 percent of comparable U.S. supergrades--and it's all tax-free.
"Consultants." Although it is in violation of the U.N.'s own regulations, top bureaucrats are routinely "retired" (with lump-sum separation pay up to $500,000) and then immediately rehired as "consultants" at 85 to 100 percent of previous pay.
Procurement. In 1990-91, of 5,450 contracts let, only 17 percent were put out for competitive bidding, contrary to U.N. regulations for all except "emergency" cases.
Printing. About two-thirds of all printing needs are generated during the annual three- month General Assembly. Yet the print shop is fully staffed year-round. Contracting out during peak times would, according to Thornburgh and a 60 Minutes investigation (broadcast September 20, 1993), save "tens of millions" annually.