What the UNOPS scandal teaches about multilateral vulnerabilities and reforms

25 May 2022 – Mukesh Kapila

Photo by Jeffry Surianto on Pexels.com

I have found over past weeks that professional circles familiar with the multilateral United Nations system tend to see or excuse its transgressions in nuanced terms.  It is as if the complexity of the contexts in which the UN functions confuses their moral direction-finder. Perhaps a weary cynicism and sense of impotence about the lack of transparency and accountability in our global multilateral system is at the base of this?  

The fact is that there have been far too many scandals in the UN system, and this one at the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) is just the latest. Members of the general public going about their life may find it hard to get their head around the intricacies of what happened. My thanks to Rebecca Myles for inviting me on to WBAI Public Radio 99.5 FM in New York City to explain. The interview is here between approx 9:15 and 29:30 minutes.  

At the end, my host asks the crucial question on what citizens can do about such misdeeds. As I say in response, we may not be able to right all wrongs in a world where there is much wrong-doing , but we must always try. And for ‘institutional’ wrongs, demanding  transparency and accountability is at the front and centre.

In the specific case of UNOPS there should be no doubt that  responsibility for egregious misdeeds rests squarely on itself through the rash misjudgements of  its senior-most leadership and management. After all, it is UNOPS itself that cooked-up the remarkably careless S3i framework and processes, in apparent violation of usual UN principles and rules. The result was the misdirection of around US$60 million of donor funds that could have been used more effectively and speedily to help the poor and suffering at a time when there is much need everywhere.

That being said, the scandal at UNOPS would be wasted if the right lessons are not learnt so as to remove – or, at least, reduce – the vulnerabilities that create corruptible environments and impunity in the international multilateral system.  This is discussed further in my invited opinion piece here, in The National. That will mean not allowing the UN to be “neglected, abused or misused for narrow self-interests” while also ensuring that it cannot hide behind it’s smokescreen of immunities and privileges, or tolerate the travesty of its self-policing rituals.

However, it is unlikely that these reforms will happen any time soon – such being the strength of the interests and forces aligned against meaningful change.   But that should not be cause for despair.  Something in the global mood is shifting, if the  correspondence I am  receiving from diverse types of hurt, betrayed, and outraged people from many corners of the world, is anything to go by.

They plead that more be done  – beyond UNOPS.  What could that be?   Thanks for ideas already received; more are welcome.  As we put them together in terms of worthwhile actions, this topic is something on which we hope to revert.    

Published by Mukesh Kapila

See http://www.mukeshkapila.org

30 thoughts on “What the UNOPS scandal teaches about multilateral vulnerabilities and reforms

  1. We are patiently waiting for the Executive Board properly excerise its oversight function in this regard.
    Regards from Copenhagen

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  2. What’s forgotten in the UNOPS story is that this money was amassed by also stealing the pension of many personnel who tirelessly work long hours and for years to support development of countries, thanks to the contract modality. It’s hard to justify the agency hiring even some core field and HQ roles on this modality instead of staff contracts. This also leads to insecurity among contractors, who are not protected and afraid to speak up.

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  3. The intimidation continues….UNOPS is now hiring a Chief Information Security Officer.

    “UNOPS Risk Unit, led by the Chief Risk Officer (CRO), is in charge of the enterprise-wide framework for risk management, internal control and information security and facilitating and overseeing its effective implementation across regions, functions and decision-making contexts. The CRO reports to the Chief Financial Officer and Director of Administration of UNOPS.

    Under the overall guidance of the CRO, the CISO is responsible for shaping UNOPS approach to Information Security (IS) and related risks and risk responses. With a business-enabling approach, the CISO will collaborate closely with leadership, corporate functions and regional organization to drive risk-informed decision making and optimized security posture. Key duty is to ensure that addressing information security risks is embedded into the organizational culture, key Policies, processes and practices on data, IT and third-party management. The approach should align with leading international standards and ensure compliance with the applicable regulation.”

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  4. @Eddy
    Yes, that’s at the core of the system UNOPS has developed over the years. It is all about maximizing profit at the cost of its “most valued assets” the slaves called ICAs and LICAs.

    I have seen both sides, in the field and now in HQ here in Copenhagen. As per UN and also UNOPS policies, core functions that are indispensible for keeping the organization running, should never be filled with consultants and that is what the ICAs and LICAs are, pure consultant and not staff under the UN Staff Rules. It does not matter when UNOPS is changing its terminology and is calling all employees “Personnel”, that’s just smokescreen. Fact is, in most of the country Offices and also here in HQ, the majority of employees are consultants. And I am not talking about some short-term consultants that come in to conduct a research or a survey, no, it is core functions like Finance Officers, Procurement Officers, Admin Officers, Project Managers, they all run on ICA and LICA contracts, without any real rights or pension or healthcare.

    The actual Staff contracts P3-P5 and D1 and D2 are all reserved for the “darlings”, the people that help keeping this system running by controlling and surveilling and oppressing the rest of the workforce to keep them in line.

    How can it be that you have units or country offices with 40-50 employees and only 2-3 are P staff positions and the rest are all ICA and LICA? Are they all just performing short-term functions not vital enough to be considered core functions?

    And the Executive Board turns a blind eye on it and I have not much hope it will change, even due to the current ongoing investigations, UNOPS will sit it out as they have done it in the past.

    As our “friend” Nick O’ R, mentioned during one of the recent downhill-meetings:”There have been scandals in UNOPS before and there will be more in the future, so why do we care?”

    The longer the case is dragged on, the easier it will be for the responsible personnel, the SLT members, PCG, Ethics, IAIG, Legal and the Regional Directors and some of the Multi-Country and Country Offices Directors to escape accountability.

    In a few years, it will be the forgotten scandal and nothing will have changed, unless we stand up now, put the evidence on the table and ensure that justice will prevail.

    I will be doing my share and Jens will receive a comprehensive file with enough evidence to go after a significant number of senior managers in HQ and the field. It will be up to him, the Executive Board and the new ED what they make out of it. Closing their eyes or living up to the true values of the UN.

    Sempre Fi

    J

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    1. John – important to share this information with journalists as well who can help hold leadership accountable. Try Ilna Gridneff (gridneff.ilya[at]gmail.com) who wrote about the UNOPS situation in the Globe and Mail and Devex.

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  5. Your blog has been a source of inspiration for all those who are tired of injustices at UNOPS. I admire your sacrifices and determination to follow this case through.
    UNOPS SLT members have no members for UN values. The organization is run on deceit and lies. UN values are replaced by personal ambitions and greed. I urge the ED a.i to consider restructuring the Ethics Office and PCG Internal Grieveances Office as soon as possible.

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    1. The UNOPS Ethics and IAIF office is a pathetic joke that refuses to investigate cases of racism. In response to this NY Times article on racism in UNOPS hosted Stop TB Partnership) – https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/12/health/ditiu-stoptb-united-nations.html, they did nothing and refused to investigate. Several staff reported incidents of racism to the Ethics office. They simply replied ‘we spoke to the person and it’s been dealt with. Refused to even investigate. The Head of that office should resign.

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  6. There are now two centers of powers at UNOPS. It is evident that Grete’s appointed SLT is undermining Jens. During the Africa personell Townhall meeting, Honore pleaded to personnel. He asked us not to be distracted by Jens actions because his contract will expire in 5 months and the new ED may come and overturn all his decisions.

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  7. I know it is never too late to follow the right path but you can’t solve the problem with the same mindset that created it. UNOPS SLT is still in denial. According to Dalila (Honore’s clown), everything is well in CPH. She told staff not to believe anything written on the blog.

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  8. My problem is with UNOPS personnel, who FULLY understand that SLT members were abusing their authorities. Internal Grieveances and Ethics Office were formed with good intentions but they ended up used as tools for retaliation. I read somewhere that Alejo is managing Internal Grieveances. I can’t agree more.

    Stop talking in private conversations and making personal calls to lament how terribly misguided and delusional the SLT with help from PCG and Ethics was.
    The responsibility to redirect UNOPS to sobriety is for us all.

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  9. With all these revelations, it seems bullying and harassment is in UNOPS DNA. Mukesh, I will definitely connect you to one of the meetings with our regional director so that you can hear for yourself.

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    1. Maina – – important to share information on wrongdoing with journalists as well who can help hold leadership accountable. Try Ilna Gridneff (gridneff.ilya[at]gmail.com) who wrote about the UNOPS situation in the Globe and Mail and Devex.

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  10. It was very painful to listen to one of the SLT members who is not even remorseful and does not seem to even think of taking accountability of what happened.

    He kept saying that the millions given to SHS is nothing compared to UNOPS assets and the projects delivered by UNOPS since 2019 when the SLT was formed. According to him, it is only few insignificant partners who recommended halting funding to UNOPS. If you think USA, UK, Finland and Sweden are insignificant partners to UNOPS, you seriously need to have your head checked.
    Kudos to one of our colleague who advised him to consider stepping down.

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  11. Very strong food for thoughts there Mukesh!
    UNOPS cannot go on with business as usual. The mandate of UNOPS is clear. Overcharging clients to keep funds and give it as loans to private companies is definitely not in UNOPS mandate.
    More importantly, the Executive Director a.i should come up with a new management structure. If some of the comments we are reading here is anything to go by, one can only wonder how did some people made it to the positions they hold.

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  12. Am I dreaming? A UN organization, giving money to an unknown private company to pay off their debts and people responsible are still in their jobs? Maybe Trump was right about the UN.

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  13. Trump was absolutely right about the UN. The issue is how can the General Counsel still have a job? He illy advised USG who was forced to step down and ASG who was put on admin leave. How can Jim Provenzano still be allowed to hold on his job? Also, can’t agree more that Internal grievances is a lame joke. Alejo himself is not innocent when it comes to intimidation and retaliating.

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  14. Today is my last day at UNOPS and reading all these comments makes me sick.

    There is nothing to add about Alejo behaviors. I will only remember him as a colleague to go to when you want to fire someone. IAIG questioned his objectivity at one point but he felt attacked but now everything is making sense. Seems he misread his ToRs. It is a shame that someone like him was trusted with a such huge a responsibility.

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  15. Colleagues , don’t despair. Everything will fall into place. These crooks will soon confess. One by one…..

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  16. Any time you have too much power concentrated in one place, it tends to get abused. Grete handpicked fellow criminal – minded people to SLT.

    There is no segregation of duties which is a key element in UNOPS. Decisions are taken arbitrary. Offices which are supposed to protect the integrity of the organization are occupied with people with no morals.

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  17. Good insights Mukesh. Speaking up is a vital ingredient UN Staff can use to maintain UN values and integrity. It is risky but it helps to warn those are planning to conduct abuses elsewhere.
    Happy that finally colleagues are speaking up against abuse of authority at PCG.

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  18. One of the most cowardly thing a woman/man can do is to shut her or his ears to facts. The cabal departure is over due.

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  19. Not sure if Alejo has family, but Victoria as the head of PCG has 4 kids. How can she close her eyes to the cruel abuses she and her team have done to so many UNOPS people worldwide? Just so they keep their cushy jobs and other human beings are disposables and their human value is lesser? Hope they come back next life, if, with just a little soul as in this life they have shown none. They should know that everyone that they abused and mistreated and ruined careers is sending them a curse. Karma is a bitch, baby. PCG and internal grievances people will not fair well in their lives.

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  20. Mukesh, you’ve done such great things to expose corruption at UNOPS. Please do not let those evil SLT or middle managers who live their lives to play games slide. They must pay the price for their misdeeds. We are talking about those P4, and P5s. A lot of them are worse than the SLTs. Jim Provenzano has blood on his hands for all that he’s done. Member states and SG must take action to prosecute him and his compadres for what they deserve. All donors should stop funding immediately. UNOPS needs to be rebuilt from the bottom-up by the good people who actually do the work. The people have nowhere to turn to because PCG and HR/LEGAL are still under Jim Provenzano’s influence! How can any of them ever dare to risk their paycheck to go against Jim Provenzano to do the right thing? Please don’t stop helping UNOPS colleagues until everyone who has been mentioned by your blogs and in comments is prosecuted in ways that are long overdue. You are more effective than the Secretary-General and Executive Board, who still don’t launch investigations into all these individuals.

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  21. In Turkey we say ” The forest was shrinking but the trees kept voting for the axe, for the axe was clever and convinced the trees that because his handle was made of wood he was one of them. ” That is what UNOPS Internal Grieveances is all about. You raise a complaint, you are retaliated against.
    Some of us we learned this the hard way.

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  22. Colleagues, the Swiss national TV focused on corruption, mismanagement, fraud at UNOPS Sanitation and Hygiene Fund in Geneva in this 29′ film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WQUIxlbuCs which was also broadcast for the TV news at 8 PM. It focuses on the fate of UNOPS whistleblowers and UN whistleblowers in general. The UNOPS officials at stake, Dominic O’Neill, Sue Coates, Jim Provenzano are in the film. Just give it a look

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