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Open Features: In The Congo - The UN's Annus Horribilis

Yvonne Lumb, tells of events which shook her faith in the organisation she works for, the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Before moving on to more positive news, it’s probably an appropriate moment to highlight some other negative events that significantly contributed to my lethargy and dispiritedness.

I seem to remember that in 2004, Kofi Annan drew a parallel with the year that the Queen referred to as her “annus horribilis”. If ever there was one for him, this was it. The UN was rocked by a succession of corruption scandals the like of which had never been seen before: first the revelations of the Oil for Food programme kickbacks, involving his own son, Kojo, then the emerging evidence of serious wrongdoing within the Procurement Service in HQ, New York, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) finding non-compliance with procurement rules and many cases of fraud, abuse and waste, provoking the senior management to order a full forensic audit of the Procurement Service by Deloitte Consulting.

This, as it happened while I was still working in Contracts Management, was a bit too close to home. Some of the ‘higher-ups’ that we dealt with on contractual matters were implicated; some were put on special leave with full pay, and others were suspended while the investigations continued. Even someone I worked with in Namibia back in 1989, was found guilty of major embezzlement and jailed – I could hardly believe it.

Next came the horrific news that UN Peacekeepers here in OUR mission (and elsewhere as it was later revealed) were sexually abusing young girls all over the country, but primarily in the poorer eastern regions near the borders with Uganda and Rwanda. Reports of jobs or a shelter being promised in return for sex, young boys being used as pimps to supply girls to the military camps, contingents routinely taking advantage of prostitutes for even the price of a packet of milk – these were particularly unsavoury facts to come to light and disgusted us all.

It was not only limited to the military – some UN civilian and police staff were also found guilty of these abuses. The fact that these individuals preyed on the very people they were sent to protect sent shock waves through the entire organization and prompted the setting up of Conduct and Discipline Teams in all UN missions, with a mandate to prevent such abuse from occurring, to set new standards of moral conduct and to weed out and report wrongdoers.

I had twice met Kofi Annan and had put him on a pedestal, but these scandals profoundly shook my faith in him as an individual, the UN as an organization and our whole purpose for being. I even started to wonder if I should have returned to the fold after leaving it in 1998. Nothing had changed since I left – I still saw the same problems that had prompted me to leave before.

However, during the last two years there have been several major steps taken to address these issues, as the UN has had to bow to pressure from many countries, notably the USA, to reform its management culture. It will still take another generation, in my view, before any real progress is made in this direction.

I wonder what the incoming Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, will achieve during his tenure? Perhaps he’ll have to start his job by dealing with the North Korea problem.

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