Exclusive: UN responds to ProPublica story about alleged corruption of UN Afghan funds

T. Christian Miller and Dafna Linzer write in ProPublica that the United Nations cannot account for “tens of millions of dollars provided to the troubled Afghan election commission.” They cite two audits and interviews with current and former UNAMA staff to back up these claims. 

These are clearly troubling accusations.  Exclusive to UN Dispatch, UN Development Program spokesperson Stephane Dujarric sent the following letter to ProPublica last night:  

Your article fails to capture the scope and depth of the UN Development Programme’s assistance to the Afghan people during this electoral process.

UNDP, and the international community, has made a conscious decision to work through Afghans and Afghan institutions, including the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). It is harder to do it this way. But it is the only way that will work in the long run since we have a responsibility to help Afghans rebuild and strengthen their institutions and, more importantly, because the Afghans would not accept it any other way. This only increases our responsibility to be rigorous with donor resources: how they are used, how they are accounted for, and the impacts they have.

Thanks to the support of the men and women of UNDP’s ELECT Project, the IEC was able to distribute some 17 million ballot papers and 100,000 ballot boxes to the four corners of Afghanistan, using planes, helicopters, trucks, cars and donkeys to ensure that every Afghan man and woman could participate in the electoral process. Through the efforts of the UN in partnership with the Afghan government, close to half of the Afghan population has now been registered to vote. In September 2008, as part of our continuing support, UNDP assisted the IEC in setting up a hotline call centre, resulting in some 25,000 calls a week, many from women wanting to participate in the electoral process.

Audits are an essential part of our control mechanisms. We conduct audits as a way to identify both strengths and weaknesses in our programs in order to increase our overall performance on the ground. They are meant to be rigorous and blunt. The particular audit mentioned in the article, which covers the $263 million USAID-funded projects, was still in draft form and does not reflect the final views of UNDP management. It was commissioned by UNDP senior management as a way of tightening our control mechanisms in the unusually demanding conditions of Afghanistan.

A fair reading of the draft audit clearly shows that, overall, while there was a need to enhance supporting documentation, the expenditures incurred for USAID-funded projects were approved by authorized officials, properly accounted for, and processed in compliance with UNDP’s regulations, rules, policies and procedures. Furthermore, the UNDP controls over procurement activities for projects reviewed were generally adequate and procurement activities were undertaken in accordance with UNDP’s policies and procedures.

Even before the conclusion of the audit, we had introduced stronger procedures, including those for the payment of salaries to the Afghan staff of the IEC. Despite complaints from the Afghan officials that we were slowing up the work of the commission, we held up the payments of about a quarter of the staff because of inadequate justification [documentation]. Additionally, salary payments are now being paid directly to the bank accounts of temporary electoral staff through bank transfers. When this is not feasible for staff work in very remote areas, cash payments are only made against time sheets and verification of the IEC staff list. Furthermore, regarding the transportation issue, we are in the process of enhancing internal controls by collecting supporting documentation including weigh bills, individual vehicle log books, and the certification of field advisors at the provincial level.

One should also not lose sight of the bigger picture. Afghanistan is a country that has suffered through countless years of violence and upheaval, and it is in this context that the elections of 2004 and 2009 must be understood. UNDP is just one part of the work that the United Nations does every day in Afghanistan through its assistance mission, UNAMA, in the field of health, human rights, gender issues, reconstruction, etc…

Lastly, Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to work for any UN agency. We have just seen proof of that this week when five of our colleagues were killed in a terrorist attack targeted at a United Nations guest house. The insecurity, the lack of infrastructure, widespread corruption and the harshness of the terrain make the implementation of any project there extremely difficult. That being said, those challenges in no way absolve us of constantly doing our utmost to ensure that monies given to us by donors are properly spent and accounted for. Over the past five years, UNDP has had a portfolio of over $1.5 billion in Afghanistan and we take our responsibility for accountability to donors very seriously. When working in places like Afghanistan, we fully understand that we expose ourselves to a certain risk but our responsibility to the people we serve, and to those who fund our work, is to continually strive for the right balance between the mitigation of risks and the goals of the mission.