The conviction of a former United Nations purchasing official has focused attention once again on the growing need for reform at that institution. Fraud and corruption not only deprive the U.N. of resources it needs to do its work but they also contribute to the erosion of the U.N.’s legitimacy. The procedures that permit such practices must change; member states must make reform a priority.
Mr. Sanjaya Bahel, former head of the Commodity Purchasing Section, was convicted last week in a U.S. court of steering $100 million in U.N. contracts to Indian companies in exchange for cash and other gifts. Sadly, Mr. Bahel is not the only bad actor. The U.N.’s own Procurement Task Force is reviewing $1 billion worth of contract for waste and fraud; it has opened 140 cases, 20-25 are said to be “large.” The U.N. was excoriated for its handling of the $64 billion Iraqi oil-for-food program; the United States has indicted 12 people in relation to that effort.
The U.N. buys about $1.9 billion in goods annually. The head of the U.N. inspection office argues that its purchasing practices need a “major overhaul.” That includes better management — at all levels — in the procurement department, better risk assessment and the creation of policies, processes, checks and balances that guarantee the integrity of purchasing operations. While privacy must be protected, there needs to be less secrecy surrounding investigations of abuses.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is committed to reform but he has to push harder. New procurement regulations were promulgated two years ago but the General Assembly has not yet taken action.
Japan has made U.N. reform a diplomatic priority. Attention has focused on the country’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council. But Tokyo should take the lead in the campaign for reform and press for the adoption of best practices and more transparency in U.N. purchasing. This will show that our real concern is the U.N. itself, not just Japan’s status in the organization — and a much more worthy cause.
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