A recent story by Fox News provides yet another example of the United Nations Development Program’s refusal to accede to an unfortunate reality: that the organization’s efforts to work with, and through, the world’s most despotic regimes are regularly twisted to serve the goals of the regime rather than the people suffering under their rule. According to the story:
An independent assessment of a $100 million United Nations Development Program aid effort in Burma calls it ‘disappointing,’ and ‘unsatisfactory,’ and suggests that major portions of the program be discontinued next year. Nonetheless, the director of UNDP intends to keep it alive with as-yet unspecified fixes.
The assessment of the UNDP’s Human Development Initiative suggested there were ‘modest or only limited differences’ between the Burmese villages that got UNDP support and those that didn’t.
Among the areas of negligible impact: health care, education and ‘food security,’ meaning the vital business of whether the poorest were producing and saving enough food to eat in the military-controlled country also known as Myanmar….
Even while admitting that Burma is a ‘difficult and unpredictable’ environment for HDI, however, the assessors state firmly that UNDP’s own problems with community development programs are the most significant. Among them: lack of clear focus; inability to show that it has accomplished much beyond the delivery of tangible goods, such as fertilizer; lack of staff training; and perhaps most importantly of all, lack of any clear strategy to wean the people they are helping off continued outside assistance.
Aid to Burma—whose government has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Obama Administration, is suspected of pursuing a clandestine nuclear program, and has imprisoned opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi 15 out of the last 21 years—has come under increasing scrutiny.
As reported in the FoxNews story, UNDP is under instructions from its Executive Board to ensure that its funds stay out of government hands. However, a 2007 report by a Burmese human rights group asserted that U.N. funding, including UNDP funding, supports state-controlled programs that employ extortion and forced recruitment to “expand military control over the population while divesting itself of the cost of operating programmes and simultaneously legitimizing its policies in the name of development.” In 2008, news stories revealed that the “United Nations discovered ‘very serious losses’ of at least $10 million on foreign exchange transactions involving relief money sent to cyclone-battered Burma.”
This is hardly surprising. A number of allegations have been made in recent years concerning improper activities funded by, or linked to, UNDP staff or projects in authoritarian states, including North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. In some repressive states, the U.N. and NGOs can work around the government to help the people directly. In these cases, there is some justification for continuing U.N. humanitarian activities. In cases like Burma and North Korea, however, government interference and assertion of authority over humanitarian activities in country is so extensive that humanitarian efforts are crippled. Despite the best efforts of the U.N. and other providers of humanitarian assistance, aid is permitted only if it benefits the regime. In such cases, UNDP programs—and those of other U.N. agencies like WFP and UNICEF—end up inadvertently rewarding the government.
Many argue that the U.N.’s humanitarian work should continue regardless of whether the government benefits because some portion will aid the suffering population. There is little doubt about the suffering in places like North Korean and Burma. However, it is the repressive policies of the government that have most directly contributed to that suffering. Aiding the government, even inadvertently, perpetuates that suffering.
The Fox News story reports that internal assessments have assured the Executive Board that UNDP has not allowed its funds to be used by the government. At the very least, however, considering the “difficult and unpredictable” environment in Burma, UNDP assistance merits closer scrutiny to see if it is inadvertently benefiting the regime.
At August 30 meeting of the UNDP Executive Board—of which the U.S. is a member—the U.S. Mission to the United Nations should closely question all UNDP activities in repressive regimes like Burma, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others countries and demand full and complete access to all UNDP documents and assessments to inform their examination. At a bare minimum, the U.S. should call for all such programs to be suspended unless the governments: (1) allow the U.N. and NGOs to hire and use local and international staff without government interference; (2) grant complete and free access to projects, distribution centers, and aid recipients to ensure that aid is not being diverted by the government; and (3) not impede non-governmental organizations helping to deliver aid and assess need.