Many in  Sri Lanka are aware of the United Nations in New York, Geneva, Rome and Vienna. There is another UN system in Colombo which very few people are aware of. With a changing United Nations and its relations with individual countries, it is essential that there is a greater awareness of the local UN [...]

Sunday Times 2

The UN system in Sri Lanka: The need for transparency


File pic: Hanaa Singer presents her credentials to President Maithripala Sirisena, as the new UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in September last year

Many in  Sri Lanka are aware of the United Nations in New York, Geneva, Rome and Vienna. There is another UN system in Colombo which very few people are aware of. With a changing United Nations and its relations with individual countries, it is essential that there is a greater awareness of the local UN system and its operations here.

When the local UN system (the UN Resident Coordinator, UNDP, UNICEF, FAO, WHO, UNIDO and so on) first appeared, opening up local offices, they came for the purpose of “development”, mainly economic and social.  They were primarily aid agencies, offering technical assistance, which was useful.

Being multilateral agencies, their aid was not tied unlike the bilaterals and there was no conditionality like the World Bank. The aid was given in the form of grants. For example, the early feasibility study of the Mahaweli project was funded by the UNDP in the 1960s. Now, the resources offered by the UNDP to Sri Lanka have diminished, as Sri Lanka has moved up the per capita income index, and also due to diminishing UN resources. This will be discussed later.

But a bigger issue is the changing nature of the UN system in Colombo, with more political issues coming into the picture, especially human rights and many other issues of that kind. I refer to three issues in particular in this article — the UN Resident Coordinator arrangement; the resources picture; and issues of protocol.

Resident Coordinator

When the UNDP representative was appointed as far back as the 1950s or 1960s, the UNDP was considered the central funding agency of the UN system. Specialised agencies such as the FAO and the WHO had projects in Sri Lanka funded by UNDP. With this funding role of the UN, the UNDP could play a role as resident coordinator for development.  The UNDP’s role as the central funding agency has now ceased. Other specialised agencies such as the WHO and the FAO are independent bodies, not under the UN Secretary General. So the UNDP’s Resident Coordinator’s role was diminishing and in many countries, the coordinator role amounted to mere meetings among UN agencies, discussing issues such as their own security and so on. There was no substantive aid coordination going on. Anyway, coordination of aid is a matter for the government.

Recently, there has been a new development in the role of the UN Resident Coordinator. For the past 50 years or so, the UNDP Resident Representative has also been the UN Resident Coordinator. It was an office involved with “development”. The UNDP funded the post of UN Resident Coordinator in all developing countries where they were present.  A few months ago, the UN Secretary General delinked the role of the UN Resident Coordinators from the UNDP. Now they are no longer funded by the UNDP and, in my view, they are no longer “development” officers. A resident coordinator is now more a political officer, as the office of Secretary General of the UN is a political, and not, a development office.

So by changing the role, the Secretary General has now a largely political representative in Colombo. Sri Lanka needs to be more aware of this changed role of the UN Resident Coordinator. What does this official do? And what kinds of reports does this official send to the Secretary General? I understand that recently there was a request from the UN Human Rights office in Geneva, to appoint a representative in Colombo, and that was turned down by the Government. Now with this appointment, the UN has got a political office on the ground here. The government should be aware of his precise role in this country.

UN resources

Now I come to the issue of UN resources provided to this country. There was a certain amount of development aid, especially in the form of technical assistance from UN bodies until a decade or so ago. Now that has ceased, as Sri Lanka is no longer eligible for concessional assistance.

However, in developing countries, the UN system is now playing a new role in the provision of aid. Local UNDP offices are channelling aid from various bilateral donors to individual developing countries. The aid funds come from bilateral donors to UN bodies and they fund projects in Sri Lanka. These UN bodies have to report to these bilateral donors. In fact, their very existence in a country now depends on bilateral funding of projects. No longer are these UN bodies independent and objective aid donors as they used to be.

It is necessary for the government of Sri Lanka and others to know clearly the amount of aid channelled by these UN bodies to Sri Lanka, on an annual basis. It is only by knowing the amounts that one can determine their usefulness.  This kind of financial dependence of UN bodies at the country level diminishes any leverage Sri Lanka might have with these UN bodies. Anyway, what is required is transparency.

Protocol issues

Then there are some protocol issues for the UN system locally. The UN is a large bureaucracy and is hierarchical. UN personnel in Colombo should see to it that they meet government officials at an appropriate level.

In the 1970s, when I was Director of Economic Affairs in the Planning Ministry, I met the UN Resident Coordinator and the UN Resident Representative in my office from time to time. C. Hart Schaf and Michael Priestley were the Resident Coordinators at the time and they were fine gentlemen. They hardly met the Permanent Secretary or a Minister.  The Prime Minister they never met unless on some ceremonial occasion.

Now, the practice has changed. Recently I saw some photographs of the UNDP Resident Representative (not the UN Resident Coordinator) meeting the President and the Prime Minister. This UNDP representative (I do not know him) is a mid-level official of the UN — maybe a P5 — had no business seeking appointments at this level. The government had no business to give this gentleman appointments to see the President and the Prime Minister. This type of practice makes Sri Lanka look like a banana republic. In New York or Geneva, high level UN officers can only be seen by our Ambassadors, not by first or second secretaries. When UN officials in New York and Geneva know that junior officials can meet our Head of Government and so on, there is no reason why they have to see the President or Prime Minister as the junior officials can do it for them.

If this sort of practice continues, the UN bellboy might come to see the Minister next time. Relations with the UN are a part of international relations, and there must be appropriate levels of contact in these bodies. In India, there is a system where the levels are defined for meetings between local UN officials and government officials.

There is another problem when protocol is discarded. When UN officials in Colombo can conduct their business at the ministerial level, why should they bother with officials? They can go above their heads. These are matters which should be looked at by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and guidance provided to ministry officials, ministers and the President.

The United Nations is an important partner in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Sri Lanka used to play an active role in the UN system until the latter part of the 1970s. Once again, it is necessary that the country plays a more active role within the UN system. The foreign office should be more aware of the many protocol issues and the great opportunities they have in playing a larger role in the UN system, whether it be in New York, Geneva and elsewhere. The Foreign Office and other ministries should also be more aware of the roles and the relationships of the UN system in Colombo.

(The writer is a former Economic Affairs director in the Ministry of Planning)

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