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Government Transparency: 8 Calls and No Answers

by Dan Barrett / /

After calling two staffers on Capitol Hill and numerous bureaucrats at the United Nations’ headquarters, you would figure I would have a better idea of United Nations’ conference budgets. My first three calls and emails went to Legislative Assistants and Foreign Relations Committee staffers, ranging over almost six months. I was researching the amount the US could potentially save by prohibiting funding of the Durban II Conference in South Africa. The Conference got a lot of attention because it was a follow-up to the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

After 6 months of silence from Foreign Relations Committee staff and more Googling than I hope ever to do, I changed gears and called the United Nations directly. This also proved to be a grinding affair wrought with more transferred phone calls than the comparatively efficient silence from the Hill. In the last month, I have spoken to UN workers in 7 different divisions, ranging from their General Information Division, who had no information to give, to the United Nations Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions and the Department of Conference Management’s Conference Services. All-in-all, the UN is impressive with its lack of cohesion and transparency.

On my final call, made this afternoon with a member of the conference management staff, I learned about half of what I set out to learn, eight months ago: The Durban II Conference was a hosted conference, all of which are principally paid by the host country with incidental costs paid out of the UN General Fund. So the majority of the Durban II costs would be paid out of South Africa’s pocket. If the conference was more general, the United Nations would pick up the tab, paid for by the UN General Fund. Member nations contribute to the fund based on economic indicators with the US paying $598 million in 2009.

No actual numbers were available as either the staffer was under no obligation to make them public (which he mentioned) and/or unified budgets of UN conferences do not exist (quite possible). When I asked why the staffer would not release the numbers, he asked if I was trying to find out how much the US paid. “Oh, you’re one of those,” was his response. The conversation ended quickly thereafter.

My search ended there because NTU Foundation’s BillTally Project does not pertain to already appropriated spending.

The United Nations was created to help prevent conflict and to serve as a development force for the “Third World.” These goals are accomplished largely through conferences where diplomats and leaders can come together. Yet an organization that can’t keep an eye on its check book, let alone a taxpayer-funded group that feels something as basic as conference budgets are not fit for public consumption, is bound to fail. According to the UN’s website, “It’s your world.” I would add, it’s also your money.