Nepali Times
Breeding ground for greed

Now, four more staffers from his office have also been suspended.

One misty morning in December 1999, the Nepal representative of the United Nations Population Fund, S.K Alok, drove as he always did from his residence in Thapathali to the UN complex in Pulchowk.

As the chauffeur-driven limousine with its blue UN flag turned in at the gate, it was stopped by the guards and Alok was not allowed to go up to his own office. An unprecedented series of hush-hush events began to unfold, the repercussions of which are still reverberating through the UN system in Nepal six months later.

Alok was accused of embezzlement, and this month almost the entire second tier of the agency\'s Kathmandu-based staff has\' also been accused of complicity and suspended.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is headquartered in New York and oversees family planning and reproductive health projects worldwide. Its country programme In Nepal has a budget of about US$ 4 million a year, and is regarded as vital by both the UN and the government because of the country\'s crippling high population growth rate.

UNFPA Nepal had been in the process of implementing a multi-year US$ 8 million programme to build a string of rural family-health posts all over the country to provide poor women with access to specialised care in reproductive health.

The Fund\'s headquarters in New York started getting reports of corruption in its Kathmandu office in late 1999. In November the head of its Finance Division arrived in Kathmandu to investigate. The evidence he found was so compelling that Alok was suspended on the spot.

Nepali Times has learnt that the charges against Alok had to do with massive over-invoicing of contracts to build the health posts, awarding contracts without a proper bidding process, favoring certain groups of contractors, and other transgressions.

The investigation showed that over-invoicing of up to 30 percent beyond the actual construction cost, and UN sources said Alok had personally profited to the rune of US$ 250,000 from the deals, much of it said to have been stashed away in an overseas bank account. After his suspension, Alok told friends in Kathmandu that he had been framed by his Nepali colleagues and that he had simply signed the contract papers prepared by his staff.

In the beginning: he received sympathy from the expatriate community in the Valley, but there is now no question that the international civil servant from India has committed fraud on the Nepali people in a crucial arena of their development effort.

As in cases like these, the UN system circles its wagons and seals itself from the press. Nothing came out in the media in December, even though a high-profile scandal involving a UNDP-funded project was playing out in the Nepali press at about the same time.

And the whole matter would have ended there, had it not been for the fact that UNFPA New York re-started its investigation after fresh evidence emerged pointing at complicity of Alok\'s Nepali subordinates in Kathmandu.

As UNFPA was gearing up worldwide to mark World Population Day, the investigation team returned to Nepal to examine the evidence. Four of Alok\'s immediate subordinates, including project, administrative and accounts staff were suspended.

UN staffers in Kathmandu arc tight-lipped about the new allegations, only saying that investigation is ongoing. Nepali Times has learnt that the four suspended staff were asked to fly to Bangkok last week for further questioning, but they refused.

UNFPA\'s activities in Kathmandu are procurement intensive, and its projects heavily infrastructure-driven. It appears that this presented an ideal breeding ground for unscrupulous managers to earn a side income.

One senior expatriate UN official based in Kathmandu shook his head in disgust: "You hear of corruption in business all the time, but when it involves money that is meant for Nepal\'s neediest, that is when it is not just another crime. It becomes morally abhorrent."

The only good to come out of the UNFPA scandal so far is to show that when malfeasance is discovered the UN\'s internal investigative; mechanism is swift and action immediate. What is not clear though is if the four Nepalis will face any criminal action under Nepali law, or will the simple suspension be considered penalty enough. Neither is it known where international bureaucrat Alok will face legal action.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)