Nepali Times
The UN is going places


Whoever in the United Nations decided to paint the organisation's mammoth SUVs with large blue 'UN' signs must have graduated from the same corporate branding course as the yellow-and-red guys at DHL.

But on Kathmandu's narrow streets the logo has turned into a metaphor for profligacy and waste. When is the UN going to free up hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for health care and education by switching to smaller, more fuel-efficient or battery-operated cars for city travel? It is also a timely reminder to many of us who look to the UN as a saviour in the current peace process to examine its record in other world hotspots. Sure, there is little sense in blaming the UN because it is just the lowest-common-denominator of our own Third World bureaucracies. But, hey, that's our excuse!


It used to be that the UN's lords of poverty zoomed around the world at velocities approaching the speed of sound. These days they are moving their offices around instead.

At one point during the post-democracy period of the 1990s, Kathmandu had become the place where most regional organisations were based because this was where SAARC, in its infinite wisdom, decided to locate its secretariat. So, Unicef's Regional Office for South Asia came here, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) set up its regional base in Kathmandu, and several international NGOs headquartered themselves here looking after not just South Asia but also their Central Asian operations.

Now, whimsical UN bosses in New York seem to be afflicted with Acute Relocation Syndrome (ARS). They plunked the UN's regional poverty initiative, called SURF, in Kathmandu and two years later moved all human and non-human assets to Sri Lanka at enormous expense saying that the security situation in Nepal had become untenable. True, at that time Sri Lanka had a ceasefire and we were in the middle of conflict. But today, it's the other way around. And even at the height of Nepal's conflict we never had car bombs going off in the centre of the business district killing hundreds at a time. (The closest we've come to a terrorist threat was a hoax fax at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare last week, purportedly from Al-Qaeda!) And now that Sri Lanka is on the brink of war again, are they going to move back?

UNAIDS set up its regional AIDS office in New Delhi five years ago recognising the threat of the disease in South Asia, and particularly India. Two years ago, it decided to move its entire office lock stock and barrel to Bangkok for no particularly intelligent reason other than that Big Boss liked the sights and sounds of Thailand.

There\'s no word yet on reactions to the rearrangements in Thailand\'s scenery. Perhaps the tanks complement Bangkok\'s balmy breezes quite nicely.


Now comes word that a recent executive board meeting of UNFPA in New York decided to move the UNFPA's South Asia office from Kathmandu to Bangkok, too. Another regional boss who'd rather be in Phuket, not Surkhet. As part of its $30 million 'regionalisation process' UNFPA has decided to keep its Pacific Regional Office in Fiji (another salubrious tropical isle) but close down its South Asia Regional Office in the world's most populous region. What kind of message is the UNFPA sending to South Asia's 1.5 billion people and SAARC?

Even more worrying than these ad hoc decisions is the vast silence from South Asia's otherwise voluble dips at the UN. Our delegates attended the UNFPA executive board meeting in New York this month and didn't raise a squeak. Nepal's rep wasn't the least bit bothered. With this kind of attitude it wouldn't surprise this Ass one bit if SAARC itself decided to relocate its secretariat from Kathmandu to Bangkok. After all, despite two decades of talk-talk-talk about regional cooperation in air links the easiest way to fly to the Maldives from Nepal is still via Singapore.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)