Debate Necessary On UN’s Partnership Facility

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By Roberto Bissio* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

MONTEVIDEO (IDN) - According to the official schedule, approved by the United Nations General Assembly in New York, negotiations on a "new development agenda" to replace the Millennium Development Goals should begin in September 2014, in order to give countries time to study the issue. This will culminate in a Development Summit in 2015 attended by heads of state and government.

However, the creation of a "partnership facility", which is one of the key points of the new agenda proposed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is already included in the budget for next year. In the coming weeks the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly may approve a substantial piece of the new agenda before a majority of the members having started to analyze it.

The new United Nations Partnership Facility will have a budget of a million and a half dollars a year, 90 % of which will pay five senior officials, led by an under-secretary-general. "Extra-budgetary resources" (donations not part of the official budget that is scrutinized by UN members) are estimated to provide more than $ 12 million a year.

[The budget process for the UN is for the Secretary-General to submit a full 2-year budget for existing and proposed programs, posts and secretariat. If the item is a new initiative or program, it goes to the relevant substantive committee for approval - for economic issues, this is the 2nd committee of the General Assembly, and then to the 5th committee for budget approval. Anything that goes to the 5th committee goes to an expert group first (ACABQ - Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions), so in reality these parts move in parallel.]

The new office is mandated to coordinate existing partnerships with the private sector (corporations, private foundations and civil society organizations) and encourage new ones to "significantly increase existing resources and expand the effectiveness of their use," globally and in developing countries.

Many of those partnerships already exist, but only as "personal initiatives" of the UN Secretary General, without any agreed mandate. The initiatives to be formalized as part of the UNPF include "Every Woman, Every Child", "Sustainable Energy for All", "Education First" and several more.

At a time when many developed countries suffer recession and have cut their official development assistance (ODA) budgets, the idea of using private philanthropy funds seems obvious and reasonable. However, in a statement issued in New York, an alliance of civil society networks – known as the Civil Society Reflecion Group on Sustainable Development, which includes Third World Network, the Arab NGO Network for Development, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Southern feminist network DAWN, terre des hommes, Global Policy Forum and Social Watch – warned diplomats about the possibility of precisely the opposite effect:

"Contrary to the perception that leveraging actually draws in private resources to available public funds, increasingly it is about using public money (ODA) to cover the risks of private investment. Losses will be socialized while profits continue to be private – and too often untaxed. Recent experience in many countries shows that these ‘innovative’ mechanisms are often ineffective, poorly regulated, and can lead to corruption in borrowing and lending countries."

The official press releases are very optimistic. "Every Woman, Every Child" has purportedly "delivered” ten billion dollars and "Sustainable Energy for All", an initiative launched just a year ago, "has seen pledges" of fifty billion. These amounts are impressive, considering that the total ODA of the richest countries is about one hundred billion dollars a year and is falling.

However, what these numbers actually mean is not easy to figure out. "Education First", chaired by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced with great fanfare "commitments" worth 1.5 billion dollars a year ago. Of these, one billion would be provided by Western Union, a corporation specializing in channeling remittances from migrants, and 500 million by the credit card issuer MasterCard.

However, the MasterCard Foundation has a total grant making capacity for all its programs of one hundred million dollars a year and the Western Union Foundation claims on its website to have awarded 71 million dollars in grants since 2001.

The small print of the “Education First” website says that MasterCard will provide scholarships for fifteen thousand African university students over ten years, while Western Union will “provide up to $10,000 per day in non-governmental organization grant funding.”  At that pace, it will take 274 years to reach one billion!

In either case neither the UN itself nor developing country governments receive any grant or in any way control or supervise them. There is no demonstrated additionality to ODA and other financial commitments made in inter-governmental fora, nor is there any proof that those monies add to what the foundations would have disbursed anyhow. Neither is there any clear link with the official objective of "Education First", which is to accelerate progress in primary education in the poorest countries.

However, it is very obvious that big corporations do benefit from improved public image by the use of the blue UN flag, as well as improved access to privileged information and high-level contacts. In some African countries, for example, the alliance of big pharmaceutical companies with the UN has allowed them to win lucrative contracts with the state, to the detriment of local small and medium enterprises.

The United Nations Partnership Facility deserves a more careful discussion before being approved in order to clarify who gets which benefits from whom.

*Roberto Bissio is executive director of the Instituto del Tercer Mundo (Third World Institute), a non-profit research and advocacy organization based in Uruguay. He coordinates the secretariat of Social Watch, an international network of citizen organizations from around the world. He is also a member of Third World Network's international committee and of the civil society advisory group to the UNDP administrator. This is a translation of an article in ‘agenda global’, a weekly column of Third World Network in La Primera on October 4, 2013. [IDN-InDepthNews – October 11, 2013]

Picture credit: UN

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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