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U.N. Chief Proposes Budget-Cutting Austerity Drive

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 5 2011 (IPS) - Armed with a sharp knife, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is on an austerity drive seeking deep cuts, amounting to about 155 million dollars, in the U.N.’s 2012-2013 budget, which comes into effect next January.

The proposed cuts include reduction of official travel (in favour of an increase in video conferencing); curtailment or suspension of consultancies; cutting down on printed reports (in favour of electronic documents); and an overall reduction in overtime payments.

Additionally, he wants to “review” the use of libraries across the organisation – perhaps in anticipation of cuts or total elimination of these services – and charging fees for services provided by the Secretariat to the various U.N. funds and programmes system-wide.

The secretary-general has proposed a reduction of about three percent from the next U.N. budget for 2012-2013 biennium.

That budget, totaling 5.2 billion dollars, is about 20 percent more than the budget for 2008-2009, which amounted to 4.2 billion dollars.

“We must be realistic about the current economic climate,” he told senior managers recently. “Even the wealthiest nations are tightening their belts and cutting budgets. The United Nations must be no less disciplined. We cannot go about business as usual.”

The composition of the 2012-2013 budget will have to be finally decided by the 192-member General Assembly, possibly by the end of the year.

In anticipation of the General Assembly decision, Ban has asked all senior managers to prepare their own departmental budgets with three percent cuts – but within the guidelines laid down by him.

Still, the proposed cuts have already generated criticism from the 130-member Group of 77 (G77) developing countries, which has expressed fears the axe may fall on projects already approved and mandated by the General Assembly.

The Group is planning to send a letter of protest to Ban pointing out that he cannot unilaterally propose cuts without consulting member states.

Speaking on behalf of the secretary-general, chief of staff Vijaya Nambiar told a closed-door meeting of the U.N.’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee (also known as the Fifth Committee) that Ban has called upon his managers to do more with less.

Allaying the fears of the G77, he said: “This is not meant to imply that that we may ignore the existing mandates of the General Assembly or to seek to truncate, modify or abridge them in a manner that would alter or modify their essential object.”

“It means rather that we improve the way we do business, that we modernise our operations, identify efficiency gains so that we are able to deliver on our mandates more efficiently and effectively,” he said.

He said member states themselves are facing serious economic challenges at home and in many cases, they have been forced to sharply cut public expenditures to balance budgets.

Even among the developed countries there is emphasis on the tightening of belts, he added.

Both domestic and external spending is facing considerable reductions and citizens are being asked to make big sacrifices.

“And we, at the United Nations, cannot afford to be oblivious to this situation,” Nambiar declared.

Nambiar also hinted that the current global economic crisis and the recent humanitarian disasters facing countries such as Japan may have an ultimate impact on donor funding to U.N. agencies.

He referred to the “unprecedented national calamity that has befallen Japan”.

“As everyone is aware, Japan has been one of the strong supporters of the United Nations and has been the second largest contributor to the regular budget of this organisation,” Nambiar said.

“Now, even while we recognise the continuing strong sense of commitment of this country to the work of this organisation, at this critical hour, we owe it to them, as we do to the other nations that have had to bear the brunt of natural and manmade disasters and economic crises, to see that every detail of the budget demands we make on behalf of the organisation is based on a strong sense that it is being used efficiently and frugally,” he declared.

“We need to show that we can do more with less but without sacrificing programme delivery,” he added.

In an attempt to bolster the secretary-general’s case, Nambiar also pointed out that other international organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank, have been called upon to reduce their budgets sharply at rates of between three and 20 percent.

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