Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Gilding the lily: We're NOT reassured! (7 July 2015)

Gilding the lily

‘Gild the lily’: “To cover with or as if with a thin layer of gold;
to give an often deceptively attractive or improved appearance to.” 

It wasn’t a pretty spectacle to begin with. For much of the Pension Fund controversy over the past year and a half, the AFICS leadership has been either MIA (missing in action), or reactive: “Internet definition: acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it”.

The very first peep heard from the AFICS leadership was on 29 May 2014 in reaction to a UNOG petition in May 2014 calling on the Secretary-General to oppose threats to the system of checks and balances in place in the Fund. 

The AFICS President posted a note on the AFICS website dated 29 May 2014 framing the controversy in terms of “misconceptions regarding certain potential risks to the safety of retiree benefits.”

Lo and behold: What the President termed simple “misconceptions” turned out to be in fact real threats to the system of checks and balances that has kept the Fund healthy for the past 65 years when other pension funds have failed.

Threat No. 1: There’s the threat that the Fund may move toward outsourcing and riskier alternative investments such as hedge funds.

Threat No. 2: There’s the threat that the “administrative flexibilities” that the CEO of the Fund Secretariat wishes to acquire in a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) will allow him authority over the staff of the Investment Division, thus breaching the split between the Fund Secretariat and the Investment Management Division, a key element of the system of checks and balances.

And for almost an entire year, there was very little on the AFICS website besides three CEO missives refuting allegations against him. Why was AFICS acting as a mouthpiece for the Fund CEO?

Read in our letter below what the Staff Union President said in an email to UN staff and AFICS members on 11 April 2015 about the AFICS President's unconditional support for whatever 'flexibilities' the Pension Fund CEO wishes to accrue. “I believe that the CEO is fortunate to count on supporters such as the AFICS President”, Ms. Tavora-Jainchill remarked.

When pushed after the 31 March 2015 Staff Union meeting to add balance and transparency to the AFICS website to address its members’ concerns, the AFICS leadership creaked into reluctant action, called for a Town Hall meeting, held on 16 April 2015, and posted statements and webcasts in quick succession.

Still the inconsistencies piled up. And the AFICS President, contrary to her own statement in her 29 May 2014 message,  presumed to advise AFICS members not to sign the May 2015 petition to the Secretary-General, and presumed to tell members that our problem is that we refuse to do as we are told and trust the reassurances we have heard from senior UN officials at the Town Hall meeting in April and the AFICS Annual General Meeting in June.

We were “scaremongering” she told us at the 17 June 2015 meeting, and “dunning” as in consulting the AFICS directory made available to all AFICS members presumably so that we may contact one another on issues of mutual interest. (Definition of ‘dunning’: make persistent demands of (someone), especially for payment of debt!).

And the bully pulpit gets a workout. Our letters to the President and Governing Board almost never get posted on the AFICS website despite our requests (a single letter, dated 18 May is posted). So AFICS members who rely on the website for information on the pension issue can expect to be treated to only half of the story – the President’s perspective. 

More inconsistencies: Issues that the President described a year ago in her 29 May 2014 note in terms of “human rights” and “insecurity” of Pension Fund staff and their adverse impact on investment policy are now described in her 2 July 2015 letter as mere “differences of opinion on HR procedures” (2 July 2015 letter).

Tucked in among the inconsistencies, there is one notable exception: The President’s consistent confidence in her “rightness” in the midst of rife confusions and inconsistencies on substance is impressive. No doubt this quality will also serve her well in her new and higher perch as president of FAFICS.

The President and the Governing Board set about gilding the lily of their failure to convene a meeting as requested under the By-Laws.

In her 2 July 2015 letter. They “take [their] responsibilities very seriously”, the President states. The Governing Board “legitimately represents all members of the Association in matters of interest to the retire community” (just in case any of us may be harboring legitimacy doubts: Internet definition of ‘legitimacy’: the popular acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law, or regime).

The President closes by urging us to “rest assured that as retirees we all have the same goal, that is to maintain a healthy pension benefit.”

“Rest assured,” she soothes, “We all have the same goal.”

Recall that the President noted in her 29 May 2014 message: "Retirees and participants are the parties most concerned with any developments affecting the Fund, and they should be fully consulted before any changes are made." Exactly. And why hasn't that happened? And why the foot-dragging on the request by 82 AFICS members for a meeting under the By-Laws?

Best case scenario:  the President evolves in her thinking and does as she promises when she goes to the Pension Board meeting in July 2015, as stated in her 2 July 2015 letter: “oppose any increase to the current conservative level of investments in hedge funds, as well as any changes that would undermine the structure of the Fund, including any administrative arrangement that would affect either of these two fundamental principles.”

We’re on board with that. We look forward to the meeting we have requested under the By-Laws, whenever the AFICS leadership stirs itself to convene it, and the President’s report about the vigorous operation she launched at the upcoming July Pension Board meeting in opposition to threats to the health of our Pension Fund. Remember it’s her Pension Fund too!

Do as you promise, Madam President and Governing Board members, and we’re good . . .  but not holding our breath!

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