Thursday, December 21, 2017

UN Pension Fund: If wishes were horses...and the struggle continues, 21 December 2017

UN pension fund: If wishes were horses; and the struggle continues.

Yes, we wanted more. Did anyone who cares about a healthy Fund really hope that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres would reappoint the Fund’s Chief Executive Officer Sergio Arvizu for three more years -- so we could have the pleasure of watching him bungle on, even for a single year, under lax oversight by a complicit Pension Board?

Of course not.  But it wasn’t realistic to expect that the Secretary-General would have sent Arvizu packing on 31 December, given the array of forces determined to force through another outcome. On simply a practical level, had by some miracle the Secretary-General made that decision, Arvizu, for the sake of fairness and decency, would have had to have been informed months ago and a search committee set up to pick his replacement.

We know that didn’t happen; and while I can’t speak for the UN staff unions, in response to some who have expressed dismay about the outcome, on Facebook and by email, my own view is that this is as good as we could have hoped for given the circumstances. Put another way, what we have here is nothing short of an example of shooting for the moon in the hope that if we miss, we’ll land somewhere better than the alternative.

And we indeed landed in a space much better than the alternative: that the CEO would have sailed into another three-year term, albeit with oversight provisions but without an annual performance review to determine whether or not he continued. Thankfully, we already knew we had dodged a new five-year term, the powers arrayed on his behalf having successfully dismissed the preponderance of evidence of mismanagement, perhaps with a promotion to Under-Secretary-General, and full strength to continue business as usual.

Instead, Arvizu and the Pension Board are exposed and weakened and there’s the chance that the Board won’t be allowed to repeat its sham performance review and disregard of evidence of mismanagement in the Fund Secretariat under Arvizu’s watch, and that the Secretary-General will have the chance to end his appointment next year.

Seeing clearly where we are includes looking at where we came from. The UN often seems to run on raw power. And some of those in power wield it as if no maneuver is out of bounds. One of the ways power is exercised in any institution is by meting out favors and punishment. The CEO strengthened his hand by wresting autonomy on some financial, procurement and human resources matters from the Secretary-General. He lobbied Board members in New York and on frequent visits to UN agencies around the world.  FAFICS members (the UN retiree retirement organization) cherish their all expenses paid trips – compliments of the Fund -- to world capitals.  And the Fund ensures that it controls the agenda by flying pension board members each year to New York and elsewhere, for “training” by Fund staff in complex policy matters with little time to truly educate themselves. 

In terms of disincentives, the CEO abused the UN's legal apparatus to try to bar duly elected UN participant representatives from Board activities. The UN Appeals Tribunal recently ruled that his actions in this regard were unlawful. The Board Chairs (former and current) often worked to silence dissent. UN participant representatives were muzzled at last year’s Board meeting – refused the opportunity to make their traditional presentation to the Board.  Twice in recent months, the new Board chair requested the UN Administration to bar UN participant representatives from using the UN IT system to disseminate information to their constituents.

Attempts have been made to silence other voices as well.  Some months ago Google moved against this blog, apparently at the request of a UN legal entity (unnamed),  removing the word “UN” from the logo.  Google unsurprisingly bowing to power and for good measure also removed an original drawing of the UN Secretariat building.  Yet, there’s a “UN Forum” that has existed for decades, but presumably the content of that blog passes muster with whichever UN legal team initiated the attack.

The array of forces confronting the UN staff unions in their efforts to safeguard our Fund begin with the CEO himself and his supporters on the Board, such as the former and current Board chairs and include some of the Secretary-General's representatives and former UN participant representatives who often flowed with the tide, and the president of the UN retiree representative organization, FAFICS, who has never seen the CEO make a move that she didn't applaud and support.

Add the UN Agency participant representatives, some of whom appear to view their purpose  as beating back the "competition" --  UN participant representatives. At the 2017 Board meeting, a UN agency participant representative reportedly talked his way into the chairmanship of the participant group on the basis that he would bridge the divide between the UN and the agencies. He promptly “turned coat” and sided with the CEO's supporters on the Board.  He and other UN agency participant representative wrote to the Secretary-General on 11 December 2017 attempting to discredit members of their own participant group on the Board – the UN participant representatives.  

The Board's leadership strictly controls information placed before Board members. At its meeting in July in Vienna, it virtually ignored the UN internal audit (Office of Internal Oversight Services, 2017/02) published several months before, which contained details of the role played by mismanagement in causing the unprecedented backlog in pension payments, whereby payments to thousands of beneficiaries, including orphans, widows, and retirees were delayed. It's reported that the Chair of the Audit Committee -- reportedly another staunch CEO supporter -- has inexplicably advised the Board that it need not exercise oversight of audit reports. 

Concerning the Board's recommendation to the Secretary-General, at the Board meeting, UN participant representatives, after five hours of holding out for no reappointment of the CEO,  were pressured into a consensus vote for a final three-year appointment with oversight provisions, on the understanding that they could register an objection in the minutes. The Board then promptly denied them that opportunity.

Add to the mix that the FAFICS president, who up to last year was also the AFICS/NY president, who has repeatedly pushed back the concerns of members, moved to discourage the UN internal audit of the payment backlog,  and consistently led the charge in the Board in support of the CEO. AFICS organizations around the world have stated that they are not consulted about positions that the FAFICS leadership takes at the Board. The AFICS/NY website bears no trace of the General Assembly resolution, ACABQ reports, Board of Auditors reports, or OIOS reports of the past two years.

The consequence of this non-transparency is that thousands of retirees around the globe, and hundreds of AFICS/NY members, have no idea of the problems that have been besetting the Fund. This blog receives frequent emails UN retirees, located in the US and other countries, asking to be included in its email list for circulating information, and noting that they are not kept informed by their AFICS leadership, including several FAO retirees. 

To again offer an example of some of the obstacles to progress, I've heard twice recently from someone named Gyongyver Prien, claiming to be the president of FFAO, presumably the retiree organization for former FAO staff. In an email to me yesterday, he boasted about his "thousands of constituents" and dismissed as "rubbish" my article circulated yesterday about the SG's decision, notwithstanding that it reflects the contents of a letter from the Chef de Cabinet to the Board Chair, in almost its entirety.  Apparently his constituents have been forwarding my emails asking him for comment. He copied the FAFICS President, Linda Saputelli, who immediately responded with her own invective-infused rant. I responded by suggesting that they both muster the grace to resign their respective offices, knowing there’s no chance whatsoever of that occurring.

There’s the prospect that given his compromised position, Arvizu may opt to resign. Some in the same position would make that choice. Many of us would welcome the move, and be even more pleased were the Pension Board Chair and the FAFICS president have the decency to follow his lead.

One can expect that the Fund Secretariat’s triumvirate leadership, now compromised and weakened by the Secretary-General’s decision concerning the CEO, will continue to flail about more than ever.  The Secretary-General should consider placing senior staff in the Fund Secretariat who can temporarily strengthen the leadership team.

For the CEO’s supporters going into the July Board meeting, the die was cast and the deal was set for a new five-year term for Arvizu.  Or so they thought. Had there not been a new Secretary-General, we could well be facing another guaranteed five years of an even more emboldened Arvizu as head of the Fund Secretariat. Instead we have at least the possibility of no more than a final year in which he once again demonstrates that he’s not up to the task, opening the door for the Secretary-General to replace him.

So, where we stand isn’t optimal, but it’s considerably better than where we could be.  I would ask anyone who is disappointed by the Secretary-General’s decision to consider that Arvizu’s activities are under scrutiny as never before, as are those of the Board Chair and members. The UN staff unions have our back and there’s a full team of competent and determined UN participant representatives to the Board watching out for our interests. They’re skilled, courageous, and not to be deterred.  In short, while we understandably wished for more, the reality is that we’ve made progress. And the struggle to safeguard our Fund continues.

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