16 February 2006 | Anusha Bradley
The former United Nations procurement chief, suspended as part of investigations into purchasing fraud, has spoken out over the ongoing case.
Speaking to SM
from New York, Briton Christian Saunders said whistle-blowers at the UN feared repercussions for their actions. He was also keen to defend his position and denied any wrongdoing, describing the procurement processes he helped to create as "solid".
He said he raised concerns about a colleague in 2002 but was ignored. Saunders said there was "a fear among staff of repercussions if they speak out".
The UN last month announced an enhanced whistle-blowing policy as part of its investigation.
Guy Dehn, director of whistle-blowing advice group Public Concern at Work, said the UN's "strengthened" policy is much improved, but still does not conform to all international best practice standards.
He told SM: "A simple piece of paper does not change the culture of an organisation overnight. That is up to the leadership."
In a statement issued in December, Andrew Thompson, a former UN employee fired last year for writing a book about peacekeeping mismanagement, said UN policy now made it "illegal to harass whistle-blowers in the way I was openly retaliated against".
Saunders, who has spent 17 years with the UN in Gaza, the West Bank, Rwanda and Sarajevo, said he improved transparency and "stressed the need for integrity at every opportunity" during his four-year tenure as chief.
Saunders said he asked the Office of International Oversight Services (OIOS) to investigate Alexander Yakovlev in April 2002 after discovering he had leaked an internal document to a supplier.
The former senior procurement official pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering charges between 1993 and 2005, after an OIOS investigation into the oil-for-food scandal.
"If the OIOS had caught Yakovlev in 2002 the UN perhaps would not be in the unfortunate position it is in now," he said.
Deloitte's review of UN procurement in October "lacked basic spend analysis" and recommended changes that were already under way, he added.
A 2005 review by the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing praised UN procurement for making improvements and said "excellent policy and procedures" were now in place.
Saunders said purchasing was under-staffed and overworked.
"Procurement volume more than tripled in the last five years without additional staffing. We were overstretched," he added.
He was transferred to IT after UN controller Warren Sachs assumed responsibility for procurement from assistant
secretary-general Andrew Toh in August last year. Saunders and Toh are among eight officials suspended as part of the OIOS investigation.
A UN spokesman told SM
it could not comment until the inquiry was complete.
- There will be an interview with Public Concern at Work in the next issue of SM