UN agency involved in travel scandal

UN agency involved in travel scandal
UNEP is a global environmental authority and is headquartered in Nairobi. [File, Standard]

In summary

  • UNEP Executive Director was away from headquarters for 79 per cent of his work period and incurred travel costs of Sh48 million
  • Staff members reportedly took advantage of system to go for personal engagements using agency’s budget

A scam is brewing at the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) involving gross travel waste to the tune of Sh5.9 billion in a span of two years.

In an audit review of 27,458 trips made between 2016 and 2018 at the Gigiri-based organisation, Executive Director was away from headquarters for 529 out of 668 days – 79 percent of his work period.

He alone incurred travel costs of Sh48,851,800.  

“The manager travelled extensively across the continents, making several trips and stops in Paris, France, as well as his home country, Norway. In total, the manager spent 90 days in Paris and Oslo, but did not provide details or mission reports for 76 of those days to demonstrate relevance of travel,” the auditsays. 

Travelled extensively

Another manager who spent almost Sh10 million on travel in Paris responded by saying she was involved in intergovernmental negotiations, organising summits and engagements with partners and celebrities without giving a time frame or details of how the travel benefited the agency. 

Even though Nairobi is her work station, the manager is said to have spent most of her work hours in Paris. She stated that she had family ties in Paris and her stay there was extensive, lasting between three to four weeks, broken by short stays in her duty station, Nairobi of two to four days, before returning to Paris. 

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The Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) that conducted the audit highlights errors in the computation of travel related benefits and improper documentation to justify the travels.

“There was lack of accountability and transparency in utilisation of travel related expenses as some staff did not account for their trips using mission reports.

“Instances of possible mismanagement because of questionable travel expenditure incurred by three senior members of staff expenses were also noted and a trend analysis indicated that there were possible inefficiencies due to increased travel costs against declining programme performance,” read part of the audit.

It details different forms of mismanagement, ranging from taking expensive flight options that shot their budget by millions, rerouting trips to countries outside their planned destinations, undocumented bilateral talk meetings, and weekend travels that were not approved.

It also shows that most of the staff members were using vague statements such as “going on official duty” or “engaging in bilateral meetings” to justify their travels.

OIOS identified 31 trips where travel advance paid to staff was more than the computed amount shown in the travel request. The review was undertaken from UN Gigiri office in Nairobi and focused on official travel only, excluding entitlement travel, human resource travel and travel of uniformed personnel.

Stefan Smith, the United Nations Executive Office communication officer said OIOS routinely conducts checks into a variety of issues, and the purpose of the audit is to follow up preliminary findings and seek confirmation of facts and solicit views on findings and practicality of suggested actions.”

“The document is therefore subject to change based on new evidence and outcome with the auditee,” he said, adding that Unep is not able to give detailed comments on the matter.

The audit also identified 1,442 trips whose travel advances were paid several weeks in advance of travel dates, with a quarter of them paid over one month before the commencement of the trip. By the time of completion of the audit, a total of 9.8 million shillings could not be accounted for.

It comprised excess cash not banked by the travel administrators, un-submitted documents to account for outstanding funds, and documents submitted but pending records update. 

Employees’ trips

Questions on the authenticity of some of the documents the staff members submitted also arose as they were submitted more than two years after the employees had returned from the said trips.  

In some instances, travel administrators received large amounts of cash, with some receiving more than Sh30 million to distribute to the conference participants.

“Outstanding balances from each administrator were also large, with the 10 highest balances totaling to an an average of Sh4.5 million per administrator. Because of the large amounts owed, recovery of outstanding balances from staff salaries was difficult as the salaries of the administrators were significantly less than what was owed,” says the audit. The agency incurred Sh2.3 million in cancellation fees charged by the travel agents as well as cost of non-refundable tickets for 797 cancelled flights processed by UNON and UNOG only.

“Nine of the 72 staff who responded to OIOS were unaware that their tickets were cancelled and of the financial implication of making itinerary changes,” the audit reports. 

Smith says OIOS note will be followed by a draft report, and then a final report that will incorporate a formal management response from UNEP. This final report will be made public on the OIOS website.

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