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17 Mar, 2015

U.N. under fire for US$2.3 million extra costs in business and first-class travel authorisations

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and his office management staff are under fire for authorising “exceptions” to the UN’s travel policies that cost global taxpayers an additional US$ 2.3 million for business- and first-class travel in 2012-14, mostly by “prominent” persons, for UN meetings around the world.

Although the UN General Assembly had instructed Mr. Ban to put a cap on these exceptions, his own report to a UN budgetary oversight committee indicates that the number of exceptions increased by 81.4% in the two-year period ending 30 June 2014 over the corresponding two-year period ending 30 June 2012.

Including all its various components, travel is one of the highest category of UN expenses – US$769 million was incurred over the 2010-11 period, according to one official UN report. Although UN travel policies require the use of economy class for travel by staff, consultants, contractors and others attending UN meetings or on UN assignments worldwide, the UN Secretary-General is authorised to grant exceptions under specific circumstances.

This report is sourced from the following publicly available websites and documents:


The Secretary-General’s report (documents A/69/643 and A/69/643/Corr.1

Report of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ)(document A/69/787).

These “exceptions” include travel for (a) a medical condition; (b) travel of eminent persons; and (c) prominent persons; (d) arduous journeys; (e) travel undertaken to provide close protection security services; or (f) when the regular standard of accommodation was not available.

According to one official report, the UN Secretary-General does not personally authorise these exceptions. He delegates this authority to the Office of the Under-Secretary-General for Management, who has further delegated it to the Director in the Office of the Under-Secretary-General for Management. However, “the Under-Secretary-General for Management is informed on a continuous basis on exceptions to the standards of accommodation for air travel that are authorized under the applicable rules,” the report says.

Analysis of the data in the report shows that the overall number of exceptions authorized for first- and business-class travel for the UN Secretariat and its affiliated entities increased from 529 in 2010-2012 to 747 in 2012-2014, up 41.2%, with a corresponding 81.4% increase in additional travel costs from $1,268,934 to $2,301,488.

In justifying the exceptions, the UN report noted: “The prominent persons who participated in those meetings were high-level current or former government officials, distinguished academics and professors, or other individuals who made substantive contributions to those meetings at no cost to the Organization and contributed in a significant manner to their successful outcome. In addition, the prominent persons were often required to travel from distant places, and the requirement to travel in economy class would reduce their willingness to travel and participate in the meetings.”

It also noted that the higher travel costs were attributable to higher air-fares, airlines cutting back on various flight sectors for reasons of profitability, schedule changes and other vagaries in the aviation sector.

One UN report cites the 2013 Annual Statistical Report on UN Procurement as revealing that the UN Secretariat in New York was responsible for the largest total procurement volume of all UN organizations in 2012 and 2013. The value of procurement grew from $3,086,892,401 in 2012 to $3,234,861,344 in 2013. Air transportation services, fuel and petroleum products as well as food rations were the highest value acquisitions in 2013.

In another report, the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) estimates that travel expenditures (comprising costs of air tickets, lump-sum amounts, subsistence allowances, terminal expenses and shipments) for UN Headquarters, offices away from Headquarters and regional commissions for the biennium 2010-2011 were approximately $535 million; travel expenditures for special political missions for the biennium 2010-2011 amounted to $40 million; and for peacekeeping missions, the expenditures amounted to $91 million and $103 million for the financial years ended 30 June 2010 and 30 June 2011, respectively. The total travel expenditures for the United Nations over a two-year period were therefore estimated at some $769 million.

However, it notes that “it has been difficult to obtain consolidated and comprehensive data on air travel expenditures across the United Nations, owing to limitations in information systems.”

Another report by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ABACQ) expressed its concern thus: “Given the absence of reliable information on travel expenditures, it is not clear how travel expenditures are monitored and managed, oversight exercised, accountability of managers ensured, or assurance given as to the effectiveness of internal controls.”

One report dated 05 December 2014 detailed all the exceptions and categories for upgraded travel. It showed that the exceptions provided to “eminent persons” were all for present or former heads of government/state. But the exceptions provided to “prominent persons” was much less clear.

They included, for example, ministers as well as members of the Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, members of the Peacebuilding Fund Advisory Group, members of the Advisory Board on Human Security, members of the High-level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows, a Personal Assistant to the former President of South Africa, a Bollywood actress, a film producer and assortment of ambassadors, professors and others.

Perhaps the most glaring instance is a listing of 38 exceptions for travelling companions of Members of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Security officers accompanying prominent and eminent persons were also provided exceptions.

In a meeting on 4 March 2015, members of the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee, which oversees budgetary matters, indicated that they were not satisfied. As part of the UN’s commitment to transparency, an unofficial record of the meeting was circulated, with the headline clearly saying that the committee “Seeks More Air Travel Accountability, Transparency Standards for Air Travel.”

The record said Christian Saunders, Director of the Office of the Under-Secretary-General, Department of Management, introduced the Secretary-General’s report, which provided information for the two-year period ending 30 June 2014 and comparative statistics for the two-year period ending 30 June 2012, as well as trend analysis for the past 10 years.

Mr. Saunders noted the General Assembly’s request, in resolution 67/254, for the Secretary-General to modify his administrative instruction on standards of accommodation for air travel, so that the duration of a journey would be determined based on the most economical route available, provided the total additional time did not exceed the most direct route by four hours.

He pointed out that the Assembly had also endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of ACABQ that would establish economy class as the standard of accommodation for air travel for consultants and individual contractors, unless determined otherwise by the Secretary-General, to which end a new administrative instruction on official travel had been promulgated by the Under-Secretary-General for Management.

The Assembly had additionally requested that action be taken to limit the increasing number of exceptions to the standards. The report included detailed analysis and explanations of those movements, as well as their additional costs.

The following is a verbatim quote from the UN-circulated public record on the comments and responses by the Fifth Committee members:

Open quote

Mr. RUIZ MASSIEU, weighing in on the related ACABQ report, pointed out that the continued increase in the requests for exceptions to the standards did not fulfil the request of the General Assembly in resolution 67/254 to limit their use. As the growth in those exceptions was principally due to exceptions in the prominent traveller category, the Advisory Committee believed that a clear definition and common set of criteria for determining prominent status should be established and that the Secretary-General be requested to submit proposals for the Assembly’s consideration.

Further, he said that the narrow focus of the report, devoted almost exclusively to the presentation of exceptions to the standards of accommodation for air travel, no longer met the requirements of the Assembly. The detailed information on the exceptions authorized must be accompanied by data on the overall travel activity and related costs to provide a full picture of the situation and allow meaningful analysis of trends. In addition, more data and analysis on the financial impact of the decisions taken in resolutions 65/268 and 67/254 regarding those standards should be provided.

He noted that the Secretariat had indicated that it had been unable to provide detailed travel statistics due to the limitations of current systems, but that the required data would become available following implementation of the travel module of Umoja, (a new UN system-wide procurement system) planned for the end of 2015. Thus, he recommended that the Secretary-General should be requested to broaden the scope and enhance the content of his report to include, in addition to the data currently provided on authorized exceptions, comprehensive information on Secretariat-wide air travel activity and costs under all sources of funding, taking into account the provisions and requests contained in previous Assembly resolutions, as well as relevant observations and recommendations of oversight bodies.

LYLE DAVIDSON (South Africa), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77”, stressed the importance of effective and efficient utilization of resources for air travel in the United Nations. However, it was disappointing that much of the information requested by the Assembly in successive resolutions had not been provided, he said, noting that the Group would seek further information on the exploration of possible options for the procurement of air travel.

It would also seek clarification from the Secretariat on the feasibility of continuing the relationship with the current vendor in view of the findings of the 2009 OIOS audit. Any policy changes and new formulations in the area of standards of accommodation of air travel, like other management and financial issues, continued to remain the exclusive prerogative of the Fifth Committee and the General Assembly.

FRANCESCO PRESUTTI, of the European Union Delegation, said greater operational efficiency of United Nations travel practices was a major component of the modernization of the Organization. The Union consistently encouraged the Secretary-General to take practical measures in that regard. It appeared that some long-standing weakness of the Organization was hampering the optimal use of resources.

The partial, narrow data presented was far from comforting, citing an increase of 81.4 per cent in additional travel costs, mostly through recourse to the prominent persons category, he said. The Organization must develop a system where not only travel expenditures were monitored and oversight was exercised, but above all, the accountability of managers was strengthened to guarantee a more judicious use of funds. That was the only way to ensure that Member States’ expectations were met and the policies approved were effectively implemented.

HIROSHI ONUMA (Japan) said that in order for the Committee to discuss the agenda item in a more comprehensive manner, further information from the Secretariat was needed on industry best practices in the areas of frequent flyer miles, actions taken to limit the use of first and business class travel exceptions and the results of the review of the exceptions for prominent persons. Japan also expected to receive more convincing and concrete justifications and criteria from the Secretariat for the increase in the use of those exceptions. Supporting the general views of the Advisory Committee’s report, he wished that informal consultations would deepen the points of discussion it raised.

CHERITH NORMAN CHALET (United States) expressed appreciation for the Secretary-General’s swift implementation of the changes adopted by Member States during the General Assembly’s sixty-seventh session by issuing a revised administration instruction in 2013. However, she was disappointed that the momentum for change brought forth from decisions taken two years ago had not been carried forward to its full extent. The United States was deeply concerned by the lack of consolidated and comprehensive data on air travel expenditures, despite the Assembly’s requests year after year, she said, noting that, without such data, it was not clear how the United Nations monitored expenditures or held managers accountable.

The United States also shared a concern voiced in the Advisory Committee’s report regarding the increase in the number of exemptions the Secretary-General granted for business class travel. The 68 per cent increase was counterproductive to the positive changes the Secretary-General had proposed. Further recalibration of lump-sum payment policies was necessary to better align with best practices and would lead to significant savings. She encouraged the Secretary-General to continue to find ways to more judiciously utilize air travel resources.

End quote

The Advisory Committee has told the secretariat that it expects to see a more effective and efficient utilization of resources for air travel, including availability and accessibility of detailed information on travel activity and costs, following the long-delayed implementation of the travel module of Umoja, a system-wide UN procurement system to be deployed across the Secretariat, including field missions, by the end of 2015.

Says the committee’s report, “The Advisory Committee trusts that such information will include, inter alia, comprehensive information on the volume, frequency, purpose and class of air travel (first/business/economy), the number of trips undertaken by department/office/mission, actual and planned costs, compliance with approved travel rules, such as advance purchase and authorized class of air travel, as well as information on individual travel requests, travel plans and travel expenses, such as date of booking, travel dates, itinerary and number of travel days, category of personnel, and the nature of the business being conducted.”

It also suggests taking a look at the overall necessity of travel and for “other means of representation and methods of communication” to be explored, too.

Says the report, “The Advisory Committee reiterates that resources for official travel should be utilized judiciously in the interest of the Organization and that before official travel is authorized as a means to implement mandated activities, full account of its cost-effectiveness and the impact on productivity resulting from prolonged absences from the office while travelling should be taken into account to determine whether other means of representation and methods of communication can be utilized instead. The Committee also emphasizes that the primary consideration in authorizing official travel should be whether direct face-to-face contact is necessary for mandate implementation. If not, then alternative methods should be employed.”