Calls grow for UN foreign aid cuts

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Norway has long channeled much of its foreign aid through the United Nations, but opposition parties in Parliament want to re-evaluate or cut support to UN organizations and others shown to be inefficient and having poor results. They think the government is failing to follow up on the criticism.

Norway channels a lot of its aid through UN organizations. Here, Norway's aid minister Erik Solheim (left) with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. PHOTO: United Nations

“We can’t defend supporting the organizations to taxpayers,” Peter S Gitmark, foreign aid spokesman for the Conservative Party (Høyre), told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday. He said he thinks the government is “terrible” about shifting aid funds from non-performing organizations to those that achieve better results.

Norway’s new state budget for next year earmarks nearly NOK 28 billion (USD 5 billion) in foreign aid. With a population of less than 5 million, Norway has long ranked as one of the world’s biggest donors of foreign aid on a per capita basis. Its control over aid funds, though, has come under criticism from state auditors and, now, opposition parties as well.

Roughly NOK 4.3 billion of the aid is channeled through UN organizations such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), UNICEF and the UN High Commission on Refugees. Norway is a major supporter of the UN and represented on the boards of more than 15 UN organizations.

Several of them, though, were the targets of harsh criticism in a comprehensive evaluation of their effectiveness carried out by British authorities earlier this year. Aftenposten reported that organizations including UN Habitat are now losing British support, because they failed to provide adequate value for money, while UNICEF is seeing its aid increased.

Several opposition politicians think Erik Solheim, in charge of foreign aid, needs to make foreign aid programs more accountable. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway donated NOK 87 million to UN Habitat and also to other organizations rated poorly in the British evaluation. “We must take the British evaluation seriously,” Gitmark told Aftenposten, which has been examining Norway’s foreign aid programs in recent weeks. He added that the government minister in charge of foreign aid, Erik Solheim, has been talking about moving aid to organizations that achieve better results “but his follow-up is close to zero.”

Norwegian policy, according to Berit Fladby in the Foreign Ministry where Solheim works, is to influence organizations, “not just to channel funds to them.” She said Norway needs to do its own independent evaluations of how its foreign aid is used, not just rely on the British evaluation. She noted, though, that the British study is “interesting” and that “their evaluations often are in line with Norwegian ones.”

Norway has no plans, however, to mount such a comprehensive evaluation nor reduce Norwegian support to either the UN organizations or others, according to Fladby. She did concede that the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), which is also losing British support because of inefficiencies, presents “a need for restructuring, improvement and simplification.” Its support will nonetheless be maintained, and increased.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian agency through which aid is administered (Norad), has been accused of lacking a culture for accepting criticism itself. Both Gitmark and Morten Høglund of the Progress Party want Solheim to play a tougher role in evaluating and criticizing the administration of the billions Norway gives to foreign aid.

That would please at least one dissatisfied employee at Norad itself, Rolv Bjelland. He dealt with aid to Tanzania, where he encountered corruption, but there was no one to go to with his concerns.

“I think there’s a fear that criticism of foreign aid will weaken support for it,” Bjelland told Aftenposten. “I don’t want to criticize colleagues who do their best, and I’m positive about foreign aid. We have a responsibility to help. But the lack of ability to tolerate criticism is very unfortunate.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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