Embattled UNEP head refunds travel expenses


Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). AFP PHOTO

Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who is under investigations for incurring multiple and unnecessary travel expenses, has admitted to refunding part of his travel expenses that auditors had flagged even as he insists he has committed no offence to warrant his exit.

Mr Solheim says in an email sent to UNEP staff that the audit of UN Environment travel processes is not an investigation.

His response came after the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) reported that it had unearthed massive wastage at UNEP, notably to interrogate the extensive travel by three senior managers that has resulted in total travel costs of Sh74 million.

“The Office of Internal Oversight Services earlier this year investigated all my travels in great detail and found three instances of oversight out of all of them. The money was refunded immediately. Better administrative control systems would have helped avoid these mistakes in the first place,” Mr Solheim said in an email seen by the Business Daily.

The Unep boss makes clear his intention to stay put, insisting that he will accept personal responsibility even as he ‘immediately refines this process going forward’’.

The OIOS in its report recommended that Mr Solheim refunds “all travel costs and related staff time not accounted for and all additional costs incurred by UNEP as a result of uneconomical and inefficient decisions made by management”.

Just 22 months since Mr Solheim took over from Achim Steiner as the Executive Director of Nairobi-based UN Environment, a report has been published saying he pays too little attention to the environment, the regulations and the budget of his office.

Mr Solheim incurred $488,519 in travel expenses between May 2016 and March 2018, spent 529 days of his 22 months as head of UN Environment globetrotting, “resulting in an absence rate of 79 per cent from his duty station.

The UNEP chief travelled extensively around the world, visiting top cities such as Paris, France and his home country, Norway.

Meanwhile, another senior official of the UN agency referred to in the report as Manager B, is said to have spent 349 days in travel between August 2016 and March 2018, spending $95,343.

Mr Solheim has, however, sought to downplay the report and to justify the travel expenditure incurred.

He notes that as a team working on urgent environmental challenges the job ‘‘requires global commitment to unprecedented action, driven by new levels of personal action and political will’’.

The UNEP boss reckons that real results could only be obtained in close dialogue with member states, businesses and civil society. He downplays the leaked audit report as ‘draft notes’ that laid ground for consultations between the Office of Internal Oversight Services and UN Environment, adding that it may contain misunderstandings or inaccuracies.

“I ask that you keep in mind that many of the findings are in the process of validation. We are now awaiting a first draft of the report for our comments prior to the report being finalised,” says Mr Solheim.