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How UNEP bosses spent Sh5.8bn on travel in 2 years

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

Top managers of Nairobi based UN Environment (Unep) spent Sh5.8 billion ($58.5 million) travelling over a two-year period that culminated in last week’s ousting of its executive director, Erik Solheim.

An audit report seen by the Business Daily paints a picture of an organisation that broke its own governance rules with impunity.

“The OIOS (Office of Internal Oversight Services) review of relevant correspondence displayed a culture of scant regard for internal controls and existing rules which are established to ensure responsible use of public funds,” states the report.

The audit, which covered January 2016 to March 2018, shows an organisation whose own managers had little regard for established processes leading to wastage of millions of dollars.

Some senior staff were, for instance, allowed to operate from Unep’s Paris office despite being officially known to be working in Nairobi. The officials continued to draw residential allowances despite offering no evidence of their residence in Nairobi.

During the period under review Unep spent Sh2.9 billion ($29,122.969) to facilitate travel of non-staff while the staff used Sh2.9 billion.

Boss was 'chief culprit'

The report says Mr Solheim, who should have been guiding the organisation, was the chief culprit — often dismissing questions raised by the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) travel office as stupid and encouraged other staff to wilfully break the existing rules and explain later.

Mr Solheim resigned last week after receiving the final audit report on UNON’s staff travels.

Two days after his appointment as Unep chief, he embarked on a globe-trotting spree that saw him spend Sh48.9 million ($488,519) between May 2016 and March 2018. During this period Mr Solheim spent 529 days travelling, staying away from his duty station for 79 per cent of the time.

In July 2016, two days after joining Unep, Mr Solheim, who is referred to in the audit report as senior manager, travelled to Paris for a one-day official meeting but stayed on for a month. He then accounted for only nine days as leave days.

During this leg of travel, Mr Solheim visited six cities in North and South America that cost Unep Sh1.5 million ($14,515). In August and September, he travelled for 42 days to 24 destinations at a cost of ($53,142) to Unep and during this period rerouted his trips eight times from various destinations to either Paris or Oslo.

Mr Solheim, for instance, travelled to Oslo from Nairobi and stayed for four days while his official destination was stated as Addis Ababa, just two hours from Nairobi. Unep told auditors that Mr Solheim had meetings in Oslo but did not offer any information on the nature, purpose or outcome of the meetings.

Other trips and re-routings of his destinations to either Oslo or Paris were from Abidjan, Honolulu, Beijing and Brussels. Unep provided little information or no documentation regarding the trips.

Appetite for luxury

Mr Solheim is also described in the report as a man with huge appetite for luxurious airlines and who never stopped to think of the impact of his travels on Unep finances.

On June 7, 2017, for instance, he travelled from New York to Oslo using one of the most expensive airlines that charged Sh662,800 ($6,628) despite the availability of a less expensive one that was priced at Sh159,900 ($1,599).

On June 30, he changed to an even more expensive option that was priced at Sh731,000 ($7,310) from a cheaper airline priced at Sh185,500 ($1,855) without any valid justification.

Yet another Unep manager spent 331 days on travel between June 2016 and March 2018 at a cost of Sh8.3 million ($82,687) and out of which 215 were spent in the manager’s home country.

Mr Solheim, who described himself as revolutionary by nature, once advised his staff that ‘it is better to ask for forgiveness for making mistakes than to wait for clearance for everything in a dysfunctional bureaucracy’.

“These actions and behaviours by Unep senior management encouraged a culture of impunity, incited the violation of rules governing the use of the organisation’s resources,” the report says.

The report says a former executive director of Unep had in 2002 issued a memo requiring all staff to prepare mission reports during trips to enhance accountability, prevent duplication of work and help in follow-up but the practice was abandoned under Mr Solheim.

For instance, out of 596 travels by 32 managers and staff at a cost of Sh158.7million ($1,587,171) only 186 reports were prepared and another 200 were only prepared after request by the auditors.

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