U.N. mission in Somalia is spending most of its millions on itself

November 28, 1993|By Mark Fineman | Mark Fineman,Los Angeles Times

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The United Nations' mission to feed and rebuild this war-ruined nation has spent more than $300 million in the last six months on its 29 foreign armies and profit-seeking First World contractors, according to documents and extensive interviews.

But the armies have failed so far to restore peace here, and the contractors have done little to reconstruct Somalia.

The United Nations' most costly and ambitious operation -- once billed as a historic blueprint for the United States and the United Nations to define a new world order of peacemaking and national reconstruction -- has spent most of those millions on itself.

In the process, business people from Canada to Saudi Arabia and from Sweden to Texas have reaped huge profits -- from a $9 million sewer system for the isolated U.N. headquarters in Mogadishu to a $2 million-a-month helicopter taxi service to ferry U.N. personnel across a city of 2 million still unsafe for commuting by land. But in the capital itself, the United Nations has not installed a single telephone wire, electrical line or sewer pipe.

Indeed, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the United Nations has spent has gone toward projects that directly benefit the Somalis, according to documents examined and interviews conducted over six months with dozens of U.N. officials, contractors and business people in Somalia, the Middle East and Europe.

Somalia, in short, offers a case study in how the United Nations and the contractors who profit from its missions in troubled lands have transformed international peace keeping into a growth industry, one that often helps the host nation least of all.

In its defense, the United Nations insists that high administrative costs are built into multinational peacekeeping. The 29,000 soldiers of the peacekeeping force from around the world need to be fed, transported and cared for in a dangerous land with little infrastructure, U.N. officials say. Besides, humanitarian and development projects are financed out of a separate budget for which international contributions are harder to come by, they said.

U.N. documents show that the largest single expenditure that the United Nations has made in Somalia -- more than $200 million since last May -- has been paid in cash to governments contributing to the peacekeeping force. The money, which mostly comes from donations by the United States and the wealthier European members of the United Nations, is a valuable source of foreign exchange for the poorer countries contributing troops, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

The documents show that disparity repeatedly: Spending on theU.N. operation itself vastly outweighs money for food, medical care, development and other humanitarian assistance for the Somalis. The U.N. peacekeeping operation spent more than $52 million to feed its troops in the past six months.

In contrast, UNICEF, the largest U.N. humanitarian agency in Somalia, is spending just $30 million for the year to vaccinate, feed and provide primary health care at hundreds of centers throughout Somalia. The U.N. Development Program spent far less in the same period on projects to redevelop the Somali economy.

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