UNICEF Should Open Its Books

By The Irrawaddy 22 May 2014

If UNICEF wants the Myanmar government to be transparent, it should first be open about its own office rent.

The Myanmar government is often criticized for lack of transparency about its budgets—and international agencies frequently make suggestions about how government money could be better used. UNICEF itself put out a fantastic report a couple of months ago suggesting how more of Myanmar’s natural resource revenue should be used for child welfare. And it has done some great reviews of social sector spending, recommending that the government should be more transparent. Overall, it is a good principle that the first step in being accountable is to open up to scrutiny about how your money is being used.

UNICEF representative to Myanmar Bertrand Bainvel responded yesterday to Irrawaddy reports that they were spending $90,000 per month on their Yangon office rent. But strangely Mr Bainvel didn’t respond to the central question—is UNICEF actually paying that much? It seems they are reluctant to reveal the actual figure.

Which strikes me as an odd contradiction—on one hand, the UNICEF is advocating for transparency and accountability in Myanmar government budgeting. And they are certainly not afraid to give the government advice about how its money could be better used. Yet on the other hand, they are reluctant about opening up their own accounts to the Myanmar public—and seem prickly about anyone suggesting how they might spend their money more wisely.

UNICEF does indeed do “lifesaving work” for children in Myanmar. But we shouldn’t forget it needs to be accountable to those same children and families. In this sense, it is not Mr. Bainvel and his colleagues who can definitively say what is “wise” or a “good deal” related to office rent, but Myanmar citizens themselves. UNICEF’s budget—including salaries and office rents and any connections to people in the former regime—should be able to hold up to public debate, otherwise it is making the very same mistakes as the Myanmar government.

The fact is that transparency is always uncomfortable—no one likes scrutiny over how they are spending their money. But it is also the beginning of real accountability.

We all hope that the Myanmar government becomes more and more transparent with its money. And that it begins to make the welfare of children its highest priority.

But surely transparency starts with us.

What started with an issue of UNICEF office rent actually points to a much larger question of accountability.

Tamas Wells

Editor – Paung Ku Forum