The proposed $2 billion renovation of the United Nations headquarters building in New York is proceeding with little outside oversight or control and is a case study on the need to reform U.S. foreign-aid programs, a top Republican lawmaker said yesterday.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said cost estimates for the proposed five-year project have ballooned, while U.N. officials have yet to release basic audit, contracting and procurement data.
Any U.S. contributions to the project "should be conditioned on the fact that we can see where the money goes," Mr. Coburn said in remarks yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute. "I intend to work every day in the Senate for that."
The conservative Republican teamed with Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, to sponsor a major reform of federal funding programs, including foreign aid. The bill, signed into law by President Bush in September, will create a single Web site listing the names and locations of all recipients of federal funds, including the amount received annually by program.
Under the law, the United Nations and other recipients of U.S. foreign aid will be required to provide detailed lists of where U.S. funds go, including subcontracts and loans.
Mr. Coburn said "transparency" is the key to improving the efficacy of foreign-aid spending, now amounting to over $25 billion a year, and to keeping tabs on the public and private groups that receive the money. The senator, a medical doctor who maintains his practice in addition to his Senate duties, called such mandatory disclosures "a great antiseptic" against corruption and inefficiency.
"Transparency isn't the goal. Accountability is," he said.
Mr. Coburn, former chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management, said Congress traditionally has done a poor job of monitoring how the money is spent once it funds an aid program.
Oversight is not popular, does not attract campaign donations, takes too much time and creates enemies, he said.
"Congress is also lazy," he said. "Members tend to care a whole lot more about the next election than the next generation."
But he said greater oversight of foreign-aid programs is essential because there is no chance the U.S. government will end its support of health, education and development programs around the world.
"The idea of cutting off all foreign aid is a fantasy and ought to be dropped," he said. "But we have to manage our foreign aid like a business."
Mr. Coburn said greater disclosure and transparency had already proved their worth.
Mr. Coburn's subcommittee in 2005 questioned U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officials over reports that some 93 percent of U.S. funding to fight malaria around the world was being spent on overhead and consulting, often to U.S.-based recipients, instead of actually treating patients in Africa and elsewhere.
Following reforms and new monitoring at the agency, USAID is expected to spend 70 percent of its malaria funding this fiscal year on treatment and patient care, Mr. Coburn said.
The Oklahoma lawmaker, a fierce critic of wasteful government spending, rejected the idea that the increased monitoring and record-keeping could burden aid agencies and private groups receiving U.S. foreign-aid money.
"If they don't want transparency, then they have something to hide," he said.