- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

Veneman bones up

Ann M. Veneman has only been at the helm of UNICEF for four weeks, but she hit the ground running.

The former U.S. secretary of agriculture has just returned from a tour of South Africa, Swaziland and Malawi and soon will be off to tsunami-devastated Southeast Asia.

“I have discovered I have a lot to learn,” said Mrs. Veneman with a chuckle.

She told reporters Thursday that she was struck by the scope of the AIDS pandemic in southern Africa.

“It’s difficult to understand how serious the AIDS crisis is,” she said, noting that teachers, farmers and families were devastated. She was especially touched by the plight of the “old orphans” — the elderly who no longer have children or the family to care for them in their final years.

Mrs. Veneman, the fifth person to run UNICEF (all Americans), said she wants to make the Millennium Development Goals the hallmark of her tenure. The goals include reducing extreme poverty, hunger and illiteracy; curbing the spread of AIDS; and providing access to water and sanitation for all.

She said it was too soon to discuss which programs to phase out or to emphasize in the agency, which has a worldwide staff of 10,000 and a budget of $2 billion.

Mrs. Veneman told reporters that the White House and her agency are “in sync” on how to deal with such hot-button issues as sex education and condom distribution.

“UNICEF has a position of ‘ABC,’ and it’s been the position of the U.S. government,” she said, using an acronym for “abstinence, be faithful and condoms.”

Who’s going to pay?

The General Assembly remains unable to decide whether to allow Secretary-General Kofi Annan to accept a loan of $1.2 billion from the U.S. Congress to fix up the global agency’s rapidly aging headquarters.

The problem is that the money comes with an interest rate of 5.54 percent. Many disappointed U.N. members note that other host countries have built or donated U.N. headquarters and often provide upkeep as well. Switzerland, for example, subsidized the Palais des Nations in Geneva for years, even before it was a U.N. member.

The issue is so divisive that the Fifth Committee, which advises the General Assembly on management and budget issues, suggested that it put up a separate and noncontroversial $17 million appropriation for design fees for the project, called the Capital Master Plan.

That recommendation appears to have been accepted, but the Fifth Committee cannot end its work for the year until it decides whether to reject the loan outright.

“What makes this silly,” said one delegate whose country is in favor of the offer, “is that if we accept the loan, we’re not even obligated to take it. We’re just keeping our options open.” Congress says the United Nations must decide whether to take the 20-year loan by the end of the U.S. government’s fiscal year, in September.

Meanwhile, diplomats still hope that another government will come up with a cheaper loan — to be repaid by all member states at the rates of their regular budget assessments. That means that the United States would pay roughly one-fifth of principal and interest.

The master plan, including construction of a controversial office tower in midtown Manhattan, was endorsed last year by the Government Accountability Office. The Fifth Committee is to meet again tonight.

Free tours Sundays

And finally, New York visitors should know that the United Nations is offering free guided tours of its headquarters every Sunday in June — to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Charter.

The half-hour tours, a slightly abridged version of the regular paid visits, take groups past the major chambers and art works.

The unreliable heating and air conditioning, asbestos and the absence of a sprinkler system, all reasons for the total renovation of the U.N. premises cited above, are generally not mentioned on the public tours.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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