Daily Archives: December 5, 2017

Concerns Raised about Service Quality, Failure to Meet Investment Return Target, as Fifth Committee Discusses United Nations Pension Fund Budget

With the assets of the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund totalling a record $62 billion at the end of October, delegates today expressed concern over the quality of service it provided to its more than 200,000 participants, as well as its failure in 2016 to meet its return‑on‑investment target, as the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) took up the Fund’s proposed budget for the biennium 2018‑2019.

With officials of the Fund making the case for a bigger budget to hire more staff to service an ever‑growing worldwide clientele, speakers also emphasized the need for transparency and for strong risk management, including anti‑fraud measures, for the entity that extends pensions and benefits for the United Nations and 23 other international organizations.

Ecuador’s representative, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, called attention to the fact that the Fund’s inflation‑adjusted real return on investment in 2016 was 3.1 per cent ‑ below the stipulated benchmark of 3.5 per cent.  She urged the Fund to make every effort to meet the benchmark, while at the same time adopting measures to strengthen risk management and control processes.

In the same vein, she called for the Secretary‑General to establish a comprehensive anti‑fraud policy that would better address the risk of fraud in managing the Fund’s investment portfolio.  The Group also took special note of the excessive manual interventions within the Integrated Pension Administration System and urged the Fund to explore ways of further automating the system.

“We must remember that clients pay us for our thinking, our opinion and our point of view,” she said, underscoring the need for a clearly thought out and inclusive approach to addressing the concerns of the Fund’s clients, wherever they might be in the world.  The Group thus encouraged the Fund’s plans to use flexible resources to address peaks in work load and to deliver special projects, thus avoiding increased long‑term fixed costs.  She welcomed the Fund’s climate change investments, as well as a 6.2 per cent increase in investment of funds in developing countries in the year that ended on 31 December 2016, a trend that the Group encouraged.

The representative of the United States, emphasizing the importance of transparency and accountability, welcomed the Board of Auditors’ certification of the Fund’s financial statements, but voiced concern about the slow implementation rate of that Board’s recommendations.  “My delegation has further concerns about the systemic delays in benefit payments,” she said, adding: “United Nations beneficiaries deserve better.”   While noting that the Fund had taken steps to reduce the backlog, she urged it to address the serious issues surrounding client services and the need to establish a centralized system to register queries.

In that context, she underscored her delegation’s support for the Board of Auditor’s recommendation that the Fund create a client grievance redressal mechanism and include procedures for indexing, segregating, prioritizing and monitoring the queries.  The Fund must also strengthen its internal controls to ensure the accuracy of data before sending them for the actuarial valuation and the need to carry out a fresh actuarial valuation as of 31 December 2017, she added.

Annick Vanhoutte, Chairman of the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Board, laid out the Board’s report on the Fund’s administrative expenses, noted that the Fund was paying around $2.5 billion a year to more than 74,000 retirees and beneficiaries, in addition to servicing more than 128,000 active participants.  With net assets of $62 billion at the end of October, “the Fund continues to be in a sound financial and operational situation with an actuarial surplus and a fully funded status,” she said.

She discussed in detail the Fund’s proposed budget for biennium 2018‑2019, saying it sought to ensure timely processing of pension benefits while strengthening the Fund’s client servicing capacity.  As things now stood, the Fund had too few staff to attend to the needs of more than 200,000 clients, she said, warning that downsizing initiatives by the United Nations and other organizations would increase the Fund’s workload.

The Fund’s proposed budget for the biennium 2018‑2019 totalled $194.67 million, representing an increase of $14.44 million before re‑costing, or 8 per cent, reflecting higher administrative, investment and audit costs.  Having operated with minimal resources for many years, and with an aging and more disperse clientele, the Fund needed resources to build and improve its client servicing capacity, she said, adding that additional resources for General Temporary Assistance would enable the Fund to create a flexible temporary work force to address surges in volume, cyclical operational peaks and unforeseen events.

Bettina Tucci Bartsiotas, Assistant Secretary‑General and Controller of the United Nations, introducing the Secretary‑General’s report on the administrative and financial implications arising from the Pension Board’s report, said the Organization’s share of administrative and audit costs related to the Fund was $22.9 million, including $14.6 million for the regular budget and $8.3 million for the funds and programmes, based on the latest data on the number of Fund participants.

Presenting the Board of Auditors’ report on the Fund’s financial report and audited financial statement for the year ending 31 December 2016, Anand M. Bajaj, Director of External Audit of India and Chair of the Audit Operations Committee of the Board of Auditors, said the Fund needed to strengthen risk management and control processes.  Among other things, he said, it should also take steps to improve performance of its investments and reduce foreign exchange losses and improve the processing of pension benefits and client services, particularly in redressing the complaints of beneficiaries.

Paul Dooley, Deputy Secretary of the Pension Board, introducing a report on implementation of the Board of Auditors’ recommendations for the year ended 31 December 2016, said all 21 recommendations related to the previous three financial periods were under implementation as of 31 December 2016.  Outstanding recommendations related to issues that required major structural changes and the participation of external organizations, he added.

Babou Sene, Vice‑Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introduced its corresponding report, underscoring the importance of the Fund meeting its target annual real rate of return of 3.5 per cent over the long term.  The Advisory Committee also noted the persistent problem of delays in processing pension benefits.  Turning to the proposed resources for 2018‑2019, of the nine proposed new posts in the Fund’s secretariat, the Advisory Committee believed the Fund should focus instead on improving its operations, he said.

In other business, the Fifth Committee took up the Secretary‑General’s progress report on the construction of new office facilities at the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, including an update on renovations to Africa Hall.  Mr. Dooley expressed confidence that the project would be completed as planned in 2021 within the $56.9 million budget set by the General Assembly.  In its corresponding report, the Advisory Committee said every effort should be made to welcome a wide variety of visitors to Africa Hall, irrespective of their capacity to pay.

“It is not only a conference facility availed to the international community, but it is also a historical icon symbolizing the long journey of the African people from the struggle of political independence to socio‑economic development,” Ethiopia’s representative said, adding that measures to eliminate physical, communication and technical barriers for persons with disabilities as well as safety standards must be incorporated into the work ahead.

The Fifth Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 7 December to discuss a proposal for the replacement of office blocks A‑J at the United Nations Office in Nairobi and revised estimates relating to the Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocate.

United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund

ANNICK VANHOUTTE, Chairman of the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Board, presented the Board’s report on the Fund’s administrative expenses (document A/72/383), which covered the Fund’s estimated expenditure and performance report for the biennium 2016‑2017 and its proposed budget estimates for 2018‑2019.  She noted that the Fund was providing pensions and other benefit payments to more than 74,000 retirees and beneficiaries from 23 member organizations, a number expected to grow to more than 85,000 by 2020.  Annual benefit payments were currently in the order of $2.5 billion, she said, adding that the Fund was also servicing more than 128,000 active participants, bringing the total number of clients to more than 200,000.  Net assets as of October 2017 stood at $62 billion.

She said the proposed budget sought to ensure timely processing of pension benefits while strengthening the Fund’s client servicing capacity.  Currently, there were too few staff to tend to the needs of more than 200,000 clients.  A Budget Working Group established by the Pension Board determined that over the previous five biennia, the workload of the Fund’s secretariat had outpaced the increase in the number of staff.  It also noted that downsizing initiatives by the United Nations and other member organizations would increase the Fund’s workload.  “Recently achieved servicing rates would not be met or maintained if the human and other resources supported by the Working Group in the budget request were not to be approved,” she said, adding that the Pension Board had approved all of the Budget Working Group’s recommendations.

Summarizing the Fund’s administrative expenses, she said total expenditure for the biennium 2016‑2017 was estimated at $175.17 million, compared with General Assembly approved appropriations totalling $180.22 million.  The budget for the biennium 2018‑2019, as recommended by the Pension Board, totalled $194.67 million, representing an increase of $14.44 million before re‑costing, or 8 per cent, reflecting higher administrative, investment and audit costs.  The United Nations share of the budget would be $22.88 million.  Having operated with minimal resources for many years, and with an aging and more disperse clientele, the Fund was requesting the resources it needed to build and improve its client servicing capacity, she said.  In that regard, the Fund intended to separate client services in New York from its operations in New York from biennium 2018‑2019, with client services headed by a senior manager at the D‑1 level.  The Fund would also leverage technology to achieve more with less, she said, adding that the budget proposal for 2018‑2019 also covered several pilot initiatives, such as a call centre in New York, a liaison office in Nairobi, extensive outreach missions, a new client‑friendly website and a member self‑service portal.

Most of the requests for additional resources were for General Temporary Assistance, enabling the Fund to create a flexible temporary workforce to address surges in volume, cyclical operational peaks and unforeseen events, she said, emphasizing that the Fund must build on the successful implementation of the Integrated Pension Administration System and achieve that system’s full potential.  She went on to note that the Fund had received an unqualified audit opinion on its financial statements from the United Nations Board of Auditors, adding: “The Fund continues to be in a sound financial and operational situation with an actuarial surplus and a fully funded status.”

BETTINA TUCCI BARTSIOTAS, Assistant Secretary‑General and Controller of the United Nations, introduced the Secretary‑General’s report (document A/C.5/72/2) on the administrative and financial implications arising from the report of the Pension Board.  She said the United Nations share of the administrative and audit costs related to the Fund was $22.9 million, including $14.6 million for the regular budget and $8.3 million for the funds and programmes, based on the latest data on the number of Fund participants.

However, at the time of the preparation of the 2018‑2019 proposed programme budget, the proposed budget of the Fund had not been finalized and the amount for the United Nations share that was used during the preparations was $22.3 million, she said.  Pending finalization, an estimated $14.5 million after recosting was included as the regular budget portion under section 1 of the 2018‑2019 proposed programme budget, including $7.8 million for the funds and programmes.  With the proposed increase of the United Nations share to $22.9 million, the regular budget share had increased $51,700 from the initial provision of $14.5 million.  She said that should the General Assembly approve the proposals and recommendations of the Pension Board, an additional appropriation of $51,700 would be required under section 1, Overall policymaking, direction and coordination, which would represent a charge against the contingency fund.

ANAND M. BAJAJ, Director of External Audit of India and Chair of the Audit Operations Committee of the Board of Auditors, presented the Board’s report on the Fund’s financial report and audited financial statements for the year that ended on 31 December 2016 (document A/72/5/Add.16).  The Fund had obtained a unqualified audit opinion that confirmed that the financial statements presented fairly the Fund’s financial position as of 31 December 2016 and its financial performance and cash flows in accordance with the International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) and International Accounting Standards 26.

“The Fund needs to strengthen the risk management and control processes besides the investment strategy to achieve the minimum long‑term required return of 3.5 per cent to achieve fully funded status,” he said.  The Fund should also take steps to improve performance of its investments and reduce foreign exchange losses; improve the processing of pension benefits and client services, particularly in redressing the complaints of beneficiaries; work with member organizations to expedite the receipt of the documents required for calculating and awarding pension benefits, and streamline the procedures for obtaining the certificates of entitlement and reconciliation of contributions received from those organizations.  As of 31 December 2016, the net assets available for benefits in the Fund stood at $54.49 billion, up $2.36 billion from 2015.  Total income in 2016 was $4.94 billion, comprising $2.67 billion in investment income and $2.27 billion in contributions.  The nominal Fund return for 2016 was 5.19 per cent.

The report also found that Article 12 of the Regulations, Rules and Pension Adjustment System of the Fund provided that the Pension Board should have an actuarial valuation made of the Fund at least one in three years, he said.  Based on examination of the actuarial valuation, the Board found anomalies in the data supplied to actuaries for making calculations.  The number of participants as per financial statements of 2015 was 126,992 whereas the actuaries report cited the number as 114,375.  Therefore, the Board opined that the valuation done by the actuary was based on inconsistent data and, therefore, not reliable.  The Fund decided to not use that valuation for disclosure and instead rolled forward the previous actuarial valuation as on 31 December 2015 to 31 December 2016.  Concerning benefits payment management, in 2016 the Fund processed 27 per cent of cases within the benchmark of 15 business days.  However, 333 cases took more than a year for processing.  The Pension Board had followed up on its 26 outstanding recommendations as of 31 December 2015, but only five had been fully implemented and 21 were being implemented.  The Pension Board had made 20 recommendations in the present report.

PAUL DOOLEY, Deputy Secretary of the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Board, introduced its report on the Pension Board’s Secretary document A/72/364) on implementation of the recommendations of the Board of Auditors contained in its report for the year ended 31 December 2016 on the Fund.  The Secretary’s report provided further information to the comments already submitted to the Board of Auditors by the Fund’s management and information on the status of implementation, the department responsible, estimated completion date and the priority date for each recommendation.

The Fund accepted all recommendations made by the Board of Auditors for the financial period 2016 and had made every effort to ensure their implementation within the specified timetables as requested by the General Assembly, he said.  All 21 of the recommendations related to the previous three financial periods were under implementation as of 31 December 2016.  As noted in report A/72/5/Add.16, outstanding recommendations related to issues that required major structural changes and the participation of external organizations.

The target dates defined by the Fund’s secretariat recognized the need to obtain the approval for the required resources and implement complex and multi‑year projects that would impact various stakeholders, he said.  The budget proposal for the Fund secretariat requested resources to strengthen its core benefit processing and client services functions with the creation of a client services manager position, flexible resources to address peaks in workload and the procurement of a client relationship management system.  Those resources would enable the Fund to further sustain the progress achieved in terms of benefit processing times and the management of client queries, he said, noting that processing times had improved steadily since the beginning of 2016 and the Fund had implemented new client servicing mechanisms.

The Investment Management Division had made material progress in addressing open audit recommendations, he said.  The Fund had exceeded its targeted long‑term real rate of return of 3.5 per cent on a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 15, 20, 25 and 50‑year basis as of 30 September 2017.  All the Division’s senior vacancies had been filled and a succession plan had been implemented.  A currency study and a review of the cash requirements of various currencies would be completed by the end of 2017.  Risk management had been enhanced; the fixed‑incomed strategy reviewed resulting in improved performance for that asset class relative to benchmark.  A target operating model study had been completed, resulting in a new information and communications technology roadmap, which was being implemented.

BABOU SENE, Vice‑Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introduced its corresponding report (document A/72/7/Add.23), emphasizing the importance of the Fund meeting its target annual real rate of return of 3.5 per cent over the long term.  Regarding foreign currency losses, the Advisory Committee encouraged the Fund to finalize its planned study and work closely with the Board of Auditors to mitigate the related exposures.  The Advisory Committee noted the persistent problem of delays in processing pension benefits and recalled that the General Assembly had stressed the need to take appropriate steps to ensure that the Fund addressed the causes of the delays.  The Advisory Committee also noted the anomalies in the actuarial valuation for 2016 as reported by the Board of Auditors, and expected that additional care would be taken in the future so that accurate data was provided for the purposes of future actuarial valuations.

Regarding the proposed resources for 2018‑2019, of the nine proposed new posts in the Fund’s secretariat, the Advisory Committee believed the Fund should focus on improving its operations, he said.  The Advisory Committee therefore recommended against the establishment of three posts in the clients and outreach services — one post of Chief of Services (D‑1), one post of Senior Public Information Officer (P‑5), and one Benefits Officer (P‑3).  Further, the Advisory Committee recommended that one requested post of Benefits Officer (P‑3) be created as a general temporary assistance‑funded position in the new regional centre located in Nairobi.  On the cost‑sharing arrangement between the Pension Fund and the United Nations, the Advisory Committee recommended that the General Assembly request the Secretary‑General to prepare a comprehensive analysis of the services provided by the Fund on behalf of the United Nations and vice‑versa, with a view to putting in place a cost‑sharing arrangement that better reflected reality.

LOURDES PEREIRA SOTOMAYOR (Ecuador), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, noted that the Fund’s inflation‑adjusted real return on investment in 2016 was 3.1 per cent, below the stipulated benchmark of 3.5 per cent.  The Fund was therefore urged to make every effort to meet the benchmark while adopting measures to strengthen risk management and control processes, she said, calling also for the Secretary‑General to establish a comprehensive anti‑fraud policy that would better address the risk of fraud in managing the Fund’s investment portfolio.  On the findings of the Board of Auditors, she said the Group took special note of the excessive manual interventions within the Integrated Pension Administration System and urged the Fund to explore ways of further automating the system.

“We must remember that clients pay us for our thinking, our opinion and our point of view,” she said, underscoring the need for a clearly thought out and inclusive approach to addressing client concerns.  The Group thus encouraged the Fund’s plans to use flexible resources to address peaks in work load and to deliver special projects, thus avoiding increased long‑term fixed costs.  A continuous effort of innovation and industry would enable the Fund to maintain and improve on processing times achieved in the previous biennium, she said, noting the Fund’s intention to separate client services from operations.

She conveyed the Group’s disappointment that only five of the 26 recommendations made by the Board of Auditors had been fully implemented, and reiterated the need to implement all recommendations expeditiously.  With regard to actuarial valuation, she noted anomalies in the data supplied to actuaries for making calculations for the 2016 financial statements.  Given the important role played by actuarial valuations in ascertaining the level of the Fund’s pension obligations and corresponding return objectives, she said the Group would seek more clarification from the Secretariat on how to avoid such an incident in the future.  She welcomed the Fund’s climate change investments as well as a 6.2 per cent increase in investment of funds in developing countries in the year that ended on 31 December 2016, a trend that the Group encouraged, paying due regard to safety, profitability, liquidity and convertibility.

CHERITH NORMAN‑CHALET (United States) said that her delegation firmly believed that transparency and accountability were essential to the Fund’s benefits payment and administration and stressed that proper management and oversight of the Fund, including its investments, operations and client services, were therefore critical.  While positively noting the Board of Auditors’ certification of the Fund’s financial statements, she expressed concern about the slow implementation rate of that Board’s recommendations.  All 18 of the Board’s recommendations remained in progress, while 21 of its recommendations from prior periods were not yet fully implemented.  “My delegation has further concerns about the systemic delays in benefit payments,” she said, adding: “United Nations beneficiaries deserve better.”   While noting that the Fund had taken steps to reduce the backlog, she urged it to address the serious issues surrounding client services and the need to establish a centralized system to register queries.

In that context, she called attention to her delegation’s support for the Board of Auditor’s recommendation that the Fund create a client grievance redressal mechanism and include procedures for indexing, segregating, prioritizing and monitoring the queries.  She stressed that the Fund must strengthen its internal controls to ensure the accuracy of data before sending them for actuarial valuation and the need to carry out a fresh actuarial valuation as of 31 December 2017, underscoring that the United States would carefully examine the related resources requested by the Fund to address those issues.  Further, her delegation looked forward to learning more about the differences in opinion between the Fund and the Board of Auditors.  The United States also expected that the proposed enhancements to the Integrated Pension Administration System would resolve the implementation issues highlighted by the Board of Auditors.  She also noted that the Fund had grown to record high of more than $63 billion since Carol Boykin assumed her position in October 2014 as the Secretary‑General’s Representative for the Fund’s asset investments.  The Fund’s investments continued to be diversified while taking into account the four main criteria of safety, profitability, liquidity and convertibility.

Construction and Property Management:  Economic Commission for Africa

Mr. DOOLEY introduced the Secretary‑General’s report on progress in the construction of new office facilities at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa and an update on the renovation of conference facilities including Africa Hall (document A/72/374).  He reported that, since its occupancy, the Zambezi Building was functioning well, with minor project close‑out activities for ancillary works due to be completed within budget in early 2018.  Meanwhile, the scope of the Africa Hall renovation project remained unchanged, including a visitors’ centre that would promote the premises as a destination for those wishing to learn about the continent’s history.  As requested by the General Assembly, work on the solicitation of voluntary contributions would continue through the life‑span of the project, he said, noting Switzerland’s pledge of CHF 100,000 in addition to a contribution from Mali.  On project governance, he said an advisory board had been established, while a contract with an independent risk management firm was signed in November 2017.  Significant project had also been made in negotiations with the host country on project implementation and a land grant for additional visitors’ parking.

Providing a general progress update on Africa Hall’s renovation, he said stage 3 of the project, dealing with technical design and tender action, was well advanced, with the ECA soliciting bids from qualified vendors ahead of a mid‑January 2018 deadline.  “We are therefore confident that the completion of the project in 2021 remains achievable,” he said, adding that the project owner remained fully committed to ensuring completion within the $56.9 million budget set by the General Assembly.  Turning to the United Nations Conference Centre, he said its utilization had increased from 85 per cent since 2014 to 93 per cent by the end of 2016.  Renovation work on its roof was meanwhile substantially completed by the end of 2016.  Concluding, he requested the General Assembly to take note of progress made, including completion of the project governance structure and the revised cost plan for the Africa Hall renovation, which remained within the overall approved maximum amount of $56.9 million.

Mr. SENE then introduced the Advisory Committee’s related report (document A/72/7/Add.26), emphasizing that it trusted that the project’s quality and scope would be maintained in the coming years and that a refined contingency level estimate would be established once a clearer picture of actual risks emerged following completion of the risk analysis.  Additional efforts were needed to raise global awareness of ECA’s historic Africa Hall and the African heritage it represented, including through partnerships with international academic and research institutions that specialized in African history and culture.  There was also a need to develop a comprehensive resource mobilization strategy that should focus particularly on the African region.  The Advisory Committee encouraged the Secretary‑General to continue engaging with Member States and noted with appreciation the voluntary contributions received so far for renovating the Africa Hall.  Every effort should be made to welcome a wide variety of visitors to the Africa Hall, including students, tourists and conference participants, irrespective of their capacity to pay.  In that connection, the Advisory Committee recommended that the General Assembly request to the Secretary‑General to consider other admission options, including a suggested admission fee for visitors.  The Advisory Committee welcomed the continued cooperation between ECA and the host country.

Ms. SOTOMAYOR, speaking again for the Group of 77, noted that the ancillary projects in the ECA were substantially completed in the third quarter of 2017 and trusted that the final completion certificate would be issued by the third quarter of 2018.  She underscored the historic significance of the Africa Hall.  She noted the Secretary‑General’s intention to create a recognizable branding identity to generate tourism and academic interest in the Hall as an African heritage site and looked forward to receiving more information on that strategy.  The Group took note of the information provided, including the project schedule and progress, procurement activities, governance and oversight, management of contingencies, the status of voluntary contributions and the business case for the visitors’ centre.  The Group emphasized the need for the timely completion of the project, welcoming that it was progressing according to schedule, and encouraged maintenance of its quality and scope in order to prevent costs from rising.  The Group trusted that a refined estimation for contingency provisions would be established once the project’s Monte Carlo simulation method for risk analysis was completed and would be interested in receiving updates on that during informal consultations.

Concerning oversight and governance, the Group stressed the need for full and timely implementation of all the recommendations of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and also welcomed the establishment of the Stakeholders Committee and the Advisory Board, she said.  Noting the information provided on the proposed visitors’ centre, including the expected numbers, the Group intended to carefully study the comments and observations of the Advisory Committee.  The Group also reiterated the need for local materials, technology and capacity to be leveraged and would examine how those elements had been incorporated in the project’s implementation.

GEBEYEHU GANGA GAYITO (Ethiopia), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, said that his country attached great importance to the construction and renovation works underway at the ECA, particularly the historic Africa Hall.  “It is not only a conference facility availed to the international community, but it is also a historical icon symbolizing the long journey of the African people from the struggle of political independence to socio‑economic development,” he said.  Through the ongoing cooperation, the Africa Hall renovation project would be completed by 2021, with the new office facilities ancillary project finalized up by 2018.  It was important to underline the significance of the work planned for Stage 3 of the project, including the completion of the detailed design and tender documentation for early decanting work of the Congo and Nile Buildings of the Africa Hall.  That design work would be a critically‑defining factor for Stages 4 and 5 of the project, which were the main construction and close‑out implementation phases, he stressed.

He encouraged the project team to expedite the Monte Carlo simulation method for risk analysis and emphasized that the findings of the assessment should be incorporated into the construction contract of the renovation at the appropriate time to overcome any delays in the project schedule.  Measures to eliminate physical, communication and technical barriers for persons with disabilities as well as safety standards must be incorporated into the work ahead.  Although his delegation appreciated the assertions by the Secretary‑General that the total cost of the project through 2021 remained unchanged at $56.9 million, variation of some estimates such as that of the main building, infrastructure and external works related to the renovation must be periodically tracked.

Donors make initial pledges of $857 million to fund UN refugee agency’s work in 2018

5 December 2017 &#150 Donor governments on Tuesday pledged an initial $857 million to fund the United Nations refugee agency’s work to help some 67 million displaced or stateless people worldwide in 2018.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that while the pledges made at an annual meeting in Geneva represent only 11 per cent of its total 2018 funding needs of over $7.5 billion, they indicate the anticipated funding levels next year.

However, the gap between the funds received and the needs of refugees and other displaced people will likely continue growing, with new crises and worsening displacement running at record levels.

“Refugee crises grow. Refugee needs grow as well,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

This means that UNHCR has to prioritize, sometimes mercilessly, he explained.

“This can mean some (refugees) will be left to fend for themselves during the harsh winter months and others won’t get the assistance they need to reintegrate upon return,” he warned.

UNHCR’s work globally is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from governments, intergovernmental institutions and, increasingly, from individuals, corporations and foundations.

The agency’s work includes operations in some of the biggest emergencies around the world such as those in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Mr. Grandi thanked the countries and communities hosting refugees because they are some of the largest donors in terms of space, resources, and the socio-economic and political cost of hosting refugees.

For 2018, UNHCR appeals to donors to sustain and increase support, through flexible and early contributions, to avoid uncertainty and enable it to channel funds where the needs are greatest without interruption.

News in Brief 05 December 2017 (PM)

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CAPTION: MINUSCA Peacekeepers Patrol PK5 Neighbourhood in Bangui, CAR. Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

“Another big loss” as 14th peacekeeper this year is killed in CAR

The death of a Mauritanian peacekeeper and wounding of three others in the Central African Republic (CAR), was described on Tuesday as “another big loss” to the UN Mission in the country, MINUSCA.

UN chief António Guterres condemned the killing and offered his deepest condolences and sympathy to the family of the victim, as well as the Government and people of Mauritania.

Monday’s attack happened at a checkpoint staffed by peacekeepers near a camp for internally displaced people in the town of Bria, in eastern CAR.

The UN said on Tuesday that clashes had intensified across eastern and central regions, forcing more than 15,000 civilians to flee.

In Bria, humanitarian aid has been suspended due to threats to humanitarian workers.

Here’s MINUSCA Spokesperson Vladimir Monteiro, speaking from CAR.

“This is another big loss. This killing brings to 14, the number of uniformed personnel who have been killed since the beginning of 2017. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General condemned this attack and stated that MINUSCA will do everything possible to make sure the perpetrators are identified.”

4 out of 5 children living with HIV in West, Central Africa, without therapy

Four out of five children living with HIV in West and Central Africa are still not receiving life-saving antiretroviral therapy, according to a joint report published on Tuesday by the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF and UNAIDS.

It also shows that AIDS-related deaths among adolescents aged 15-19 are on the rise.

The report, Step Up the Pace: Towards an AIDS-free generation in the region, shows West and Central Africa lagging behind on nearly every measure of HIV prevention, treatment and care programmes for children and adolescents.

In 2016, an estimated 60,000 children were newly infected across the region.

Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director, said it was “tragic that so many are not receiving the treatment they need, just because they have not been tested”.

World Soil Day: “Caring for the planet starts from the Ground”

Caring for the planet must start from the ground up, said the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Tuesday, laying out the key theme for World Soil Day.

To mark the Day, the Food and Agriculture Organization has launched a global map showing the amount of carbon stocks in the soil.

As a major carbon storage system, soils are essential for sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation, said FAO.

More details from UN Spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, who said that climate change and global warming were both heavily influenced by the amount of carbon that can be retained underground.

“The Global Soil Organic Carbon Map shows natural areas with high carbon storage that require its conservation, as well as those regions where there is the possibility for further carbon sequestration.”

Matt Wells, United Nations.

Duration: 2’41”

Latest from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), based on information received as of 19:30, 4 December 2017

This report is for the media and the general public.

The SMM continued to record a similarly high number of ceasefire violations in Donetsk region as in the previous 24 hours. It recorded fewer ceasefire violations in Luhansk region compared with the previous 24 hours. The Mission continued monitoring the disengagement areas; it recorded ceasefire violations inside the Petrivske disengagement area. Its access remained restricted in the disengagement areas and elsewhere, including in Siedove, a settlement close to the border with the Russian Federation.* The SMM corroborated reports of a civilian casualty in Verkhnotoretske. It observed damage to civilian properties from shelling in residential areas in Holmivskyi and impact sites at the Donetsk Filtration Station. The Mission observed weapons in violation of withdrawal lines on both sides of the contact line. The SMM visited a border area not under government control.In Kyiv, the SMM continued to monitor the security situation outside a television station.

In Donetsk region, the SMM recorded a similarly high number of ceasefire violations,[1] including explosions (about 590), as in the previous 24 hours (about 600 explosions). Most of the ceasefire violations were recorded in the Avdiivka-Yasynuvata-Donetsk airport area, and in areas between Horlivka, Debaltseve and Svitlodarsk.

On the night of 3-4 December, the SMM camera at the Donetsk Filtration Station (15km north of Donetsk) recorded, in a sequence continuing from the previous 24 hours, 21 tracer rounds in flight from north-east to south-west, 13 undetermined explosions, and three projectiles and three tracer rounds from west to east, followed by totals of 15 undetermined explosions, 22 projectiles (three from west to east and 19 from east to west) and 84 tracer rounds (63 from east to west and 21 from west to east), all 0.5-1.5km south. During the day on 4 December, the same camera recorded 83 projectiles (21 from west to east,  44 from east to west, 14 from south to northerly directions and four from north to south) and nine undetermined explosions, all 0.5-1.5km south.

On the evening of 3 December, the SMM camera in government-controlled Avdiivka (17km north of Donetsk) recorded four projectiles in flight from east to west and two undetermined explosions, all 4-6km east-south-east. During the day on 4 December, positioned on the south-western edge of Avdiivka for about six hours, the SMM heard 76 undetermined explosions and about 100 bursts of heavy-machine-gun and small-arms fire, all 3-5km east and south-south-east.

During the day on 4 December, positioned at the railway station in “DPR”-controlled Yasynuvata (16km north-east of Donetsk) for about six hours, the SMM heard about 120 undetermined explosions and more than 150 bursts and shots of heavy-machine-gun and small-arms fire, all 1-5km west-south-west, west and north-west.

On the evening of 3 December, while in government-controlled Svitlodarsk (57km north-east of Donetsk) the SMM heard 45 undetermined explosions and more than 120 bursts and shots from various types of weapons (calibre less than 100mm), all 3-10km east, south-east and south-west. While in Svitlodarsk the following day, the SMM heard 38 undetermined explosions, as well as bursts and shots of heavy-machine-gun and small-arms fire, all 3-6km south-east and south-west.

On the evening of 3 December, while in “DPR”-controlled Horlivka (39km north-east of Donetsk), the SMM heard at least 95 explosions (31 assessed as rounds of tank fire and the remainder of undetermined weapons), about 120 bursts from rounds of infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) (BMP-2) cannon (30mm), heavy-machine-gun and small-arms fire, as well as five two-minute sequences of uncountable, overlapping bursts of anti-aircraft gun (ZU-23) cannon (23mm), IFV (BMP-2) cannon, automatic-grenade-launcher and small-arms fire, all 3-12km south-west and west-south-west.

During the day on 4 December, positioned 2km west of “DPR”-controlled Debaltseve (58km north-east of Donetsk) the SMM heard, during about one hour, about 110 explosions (at least 15 assessed as probable impacts of multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) rounds and the remainder as undetermined), all 10-15km west-north-west and north-west.

On the night of 3-4 December, the SMM camera in Shyrokyne (20km east of Mariupol) recorded, in a sequence continuing from the previous 24 hours, five tracer rounds in flight from west to east, an undetermined explosion, a tracer round from west to east, and 47 projectiles and 11 tracer rounds from east to west, followed by totals of 47 tracer rounds (seven from west to east and 40 from east to west), 67 projectiles from east to west and an undetermined explosion, all 5-8km north.

In Luhansk region, the SMM recorded fewer ceasefire violations, including 83 explosions, compared with the previous 24 hours (about 340).

On the night of 3-4 December, while on the northern edge of government-controlled Popasna (69km west of Luhansk), the SMM heard 12 explosions (five assessed as artillery rounds and the remainder undetermined) 10-15km south-west. The SMM also heard 59 explosions (eight assessed as outgoing rocket-propelled-grenades, four assessed as outgoing and two as impacts of mortar rounds and the rest as rounds from IFV (BMP-1) cannon (73mm) fire), as well as more than 100 bursts and shots of automatic-grenade-launcher, heavy-machine-gun and small-arms fire, all 3-5km east and south-east.

During the day on 4 December, positioned at the south-eastern edge of Popasna, the SMM heard, during over 20 minutes, 120-150 overlapping bursts and shots of heavy-machine-gun and small-arms fire 2-2.5km east.

Positioned at the south-eastern edge of “LPR”-controlled Veselohorivka (64km west of Luhansk) the SMM heard ten undetermined explosions 10-15km north.

The SMM confirmed reports of a civilian casualty in government-controlled Verkhnotoretske (23km north-east of Donetsk). Medical staff at a hospital in government-controlled Toretsk (formerly Dzerzhynsk, 43km north of Donetsk) told the SMM that a woman had been admitted on 2 December with a gunshot wound in her right lower leg. The mother of the patient told the SMM that her 31-year-old daughter had been walking with her husband along Vyshnova Street in Verkhnotoretske during the day on 2 December when they had heard gunfire. She added that her daughter had been hit by a bullet while trying to seek shelter in a shop nearby.

The SMM observed fresh impact sites at the Donetsk Filtration Station  as well as damage caused by shelling in residential areas in “DPR”-controlled Holmivskyi (49km north-east of Donetsk).   

At the Donetsk Filtration Station, the Mission observed three fresh impact sites. The SMM saw a tailfin of a 120mm mortar round embedded in the south side of the tarmac road immediately inside the main entrance gate, which it assessed as fired from a south-south-easterly direction. While present, the SMM saw a member of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service pull out the tailfin. A second impact was on the concrete surface outside the garage building, 20m east of the first impact site, which the SMM assessed as caused by a mortar round fired from a south-south-easterly direction. About 5m north, the SMM saw broken south-facing windows of the garage building and shrapnel damage to windows of a tractor that was inside the garage. A third impact site was on a small patch of grass 10m west of the office building (on top of which the SMM camera is located) and 15m north-west of the garage. The SMM could not assess the type of weapon or the direction of fire.

The SMM also saw an unexploded round from an under-barrel grenade launcher (VOG-25P) about 6m west of the office building which had been cordoned off by staff of the station and later removed by the Ukrainian State Emergency Service staff.

In Holmivskyi, following reports of shelling on the night of 2-3 December, the SMM saw a fresh crater on the ground 1.5m east of a two-storey apartment building on 4 Shkolnyi Avenue, assessed as caused by a 120mm mortar round fired from a northerly direction. The SMM observed boarded up windows and fresh shrapnel marks on an east-facing wall and on the gas pipes of the building, which had since been repaired. According to the owner, shelling had occurred around midnight on 3 December, but there had been no casualties.

The SMM continued to engage with the sides and the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination (JCCC) to try and gain access to Travneve (51km north-east of Donetsk). On the road between Travneve and nearby Hladosove (51km north-east of Donetsk), several residents from both villages separately told the SMM that they did not need permits to pass through government and “DPR” checkpoints between these two villages and Holmivskyi. Two groups of residents from Hladosove separately told the SMM that there were no shops or medical points in the village, forcing residents to either buy necessary items in Holmivskyi and transport them by bicycle or on foot (a distance of at least 2km), or to leave the village. They also alleged that there were mines placed in Hladosove and on the main road to Holmivskyi.

The SMM continued to monitor the disengagement process and to pursue full access to the disengagement areas near Stanytsia Luhanska (16km north-east of Luhansk), Zolote (60km west of Luhansk) and Petrivske (41km south of Donetsk), as foreseen in the Framework Decision of the Trilateral Contact Group relating to disengagement of forces and hardware of 21 September 2016. The SMM’s access remained restricted but the Mission was able to partially monitor them.*

On 1 December, the SMM camera in “DPR”-controlled Petrivske recorded, in sequence, seven tracer rounds in flight from west to east, five undetermined explosions, a tracer round in flight from south-east to north-west, a projectile in flight from north to south, and 15 tracer rounds in flight from east to west, all 0.5-2km south, south-west and west. The SMM assessed ten of the above ceasefire violations as inside the disengagement area but was unable to assess the remainder. On 2 December, the same camera recorded totals of 28 tracer rounds in flight (27 from west to east and one from north-east to south-west) and 49 undetermined explosions, all 1-2km south-south-west and west-south-west, and all assessed as inside the disengagement area.

On 4 December, positioned near the disengagement areas near Petrivske, and government-controlled Stanytsia Luhanska and Zolote, the SMM observed calm situations.

The SMM continued to monitor the withdrawal of weapons, in implementation of the Package of Measures and its Addendum, as well as the Memorandum.

In violation of withdrawal lines, in government-controlled areas, an SMM mid-range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) spotted, on 2 December, five towed howitzers (D-20, 152mm) near Kremenivka (78km south of Donetsk). On 4 December, the SMM saw a tank (T-62) without a turret or weapons east of Popasna, heading south.

In violation of withdrawal lines, in non-government-controlled areas, an SMM mini UAV spotted, on 1 December, 16 MLRS (BM-21 Grad, 122mm) north of Khrustalnyi (54km south-west of Luhansk) and seven probable MLRS (BM-21)  south-east of Miusynsk (62km south-west of Luhansk).

Beyond withdrawal lines but outside designated storage sites in government-controlled areas, an SMM mid-range UAV spotted, on 2 December, three surface-to-air missile systems (9K33 Osa) near Kasianivka (81km south of Donetsk). On 4 December, the SMM saw two surface-to-air missile systems (9K35 Strela-10, 120mm) on flatbed trucks, heading south near Zarichne (formerly Kirovsk, 114km north of Donetsk).

Beyond withdrawal lines but outside designated storage sites in non-government-controlled areas, the SMM saw, on 4 December, a tank (T-64) between Markyne (94km south of Donetsk) and Oleksandrivske (formerly Rozy Liuksemburh, 90km south-east of Donetsk). On 1 December, an SMM mini UAV spotted 17 towed howitzers (nine 2A65 Msta-B, 152mm; eight 2A36 Giatsint-B, 152mm) north of Khrustalnyi, as well as six self-propelled howitzers (2S1 Gvozdika, 122mm) and nine tanks (type unknown) south-east of Miusynsk. At the latter location were also over 50 armoured combat vehicles (ACV), 26 military-type trucks, and about 60 other military-type vehicles.

The SMM revisited a “DPR” weapons permanent storage site located beyond the agreed withdrawal lines and found that all weapons that had previously been recorded as withdrawn were present.

The SMM observed ACVs[2] in the security zone. In government-controlled areas, the SMM saw an armoured personnel carrier (APC) (BTR-80) near Mykolaivka (57km north of Donetsk). On 2 December, an SMM mid-range UAV spotted four probable APCs (BTR-variant) near Kremenivka.

In non-government-controlled areas, the SMM saw an APC (MT-LB) near Kalmiuske (formerly Komsomolske, 42km south-east of Donetsk) in a zone within which deployment of heavy armaments and military equipment is proscribed according to Point 5 of the Memorandum of 19 September 2014, as well as a stationary IFV (BMP-1) near Slovianoserbsk (28km north-west of Luhansk).

The SMM saw, for the first time, a mine hazard sign reading “stop, mines” in Russian language – white letters on a red background – placed at the entrance of a dirt track on the south side of road T0509, 6km east-south-east of “DPR”-controlled Dokuchaievsk (30km south-west of Donetsk).

The SMM continued to facilitate and monitor repairs and maintenance work, co-ordinated by the JCCC, to the power substation in “LPR”-controlled Vesela Hora (16km north of Luhansk) and to the water pumping station near government-controlled Artema (26km north of Luhansk).

The SMM visited a border area not under government control. At the border crossing point near Uspenka (73km south-east of Donetsk), during about half an hour, the SMM saw 23 cars (including eight with “DPR” plates) and a cargo truck with closed trailer, with Ukrainian licence plates, exiting Ukraine. The SMM also saw nine cars (including two with “DPR” plates) and two buses, with Russian Federation licence plates and 20-30 passengers each, entering Ukraine.

In Kyiv, the SMM continued to monitor the situation outside a television station on 21 Polova Street (see SMM Daily Report 4 December 2017). The SMM saw 15 men aged 25-35 (two in military-style and the rest in plain clothes), a few of them wearing face covers. The SMM also observed a “black and red” flag and a Ukrainian flag near a parked van. The SMM saw barbed wire and sandbags placed in front of the main entrance of the building, but the side doors were not blocked. The SMM saw a police car parked nearby and three police officers. The situation was calm.

The SMM continued monitoring in Kherson, Odessa, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Kharkiv, Dnipro and Chernivtsi.

*Restrictions of SMM’s freedom of movement or other impediments to fulfilment of its mandate

The SMM’s monitoring and freedom of movement are restricted by security hazards and threats, including risks posed by mines, unexploded ordnance (UXO) and other impediments – which vary from day to day. The SMM’s mandate provides for safe and secure access throughout Ukraine. All signatories of the Package of Measures have agreed on the need for this safe and secure access, that restriction of the SMM’s freedom of movement constitutes a violation, and on the need for rapid response to these violations. They have also agreed that the JCCC should contribute to such response and co-ordinate mine clearance. Nonetheless, the armed formations in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions frequently deny the SMM access to areas adjacent to Ukraine’s border outside control of the Government, citing orders to do so. (See, for example, SMM Daily Report 2 December 2017.) The SMM’s operations in Donetsk and Luhansk regions remained restricted following the fatal incident of 23 April near Pryshyb; these restrictions continued to limit the Mission’s observations.

Denial of access:

  • Three armed men in military-style clothing without insignia stopped the SMM at a checkpoint north-west of “DPR”-controlled Siedove (106km south of Donetsk), near the border with the Russian Federation, and denied the SMM access – citing orders to do so. The SMM informed the JCCC.

Related to disengagement areas and mines/UXO:

  • On 3 December, armed men at a checkpoint in “LPR”-controlled Raivka (16km north-west of Luhansk) stopped the SMM and told it to avoid driving to the area where the SMM intended to go near the river bank as it was contaminated by mines. The SMM had frequently reached that area before and had not observed any mines. The SMM did not consider it safe to proceed and informed the JCCC.
  • The SMM was prevented from accessing secondary roads south of the Zolote disengagement area due to the possible presence of mines and UXO. An “LPR” member positioned on the southern side of the Zolote disengagement area told the SMM that no demining had taken place during the previous 24 hours. The SMM did not consider it safe to proceed and informed the JCCC.
  • The SMM was prevented from accessing secondary roads in the Zolote disengagement area due to the possible presence of mines and UXO. A Ukrainian Armed Forces officer of the JCCC at a checkpoint on the northern side of the Zolote disengagement area told the SMM that no demining had taken place during the previous 24 hours. The SMM did not consider it safe to proceed.
  • The SMM was prevented from accessing parts of the Stanytsia Luhanska disengagement area, with the exception of the main road, due to the possible presence of mines and UXO. A Ukrainian Armed Forces officer of the JCCC told the SMM that no de-mining had taken place during the previous 24 hours. The SMM did not consider it safe to proceed and informed the JCCC.

The SMM did not travel across the bridge in government-controlled Shchastia (20km north of Luhansk), due to the presence of mines. A Ukrainian Armed Forces officer of the JCCC said there were mines on the road south of the bridge. The SMM informed the JCCC.

 

[1] For a complete breakdown of the ceasefire violations, please see the annexed table. During this reporting period the SMM camera at the Oktiabr mine (Donetsk) remained non-operational. Four SMM cameras continue to be tested until the end of December 2017.

[2] This hardware is not proscribed by the provisions of the Minsk agreements on the withdrawal of weapons.

Young students getting better at reading, finds international study

5 December 2017 &#150 Reading literacy levels are on the rise across the globe, giving young students a set of strong skills to serve them in their futures as well as contributing to the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular those related to inclusive and quality education.

According to the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PRILS), launched Tuesday by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement at the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters, in Paris, 96 per cent of fourth graders from over 60 education systems achieved above the international benchmark.

&#8220An early start in reading literacy has lasting benefits, with students who had attended pre-primary school for three years or more reporting higher average scores,&#8221 said UNESCO in a news release announcing the findings.

It also highlighted the impact of supportive home environments &#8211 with parents engaging their children in early literacy activities &#8211 and safe and well-resources learning environments with qualified teachers associated with higher achievement scores.

Furthermore, the report also showed that female students outperformed their male counterparts in 48 countries and dependent territories by an average of 19 points.

This year’s PIRLS was extended to include an assessment of online reading &#8211 called ePIRLS. The findings from this section concluded that good readers also have an advantage in digital literacy skills, with half of students deemed good to excellent readers reaching the PIRLS high international benchmark.

Also today, UNESCO and the International Association launched a guidance booklet on how large-scale assessments, such as PIRLS, can help in measuring progress towards the achievement of the education-related SDG (Goal 4).

SDG 4 targets analysed in the booklet include target 4.1 on primary education, 4.2 on early childhood development, 4.4 on skills for work, 4.5 on gender equality and inclusion, 4.a on effective learning environments and 4.c on teachers.