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The Boss of the UN’s Environment Agency Has Been Away for a Year From Its Nairobi HQ. Does It Matter?

Inger Andersen, executive director of the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Program, June 24, 2019. A Dane, she has been working from her country for more than a year for health reasons, her office said, and the UN says she is within duty-station rules. The agency noted that Andersen “looks forward to returning to Nairobi.”

Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, has been working from Copenhagen since March 2020 — away from the agency’s headquarters in Nairobi for a year. The Gigiri Complex, which houses the UN offices in Kenya’s capital, has been officially closed since April 1, 2020, except for essential staff, to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Andersen, the top diplomat at the UN headquarters in Africa, is said to be in full compliance with UN regulations for working away from a duty station, but her absence raises questions as to why she has not been in Nairobi for a year and why this was not disclosed publicly until PassBlue inquired about it this month.

The UN Environment Program began operating in 1972, calling itself the go-to source in the UN on the environment. It operates under the umbrella of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, “identifying and addressing the most relevant environmental issues of our time.” Funding is mostly voluntary from UN member states, with the US the fourth-leading contributor for the 2016-2019 period, totaling $24 million.

Specifically, the agency manages such environmental treaties as Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the Montreal Protocol (a treaty on ozone protection) and the Basel Convention (on the control of hazardous wastes).

Recently, a scandal erupted in Kenya’s offer of free Covid-19 vaccines to all diplomats based in the country, including thousands of UN staff, Reuters reported, even though the country has not completely inoculated its own health workers, other frontline staff or older people. The vaccines are being supplied by the World Health Organization through the Covax initiative.

Kenya hosts the UN headquarters in Africa. And Macharia Kamau, the foreign ministry’s principal secretary, defended the free offer to diplomats, saying: “We need to protect everyone resident in Kenya. It just made sense not to reach out only to Kenyans but also to the international community here.” Kenya currently has 129,330 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 2,104 deaths. President Uhuru Kenyatta announced new lockdowns on March 28.

As for Andersen, a spokesperson for the UN Environment Program told PassBlue on March 7 that after Andersen, 62, suffered an accident in December 2019, about which the agency provided no details, she was “advised to undergo additional tests in Denmark” — her home country. The tests were planned for Easter week in 2020, but “advised by her doctors, she had to travel earlier” to avoid uncertainties amid the pandemic, the agency said. Andersen left Nairobi on March 15, 2020. The World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020.

A year later, in March, she underwent a surgical procedure, as scheduled. “Following a period of convalescence and recovery, [Andersen] looks forward to returning to Nairobi,” the agency spokesperson said. She has maintained a residence in Nairobi, although it’s unclear if it’s UN-owned. Her spokesperson did not make Andersen available for comment.

“Since her departure from the duty station, her working arrangements have been in line with applicable rules and regulations on remote work and have been duly approved by the Department of Management at UN Headquarters, as required,” the agency spokesperson added. According to the guidelines for alternate and flexible working arrangements amid Covid-19, published in October 2020 by the UN Office of Human Resources, working “outside the duty station should normally not exceed six months.”

“Heads of entities may however decide, based on specific conditions at the duty station that AWA [alternative working arrangements] outside the duty station should continue beyond six months,” the document clarifies.

“It is of course hitherto unknown for a UN head to be away from their duty station for more than a year, but I assume that the pandemic (as well as a personal health problem) is the reason” for Andersen’s absence, wrote Stephen Browne in an email to PassBlue. Browne is a longtime expert on the UN and was asked about the optics of Andersen’s yearlong absence from Nairobi.

Among other roles, Browne is a visiting lecturer at the Graduate Institute and University of Geneva and author of the book “UN Reform. 75 Years of Challenge and Change”; he noted that the UN Environment Program is a very decentralized agency, with offices spread worldwide, including five in Europe and Russia.

“If Ms. Andersen has been away (because of an accident?) for a long period, presumably she has appointed a competent person to deal with day to day issues in Nairobi. The Deputy ED [executive director] is Joyce Msuya who was interim ED for a year before Ms. Andersen was appointed,” Browne added. Msuya has also been working remotely from Nairobi, the agency spokesperson said.

Throughout 2020 and this year, Andersen has participated in at least six press briefings broadcast to correspondents at the UN headquarters in New York City. On Feb. 18, 2021, Stéphane Dujarric, the UN’s spokesperson, presented Andersen as joining the briefing that day from Copenhagen.

On March 16, he responded to PassBlue’s questions about Andersen’s status, saying she was “complying with UN Secretariat’s policy on flexible working arrangements.” He added: “Decisions related to flexibility working arrangements of individual managers are not taken by the Secretary-General. The Executive Office is kept informed as needed.”

Andersen, an economist who headed the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a group of governments and civil society organizations, was previously a World Bank vice president for the Middle East and North Africa. She was appointed as the executive director of the UN Environment Program in February 2019.

In an interview for PassBlue in April 2020, she said, “Never before have the mandate, mission and objectives of UNEP been more in focus. I am very enthusiastic and energized.” She added that she hoped the world would emerge from the Covid-19 crisis with a new priority: “Keeping wildlife wild.” She gave no indication in the interview that she had been in an accident and needed medical tests.

In the pandemic, the UN agency’s personnel have been generally telecommuting from 44 field offices worldwide, and as working virtually became the new normal by April 2020, Andersen noted optimistically in the interview, “we can reduce our carbon footprint.” Most other UN personnel have been working remotely as well, but at the New York City headquarters, as the lockdown has eased in the metro area, people are trickling back into their offices in the UN building. The 193-member General Assembly has been meeting often in person, too, this year.

Andersen succeeded Erik Solheim of Norway, who resigned in November 2018 after a UN audit found that he had overspent on air travel and hotels. He was away from his duty station 79 percent of the time and unofficially allowed select managers to telework from their home countries in Europe. The audit identified 118 flexible working arrangements at the UN agency that were not fully compliant with UN regulations.

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Maurizio Guerrero was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations for 10 years of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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