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The UN Development Program Has 4 New Projects Funded by Russia, Despite Its Illegal War on Ukraine


Dozens of ships remain abandoned in the dried-up parts of the Aral Sea, or what Uzbekistan, where this photograph was taken, calls a “ships cemetery.” Russia is contributing $14 million to new United Nations Development Program projects addressing climate-related problems, including in the Aral Sea basin. The agreement with the UN and Russia on the Aral Sea project was signed soon after it invaded Ukraine this year, raising ethical questions.

In the waning days of 2021, roughly two months before its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russia agreed to contribute $14 million to the United Nations Development Program for climate-related projects in Europe and Central Asia to begin this year. In fact, an agreement between Russia and the UN agency on one project, focusing on the Aral Sea, was signed on March 7, 2022, just 11 days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Recently, PassBlue contacted the agency — the UN’s largest specialized entity — for updates on the status of the projects. PassBlue asked whether the agency tasked with eradicating poverty and reducing inequality, as stated on its website, plans to address Russia’s funding of these initiatives in light of its continuing war on Ukraine. Russia’s incursion has not only violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, according to the UN Charter and UN General Assembly resolutions, but Russia’s relentless attacks have also reduced entire cities to charred mounds of rubble and its military is accused of committing atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. Most recently, the UN Security Council debated the possibility of “genocide” being carried out by Russia in the war.

The UN Development Program projects have been billed as part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These global ambitions are described as a “blueprint for peace and prosperity” and feature 17 goals designed to “end poverty,” create “inclusive and equitable education opportunities” and “combat climate change.”

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The “UNDP’s mandate to deliver development cooperation is bound and guided by its governing body as well as the relevant UN organs,” an agency spokesperson wrote to PassBlue by email, when asked about the merits of accepting Russian funding as the country wages an illegal war in Ukraine. The reply suggests that the agency is restricted from questioning project financing, given that its “institutional governance structures” limit the UNDP’s ability to “unilaterally address multilateral matters.”

In a Zoom interview with PassBlue, Stephen Browne, a visiting lecturer at the University of Geneva and an expert on UN development work, said that the UNDP, as it’s known, “is a supreme example of a project implementer” and to exist it “depends very much on projects.” Browne is also the founder and co-director of the Future UN Development System, a project designed to help that system adapt to “a fast-changing global environment.”

Browne added that “my impression these days is that [the UNDP] is so concerned about its bottom line, that it basically will take money from wherever it’s offered and has become very much a child of the donors.”

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The agency’s executive board, which provides “inter-governmental support” and “supervision” of the organization’s activities, consists of representatives from 36 countries drawn from the five UN regional groups: Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean and Western Europe (and others, including Israel and, informally, the United States). The board also monitors the work of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Office for Project Services (Unops).

According to a UNDP press release, on Dec. 28, 2021, Russia signed two contracts, or memorandums of understanding, with the agency to help certain former republics of the Soviet Union, including Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Belarus, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Of Russia’s approximately $14 million donation to the projects, $4 million was earmarked to address and manage marine litter and plastics in the Caspian Sea, a program affecting Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran, the UN agency says. Another $3 million was designated to “scale-up” the agency’s Climate Box, a “comprehensive learning toolkit that educates school children about climate change” benefiting Central Asia as well as Africa, other parts of Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. In Belarus, Russia has contributed $3.5 million (plus $2.1 million to the UNDP) to “enhance” its neighbor’s efforts in achieving the SDGs. Belarus has been a staging ground for Russian troops invading Ukraine in the current war.

And in the biggest project, in Uzbekistan, Russia has committed $5 million to promote “social and environmental sustainability” to “vulnerable” communities of the Aral Sea, the site of one of the greatest man-made disasters from damage wrought by the Soviet Union across decades. According to the UNDP’s Aral Sea project website, the work will enhance “the resilience of the local population” and promote “the green, inclusive development of the most vulnerable communities in the Aral Sea region.”

Dmitry Chumakov, a deputy ambassador for the Russian mission to the UN, and Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, the UN Development Program’s director of the regional bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, signing agreements to work on four projects “for increased cooperation in Europe and Central Asia,” the agency said, Dec. 28, 2021. UNDP 

Once the world’s fourth-largest body of landlocked water, the Aral Sea, which straddles the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was home to a thriving community of fisherman and their families whose livelihoods depended on the sea’s stock of more than 200 species of fish, including silver carp, sturgeon and stickleback. In its prime, the local fishing industry employed nearly 60,000 people.

But for decades stretching from the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin in the 1920s through the 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev consolidated power, the Soviet government began investing heavily in cotton production. That led to the creation of an intricate irrigation system that diverted water from the Aral Sea and caused the entire body of water — which was roughly the size of Ireland — to evaporate and nearly disappear by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s.

The desiccation of the sea left behind a desert wasteland of toxic dust polluted with pesticides — once used on the surrounding cotton plantations — that, when ingested, can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and some cancers. An additional concern is the Soviet-era bioweapons labs that have been abandoned on an island in what was the sea. This once top-secret complex, also known as Anthrax Island, housed Soviet scientists who engineered bioweapons that included an antibiotic-resistant anthrax capable of rotting flesh and a form of the bubonic plague that would evade conventional testing methods.

Again, in the paradox of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Russia’s top deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, has been holding public meetings at the UN since the war started in February contending that Pentagon-led labs in Ukraine are producing biological and chemical weapons. The US dismisses the claims.

Currently, 40 million people live in the Aral Sea basin, comprising all five countries of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Four million more people live in the immediate environs of the sea, according to the US Agency for International Development (Usaid).

On a trip to Central Asia in June, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed met with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and discussed the “ongoing Aral Sea crisis,” but provided no details. UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told PassBlue in an email that the duo agreed on “the importance of focusing the world’s attention” on the sea. But the UNDP project “was not discussed,” he said.

Still, as the war in Ukraine grinds into the fourth month and Russia’s military costs soar as global sanctions bite into its economy, it remains unclear whether Russia will fork over the entire $14 million it pledged to the UN Development Agency, given that the agreements are not legally binding.

Yet in another email to PassBlue, a UNDP spokesperson confirmed that as of June 10, 2022, “Russia has honored its commitments” and the “UNDP has received funding contributions for the projects according to the payment schedule set out in the Memoranda of Understanding,” suggesting that the $14 million is being paid in tranches. As for the $5 million earmarked for the Aral Sea — outlined in the project’s interim annual work plan — more than $550,000 has been “indicated” for the project’s 2022 budget “only,” based on a five-year implementation plan, according to a UNDP spokesperson.

On June 16, Reuters reported that Russia “would have to delay implementation of some climate-related projects due to restrictions on imports of foreign equipment but would stay in the Paris climate accord,” referring to the UN-led climate change pact. The statement was made by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko. There was no mention of Russia’s climate projects with the UN Development Program.

The Russian mission to the UN did not reply to PassBlue’s request for comment on its UNDP-financed projects.

PassBlue also raised questions with the agency about the Aral Sea project’s scope and management structure as its website is steeped in bureaucratic language that is difficult to decipher. After numerous requests for more information, a UNDP spokesperson forwarded an English version of the project document, since it’s available online only in Russian.

According to the document, “overall management” will be run by a “project board” that will be the “consensus decision-making body” and “include representatives from [Uzbekistan’s] Ministry of Agriculture . . . as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.” Nationally, the project will be carried out, it said, by Uzbekistan’s ministry of agriculture and a manager who, “on behalf of the project board,” will be responsible for the daily, onsite decision-making, the document said.

The Aral Sea project document was signed by Uzbekistan’s minister of agriculture, the Russian embassy in Uzbekistan and UNDP’s resident representative, Matilda Dimovska, on March 7, 2022, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

When asked by email if the signing of the document raised any moral or ethical concerns, a spokesperson with the US mission to the UN told PassBlue that “the U.S. is committed to ensuring Member State contributions to UNDP and all UN agencies are used in ways that are consistent with and advance the mission outlined in the UN Charter.” The US is a current member of the UNDP executive board, as is Russia.

The UNDP did not respond to PassBlue’s request for comment on the ethics of the agency accepting money from Russia while it attacks a sovereign neighbor.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, any semblance of cooperation among the permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, China, Russia and the US — has dwindled. Every time the Council has tried to pass resolutions condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine, since the February invasion began, Russia has wielded its veto. However, in the General Assembly, where the veto does not exist, a majority of the member states have condemned Russia’s war and demanded that humanitarian aid be accessed into Ukraine.

The most significant blow to Russia came on April 7, when the Assembly voted to suspend the country’s membership in the Human Rights Council. On May 10, the Czech Republic was elected to fill the open seat.

PassBlue’s questions regarding Russia’s funding of the new UNDP projects comes weeks after The New York Times revealed how top officials at Unops (UN Office for Project Services) misappropriated tens of millions of dollars, prompting the resignation of the agency’s top official, Grete Faremo. Faremo said she knew nothing of her colleagues’ dubious financial dealings but stepped down, as it happened “on her watch,” she said. Before the Times report, Unops was a low-profile UN agency that provided management services to humanitarian and development projects around the world, its website states.

Yet Mukesh Kapila, a blogger and former UN senior official who worked with Unops on a contract basis, was writing about the agency’s nefarious activities earlier this year. Devex, a media site that covers global development, first reported on the corruption that initially led to Faremo announcing her sudden retirement, citing her health and other reasons, without mentioning the scandal.

Faremo then resigned immediately after the Times article was published in May. The scandal grabbed the attention of Chris Lu, the US ambassador to the UN for management and reform who, in a tweet on June 6, acknowledged that the “financial scandal @UNOPS has tarnished the entire UN system” and “exposed the need for greater transparency and oversight.”

Additionally, in a statement released on June 8, Nicolas de Rivière, the ambassador of France to the UN and a member of the UNDP’s executive board, addressed the “effectiveness” of the agency’s “collective action,” paying close attention to the “implementation of reform” to guarantee the “proper use of” UNDP funds. His comments were made at an executive board meeting.

In an email to PassBlue, a spokesperson for the US mission to the UN echoed the French envoy’s commitment to ensuring that “Member State contributions are monitored and evaluated responsibly.”

For now, the Aral Sea and other new Russian-financed projects with the UN Development Program appear to be underway. Yet the recent news after the Unops scandal — where its executive board (which is shared with UNDP) voted to “impose strict limitations on all financial reserves” at Unops and enforce reforms to overhaul the agency’s “business model” — could bring UNDP funding into sharper focus. That could mean scrutiny on whether financial donations from Russia to the agency violate UN ethical or legal constraints amid international sanctions imposed in reaction to the war in Ukraine.

On sanctions related to the Aral Sea project, Charles Lichfield, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Geoeconomics Center, a think tank in Washington, told PassBlue that such violations are unlikely. International sanctions imposed on Russia aren’t meant to address problems the “Soviet Union left behind,” he told PassBlue in a phone interview. “They are there to make it more difficult for Russia to wage war in Ukraine.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dawn Clancy is a New York City based reporter who focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she has written for The Washington Post and HuffPost.

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The UN Development Program Has 4 New Projects Funded by Russia, Despite Its Illegal War on Ukraine
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Yone Fernandes
Yone Fernandes
1 year ago

No double moral standards, please. If UNDP is prevented from accepting money from Russia for environmental recovery of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan because Russia invaded Ukraine, it should also not accept donations from other countries – such as the United States, which invaded and destroyed Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., or Saudi Arabia, which caused the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Are there any innocent donors? In the end, the “moral argument” would only serve to further harm populations that have already suffered too much due to the actions of these same donors.

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