Mr. Reinhart Helmke
Executive Director of U.N. Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

UNOPS buys over $60 million worth of goods from developing nations

UNITED NATIONS, May 30 (G-77)- The U.N. Office for Project Services (UNOPS) has increased its purchases of goods and services from developing nations: from 20 to 40 percent over the last two years.

In an interview with the JOURNAL OF THE GROUP OF 77, Reinhart Helmke, head of UNOPS, said that in 1995 UNOPS purchased about $40 million worth of goods from developing nations and in 1996 it increased to $60 million. Currently, UNOPS manages project resources worth more than $600 million annually.

''UNOPS helps multilateral donors and developing nations achieve thier goals-- organising objectives into workable plans, mobilising talent and material resources, and managing programmes and development activities aimed at achieving stability and sustainable growth,'' he said. Excerpts from the interview:

JOURNAL: What is the current mandate of UNOPS? How do you operate?

HELMKE: We have started in 1973 as a Division of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), named the Office for Project Execution (OPE). Over a twenty year period, we have carried out project implementation on behalf of UNDP. October 1994 marked a major development in our evolution, when the United Nations General Assembly established the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) as a separate entity to serve the UN system at large by providing high-quality, flexible and cost-effective management of development projects. UNOPS helps multilateral donors and developing nations achieve their goals -- organizing objectives into workable plans, mobilizing talent and material resources, and managing programmes and development activities aimed at achieving stability and sustainable growth. Currently, we manage project resources worth more than US$600 million a year. UNOPS serves governments, UN agencies, regional and global development banks, and bilateral donors. We offer our clients the best of public and private perspectives, drawing our principles and values from the Charter of the United Nations, and our operational methodologies from the world of international business.

JOURNAL: How is the gradual decline in overall development assistance affecting UNOPS? Has it had any impact on your activities?

HELMKE: From the reports of the OECD, we are all aware of the fact that resources made available for development cooperation have indeed declined substantially in recent years. This has obviously an effect on the activities of the various UN Agencies dealing with development.

However, in this environment of shrinking funds for development cooperation, the UNOPS portfolio, that is the value of the projects entrusted to UNOPS for implementation, has increased by 70% in the last two years. This translates of course into higher delivery as well. Obviously, the composition of UNOPS portfolio changes according to the evolving needs of the clients and changing development assistance policies. Growth areas are presently programmes of social rehabilitation in countries in post-conflict situation and inter-sectoral activities in the environment area.

JOURNAL: What do you see as the major challenges now facing UNOPS?

HELMKE: I would say that today UNOPS faces the same challenge as the whole UN System. As I said before, UNOPS was established in 1995 to serve the UN System at large: agencies have now the possibility to avail themselves of UNOPS implementation and management expertise which could lead to a completely new division of labour, where both parties bring to bear their respective comparative advantages. In this new framework, Specialized Agencies can concentrate on expertise-based inputs in the area of their sectoral mandates, leaving to UNOPS management, contracting and other commercially-based aspects of the joint operations. Since 1995, UNOPS has signed a number of agreements with different UN agencies and organizations,but so far only a few of them have been implemented on a large scale. It seems that the challenge is indeed the reform effort in the United Nations. We in UNOPS are convinced that the services we provide can help our clients to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations. At the same time, our concern with contracting aimed at value for money and our practice of managing the financial risks of the funds entrusted to us can be of use to our UN clients at a time when more has to be done with less. This kind of cooperation has started with organizations like IFAD, the UN International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), and the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). Also recent agreements with the Department for Political Affairs and the Department for Humanitarian Affairs are steps in the right direction.

JOURNAL: What percentage of the goods you purchase comes from developing nations? Has it increased or decreased over the years?

HELMKE: In 1995, UNOPS purchases of goods from the developing countries amounted to almost $40 million. In 1996, the financial year just closed, purchases from developing countries increased to close to $60 million. That is an increasing from 20 to 40% of our purchase operation.

JOURNAL: What are your views on the proposal to set up a single UN agency to handle all procurement within the UN system?

HELMKE: It is easy to see that there is duplication in the UN System when it comes to procurement. Virtually all Specialized Agencies and various departments and offices of the UN Secretariat carry out procurement activities. In fact, the United Nations Association of the US carries out an annual review of the 33 major procurement operations and analyzes their performance. In reviewing procurement practices and approaches in the UN system, it will be noted that many of the Specialized Agencies organize procurement by certain types of commodities that recur in the sector in which they are operating. This is not the case of UNOPS. We have specialized on providing procurement services based on contracting which is tailor made to the specific requirement of each case.