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Sustainable Tourism-Eliminating Poverty

ST-EP: A big misstep for UNWTO?

Nelson Alcantara  Jun 08, 2009

United Nations World Tourism Organization affiliated offices (Osaka and Korea) were recently audited with regards to the various programs that are using the UNTWO logo. In the words, of Taleb Rifai, the UNWTO incoming secretary general, “A lot of controversy was centered around the ST-EP Foundation.” Find out why and what he intends to do to rectify the situation in the exclusive chat with eTN below.

eTN: To put it simply, what the audit highlights is that ST-EP hasn't really fulfilled its promise.
Rifai: I believe this is a little bit unfair to the ST-EP foundation. I think what the report outlined is that decisions were taken by the foundation that were not completely clear or inline or consistent with what the secretariat was doing. Or, the other side of the story is that the secretariat was not completely aware or the ST-EP Foundation did not get from the secretariat what it really needed. To conclude that the foundation was not able to fulfill its role when it’s only less than two and a half years old with a mandate such as eliminating poverty is a little bit unfair. I think they did a lot, they were able to raise money, and they were able to produce a very significant, small, but impactful projects. It's not the output that is at question here, it is the management of the governance model that is at question.

eTN: Which brings me to the question. Being that Korea donated US$5 million, how much influence do they have currently on the management of ST-EP?
Rifai: That is exactly the point: Is ST-EP a Korean foundation or a UNWTO foundation? It's neither. This is where the confusion is. From the principle point of view, it is not a Korean foundation; it's a UNWTO foundation. From a practical and realistic point of view, the kind of relationship that has developed throughput the last two years was not one that enabled us at UNWTO or the foundation to clearly say who is running the show. It's a management challenge, not a challenge of substance.

eTN: How do you meet the challenge of transparency?
Rifai: By clearly defining where we stand. And I am more in favor of saying of going one of two clear paths: either we say that absolutely and completely a part and partial of UNWTO and we manage it, we direct it, we appoint the people in charge, we audit it, and we make sure all programs are consistent with our programs or we say no, let's respect the integrity of each one of these organizations. This is a Korean organization and they have absolutely every right to utilize their money or other people's money. It's a foundation registered in Korea, and we operate as a secretariat with them in accordance to a memorandum of understanding that defines the roles of each and every one of them.

eTN: So which one is it?
Rifai: Which one are we going to put in place? Well, I am simply saying as the person in-charge of the secretariat I am ready to live with either of those options depending what the Korean government would prefer. What I am not ready to live with is anything in between.

eTN: I am still confused. So, who then decides?
Rifai: We definetely have to decide on this, but we cannot decide alone. We have to sit down with the people from Korea, with the foundation people and we say this is one model and this is the other model. I, from the secretariat perspective, am ready to live with either models. I am ready to live with a model that says this is yours, you take care of it. If we take care of it, then have to completely direct it and completely control it. If the Korean partners wish a different level of autonomy or a different level of operation, then I would respect the fact that this would remain an independent organization.

eTN: Then ST-EP wouldn't be a UNWTO initiative.
Rifai: Absolutely. It would be a ST-EP Foundation without neither using our name nor our logo, but absolutely one that works with us on joint projects and can very easily say that they are a foundation that is working in association with the UNWTO whichever the formula is. But, not this confused model, of neither part of us, nor independent from us.

eTN: Why was this not defined from day one?
Rifai: You know, you start with good intentions and you try to move along to see how things develop. Many issues that are on the table now were probably not anticipated. And this is just not with the ST-EP Foundation, you know. With the Center of Excellence in Montreal we faced the same issue and we settled it in one very clear direction. This is a center that is based in Montreal, funded by the government of Canada, it is an independent center, has its own program. We have absolutely no control or any desire to control its budget and management team, but we are engaged with them on a three years memorandum of understanding which defines the interface between us. Once the three years is over, we either re-new or modify this understanding or we don't. So, the model is clear.

eTN: There’s talk within media circle that former UNWTO secretary general Frangialli is going to head ST-EP, can you confirm this?
Rifai: Well, the current board of directors of the ST-EP Foundation did recommend to name Franceso Frangielli as president of the foundation. They did take such a decision. This decision has not become active yet. So in that sense, yes, I confirm, they took this decision. The board of the foundation took the decision, but I think all of this will have to be seen in the light of how we decide on the relationship with ST-EP. That has to be done before the general assembly in October. If we go to the option of ST-EP is an independent foundation that is free to decide who are the members of its board, who is its president, how to run their accounting, their budgets, their programs and their plans, they are free to choose whoever they want to be president or head of this foundation. If, on the other hand, the model is different, this whole realm of this decision will have to come back to the secretariat and will have to be reviewed in that light.

eTN: Is it a bit unfair to those who have donated to ST-EP who did so under the premise that it is under the UNWTO umbrella? Now you’re saying that you’re ready to relinquish the control to Korea if it becomes an independent organization. How would you justify this to those who have donated?
Rifai: I have to clarify one thing--the ST-EP Foundation is a part of the ST-EP Initiative. People that have donated to the ST-EP Initiatives have donated in majority of donations outside of the ST-EP Foundations, directly with us. Organizations like SNV, Italian government, French government. All of these initiatives were operated under our direct management, not the management of the ST-EP Foundation. The fact is, the funds and donation of the foundation continue to remain primarily those of Korea. So, no funds from other donors have gone into the budget of the foundation as such. So there is absolutely no effect on our relationship with the foundation and how it develops. There's no effect on any other projects and other donations. We have a department within UNWTO that is working with other partners other than the foundation on ST-EP Initiatives. ST-EP is a concept. It is not just a foundation.

eTN: So what’s ST-EP as a foundation, what has it done? Its achievements?
Rifai: It has done two very important things. First, it has raised the most substantial amount of money by the Korean government, which has encouraged others, in principle, to buy into this idea, and, of course, through the funds raised in the foundation we were able to execute the largest number of projects. The foundation commissioned us as secretariat to be executors of this project, just like UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) or the World Bank. In that regard, they have contributed. The second most important part that the foundation has contributed to is raising the awareness of the potential impact and the potential of tourism vis-à-vis poverty alleviation on the level of awareness and consciousness they have done a great deal and I must give them credit for that.

eTN: So the US$5 million dollars was used to raise awareness?
Rifai: And implement projects. We have over $2.5-$3 million that went directly into projects.

eTN: Can you name some of those projects?
Rifai: Oh, absolutely. We have 54 projects in Africa, Latina America and Asia. I can provide you with complete lists of those. Ethiopia, Senegal, Mali, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Vietnam.

ST-EP:  A big misstep for UNWTO?
Taleb Rifai (eTN stock photo)

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