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Speakers Question Need for Outside Appraisal of Flexible Workplace, Voice Concern about Renovation Delays, as Fifth Committee Reviews Construction Projects

Delegates in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) today expressed concern about delays in renovating the historic Africa Hall at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa and questioned the need for an independent evaluation of the ongoing flexible workplace renovation at New York Headquarters, as they debated construction and property management matters.

The delegate of Botswana, speaking for the African Group and aligning himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, voiced his concerns with the 11‑month slippage in the main renovation of Africa Hall and the possibility of additional delays.  The African Group will seek details about how the project will be delivered within its approved scope, budget and timeline, he said.

The observer for the State of Palestine, speaking for the Group of 77, said the Group is satisfied with the culmination of the Zambezi Building at the ECA facilities and the remaining components of the ancillary works, such as the car ramp and electrical and sanitary works.

Ethiopia’s delegate said his Government, as ECA host, is committed to providing all necessary support to ensure the project’s timely completion.

Pedro Guazo, Director of the Finance Division of the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance’s Office of Programme Planning, Finance and Budget, introduced the Secretary‑General’s report on the topic and said the Zambezi Building project is now finally completed and closed out.  Yet the Africa Hall renovation completion date has been delayed until December 2022 due to the late appointment of the contractor.  Julia Maciel, Vice Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introduced its related reports on the matter.

Taking the floor again, this time to discuss the flexible workplace project at New York Headquarters, Mr. Katkhuda spoke for the Group of 77 and noted that the project is slated for completion by the end of 2020 with an overall anticipated cost of $54.98 million.  While supportive of an independent evaluation of the project, the Group will consider the usefulness of an evaluation by an external consultancy, since the project is in its final stage.  It also will consider the use of in‑house expertise, while aware of the heavy workload of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and Board of Auditors.

Patrick Carey, Director of the Department of Operational Support’s Division of Administration, introduced the Secretary‑General’s report on implementing the flexible workplace strategies, noting that as of today, 19 floors of the Secretariat Building have been reconfigured, with an added capacity of 1,106.  There are now about 2,200 staff members working in flexible work space.  Later in the month, work will begin on the twenty‑fifth and twenty‑sixth floors, now occupied by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  The overall project cost and timeline remain as indicated in the second progress report of October 2017, but an additional $378,000 is being sought for the requested independent evaluation of the project.  The General Assembly is being asked to appropriate $8.3 million for the project costs and an independent evaluation in 2020, he said.

In other business, Committee Chairman Andreas Mavroyiannis (Cyprus) said the Assembly has approved his request to extend the Fifth Committee’s work for the main session from Friday, 13 December, to Tuesday, 24 December.  He emphasized this means the Fifth Committee effectively needs to conclude its negotiations by Friday, 20 December, at the latest.  This is necessary to allow for the extensive closing activities needed before the formal adoption of all resolutions on Tuesday, 24 December.  “Extending until this date, does not in any way imply adherence to the Parkinson’s law that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’,” he added.

He said Assembly President Muhammad‑Bande asked him to urge all delegations to do their utmost to conclude their work by 20 December.  “There can be no extension beyond this date, since 24 December is the absolute deadline, thus we ought to put every possible effort in order to finish before that,” he said.

Economic Commission for Africa and Flexible Work Space at Headquarters

PEDRO GUAZO, Director, Finance Division, Office of Programme Planning, Finance and Budget, Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, introduced the Secretary‑General’s report on progress in the renovation of Africa Hall and the construction of new office facilities at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa (document A/74/328), which highlights the renovation project and the close‑out of the new office facility project.  Regarding the latter, he said that the retention payment to the contractor has been released and the project is now finally completed and closed out.

Regarding the renovation of Africa Hall, the implementation of the early‑decanting works began in January 2018 and is now in its final stage, he said.  The contract for the main renovation works was signed in May 2019.  The contractor is facing difficulties in mobilizing resources for the project and construction is expected to begin in the near future.  The late appointment of the contractor has caused delays in the project timeline of about 11 months, with expected completion by December 2022.  The project team is closely monitoring the schedule and will keep developing and carrying out mitigating measures to minimize or avoid further delays, he said.  Noteworthy progress has been made in negotiations with the host country regarding the use of land needed by the Commission to provide parking space for future visitors of the Africa Hall visitors’ centre and permanent exhibition.  A final agreement is expected to be signed soon.

PATRICK CAREY, Director, Division of Administration, Department of Operational Support, introduced the Secretary‑General’s report on the implementation of flexible workplace strategies at United Nations Headquarters (document A/74/345),  He said that as of today, 19 floors of the Secretariat Building have been reconfigured to flexible workplace with an added capacity of 1,106 and about 2,200 staff members working in flexible work space.  This month, work will start on the twenty‑fifth and twenty‑sixth floors, presently occupied by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  Once renovated, the twenty‑fifth floor will accommodate the United Nations Development Coordination Office.  By the project’s completion, overall capacity will have increased by 1,368.  The report gives details of the staff surveys and focus groups carried out in May 2019.  The overall project cost and timeline remains as presented in the second progress report of October 2017, but an additional $378,000 is being sought for the requested independent evaluation of the project.  The General Assembly is requested to appropriate $8.3 million for the project costs and an independent evaluation in 2020, he said.

JULIA MACIEL, Vice‑Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introduced that body’s related reports (documents A/74/7/Add.19 and  A/74/7/Add.18).  On facilities at the ECA in Addis Ababa, the Advisory Committee welcomes that the construction of new office facilities, or Zambezi Building, and ancillary works have been completed, but notes with concern that there are many unknown factors about the start‑up of the Africa Hall renovation project to be undertaken by the contractor.  The project schedule has already been delayed by 11 months, she said, expressing concern about further postponements to completing the entire project.  The Advisory Committee trusts that the Secretary‑General will provide the General Assembly with detailed updates on the status of the contractor’s work and closely monitor and implement the necessary risk mitigation measures to ensure that the project will be delivered within the scope, budget and timeline as approved by the Assembly.  The African Hall and its visitors’ centre should be made available to all who are interested in visiting this historic landmark, regardless of their ability to pay.

Turning to the implementation of a flexible workplace at United Nations Headquarters, the Advisory Committee notes that the estimated total cost of the project remains unchanged at $54.98 million and concurs with the Board of Auditors’ recommendation that the Administration should closely monitor and manage the remaining works to ensure the completion of flexible workspace project in 2020 within the estimated cost.  Noting the lack of information and transparency about the planned relocation of the fourth and fifth floors of the FF Building and the scheduled relocation of the fifth floor this month, the Advisory Committee recommends that the budget for floor rental should be reduced from the requested amount of $1.13 million.  As for the $378,000 requested for an independent evaluation of the flexible workspace project, the Advisory Committee recommends against such spending, as it is not convinced of the need for such external evaluation at this final stage of the project.  For 2020, the Advisory Committee recommends approval of $7.93 million for the continuation of the project management team and for project activities.

SAED KATKHUDA, observer for the State of Palestine, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the Group is satisfied with the culmination of the Zambezi Building and the remaining components of the ancillary works, including the car ramp and the electrical and sanitary works.  Regarding the renovation of Africa Hall, the Group notes the efforts of the ECA to engage with external experts such as exhibition curators and those who work on artwork restoration and information technology.  Yet the hiring process for communications services and resource mobilization experts lacks clarity and the Group will seek additional information during informal sessions.  The Group urges the Secretary‑General to use local knowledge, materials, technology and capacity for both the construction and operation of the renovation project.

He stressed the critical importance of effective governance, oversight, transparency and accountability to ensure the project is implemented within the approved budget and timetable.  The Group highlights the recommendations of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and the Board of Auditors to expedite the project’s activities and avoid any delays in its implementation; it hopes to better understand during informal consultations about the Secretary‑General’s plan to accommodate the recommendations.  Underscoring the Africa Hall’s historical significance and the importance of conserving this landmark heritage site, the Group is pleased that the planning and design development for the permanent exhibition is at an advanced stage and should be completed by year‑end.  It hopes the involvement of the African World Heritage Fund, an official partner of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), will lead to UNESCO formally recognizing the interactive exhibition wall as a World Heritage site.  The Group is fully confident that the United Nations and Addis Ababa city administration will soon sign a lease agreement to let the ECA build a vehicle parking lot, at no extra cost to Member States, for the parcel of land.

KATLEGO MMALANE (Botswana), speaking on behalf of the African Group and aligning himself with the Group of 77, said that the African Group is grateful to the Ethiopian Government for its consistent support of the ECA, including the donation of the historic Africa Hall and the operational arrangements which provide privileges and immunities related to the implementation project.  It is also grateful for upcoming agreements on the use, at no cost, of a vehicle parking lot for 60 years, with a possible extension.  The Group also welcomes the successful completion of the construction of the Zambezi Building and auxiliary work in September 2018, which will allow for the issuance of the final completion certificate.  The Africa Group appreciates the Secretary‑General’s commitment to ensure the preservation of the facility’s historical and architectural integrity.  It stresses the need to continue to engage key stakeholders, including the host Government, the African Union and UNESCO, in the project.

Regarding voluntary contributions, the African Group appreciates the $52,191 donation by the Government of Mali despite the country’s many challenges, he said.  It also welcomes the Swiss Government’s pledge of a voluntary contribution and encourages the Secretary‑General to work with other Member States to mobilize additional voluntary contributions and other forms of support for the Africa Hall’s renovation.  It will seek to clarify the Commission’s intention to hire a consultant to provide expertise and support to develop a detailed resource mobilization plan.  Regarding timelines and schedules, the African Group notes the Secretariat’s optimism in completing the project with the maximum overall budget of $56.9 million approved by the Assembly.  It reiterates its concern about the 11‑month slippage of the main renovation works and possible additional delays.  The Group will seek details about measures taken to avoid the risks and ensure the project will be delivered within the approved scope, budget and timeline, he said.

TAYE ATSKESELASSIE AMDE (Ethiopia) said that his country, as host of the ECA, will provide all necessary support to ensure the timely completion of the project.  The Government signed a project‑specific agreement with the ECA on customs processing, importation of goods and construction materials, as well as the issuance of visas for expatriates, to facilitate the timely implementation of the project.  The Government is ready to sign a lease agreement for the plot of the land as an in‑kind contribution to constructing vehicle parking space.  Noting that the Africa Hall would be a great addition to the tourist attraction sites in Africa’s diplomatic capital, he stressed the need to raise awareness about the Hall’s significance to African heritage and history through partnerships with academic institutions and regional and international museums.  This historic landmark should be open to all categories of visitors, such as tourists, researchers, students and residents and guests, regardless of their ability to pay an entrance fee.  It is important to exempt fees for children and students — the future leaders of Africa.  With Ethiopia pursuing a climate‑resilient green economy, he went on to encourage the ECA and the project team to ensure the use of clean energy sources.  Appropriate precautionary measures should be taken during the removal of debris and possible hazardous materials, he added.

Mr. KATKHUDA, observer for the State of Palestine, speaking again for the Group of 77, expressed appreciation for the update on the implementation of the flexible workplace project and noted that 17 out of the projected 26 floors of the Secretariat had been reconfigured as of August 2019, with an overall additional capacity of 994 staff and an estimated 374 remaining.  The Group supports the recommendations of the Board of Auditors and the Advisory Committee on the Administration’s need to closely monitor and conclude the project in 2020, within the estimated cost.  As the additional capacity increases, the Group looks forward to receiving more detailed information on the status of the termination of leases in commercial buildings, the relocation of staff, and potential reduction in rental costs arising from the relocation, and the related impact on the proposed resource level for the relevant section in the proposed programme budget for 2020.  The Group notes the project is expected to be finished by the end of 2020 with an overall anticipated cost of $54.98 million, of which more than $34 million was incurred during the 2015‑2018 period, and $13.05 million is estimated for the completion of the project schedule in 2019.

The Group acknowledges that the Secretary‑General is requesting the remaining $7.93 million of the overall cost as an appropriation for the project’s conclusion in 2020, taking into account that that there will be no rental savings during the year, he said.  The Group reiterates that a well substantiated, reliable and predictable business case is essential for the Fifth Committee’s consideration of costly, major transformation initiatives, especially when expenses are planned to supersede the overall projected cost of the project.  The Group is also concerned about the decline in the productivity scores, compared to previous years, as reflected in the latest post‑occupancy staff survey in May on flexible, workplace strategies.  In this regard, while the Group remains supportive of an independent evaluation of the project, it will consider the utility of an evaluation being conducted by an external consultancy, since the project is in its final stage.  It also will consider the merits of the use of in‑house expertise, while aware of the heavy workload of the OIOS and Board of Auditors.

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