Bad Practices of the UN tender systems with translation providers
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THE UNITED NATIONS EXPERIENCE






This could be the name of a band (like the “Jimi Hendrix Experience”) or the title of a movie (like “The Human Experience”). However, clearly, it’s not worth a song and probably it’s not enough for a movie, but maybe it is enough for a press conference. And this, because it raises questions regarding the transparency, good practices and probity inside the UN’s procurement systems; and noncompliance with the UN’s Charter by some of its employees, mainly appropriate (and timely) communication, and treating the human person with dignity and respect.

Below I detail my experience trying to get some job opportunity with the UN procurement systems and with those UN organisations most related to my fields of competence. I hope my bad experience is of use to other freelancers who might believe the UN is an accessible customer, compliant with good practices. I hope this saves you, efforts, wasted time, money and, of course, mental stress or anxiety.

In October 2013 I registered in the UN Procurement Department’s online system: UNGM or “The United Nations Global Marketplace” believing it was THE means to contact UN buyers of translation services at all levels from RFP’s, RFQ’s up to multimillion tenders. By November, about 25 UN organisations had accepted my registration as a potential supplier. As I could not pay for the alert service (USD250), I visited the UNGM website every day in search of opportunities. After 6 months of this, with no offers in my language pair (English-Spanish) or a volume/deadline an individual translator can cope with (the only three were clearly for agencies or big teams), I started researching each organisation’s website. Here I discovered that many organisations (i.e. UNEP, UNDP, etc.) have parallel procurement systems, and others have consultants rosters (i.e. ITC and UNFCCC), and registered in each one, seven in total. Additionally, I found 14 web pages of UN organisations where requests for proposals or job opportunities are published and I sent over 35 enquiries to regional offices, specially those in my country, asking to be considered if they needed quotes on small purchases for any translation project in my language pair.
After more than a year, no UN organisation, no local or regional representative of these has asked me to send him a miserable quote, take part in a competition, least offer me directly a translation job. Neither have I been contacted through any consultants’ roster. I did get acknowledgment of receipt for three of the 35 emails (OIT, UNDP and CBD).
In addition, in all this time, and visiting all those websites on a daily basis, the only UN organisation purchasing page/website that published an RFP for translation in my language pair was PNUMA/UNEP’s.

This organisation, with offices in Panama, required sending two copies of all documents by registered snail mail (CV, translation samples, recommendations (any document in Spanish had to be accompanied by an English version), etc.), a total of about 600 grs and USD60 mailing cost in my case. After evaluating the proposals, those who would clear the minimum requirements would be part of a shortlist and would have to take a written translation test. I was careful to comply with all the formal requirements, I am an expert in the topics to translate, I have +40 years experience, I sent good references, etc., so, at least, I expected to get into the shortlist.
After the deadline (20th February), they didn’t acknowledge receipt of the proposal. I sent an email on the 19th march asking for feedback on the progress of the procedure. On the 13th April, I sent another, more detailed enquiry. On the 23rd April, I sent another courteous email asking for information. On the 24th May, I filed a complaint with the UN’s Purchasing Department, on the following basis:
- Multiple emails asking for information regarding the progress or outcome of the proposal were ignored.
- Quotes were expected to be valid only for 120 days.
- The RFP included the requirement of a forthcoming translation test (surely, at least, 30 days before the 120 days were over).
- My background is highly compatible with the requirements of this RFP, so I must doubt I would be rejected from a shortlist because of technical reasons.
- I have quite a bit of experience with tenders, and I double-checked that my submission complied with the formal/administrative requirements.
- The RFP has a prohibition to communicate with UNEP staff regarding this procurement, but I suppose it refers to the contents of proposals or any unethical behaviour, and not about the outcome of the procedure in general or the final results (or when they would be available).
- UNEP’s website does not publish any information regarding these results.

On 18th June, I received a phone call from someone allegedly in New York and working in the Procurement Department, speaking an English with a noticeable Spanish accent, and promising someone called Manuel Corimo from UNEP would contact me and deliver information. Never heard from since.

In Chile we have a government procurement system that doesn’t work very well. Winners usually offer below ground fees, evaluations are questionable, some requirements show little knowledge of our business, and some recurrent bidders have built for themselves a track history that is very difficult to match without going below ground (something that challenges the competitiveness and fairness of the system and its barriers for entry). Nevertheless, with all its problems, at least, it is transparent, and anyone in any doubt about the fairness of the evaluations and outcome can judge for himself. It’s not the same with UNEP.

I have wasted more than a year following UN websites, which offer no opportunities. I wasted my time sending emails to 35 organisations, which don’t offer equal opportunities, a simple quote from different translators (I don’t believe that in all this time they haven’t needed any external translator, at least once – I have seen translators CV’s with UN references before). I wasted (not an investment as I expected) over USD 60 in documents, packaging and registered mail to deliver a bid to an organisation, which shows no respect to professionals that make the effort and want to collaborate with it.
Luckily, I didn’t have the means to pay for the Alert Service or I would have wasted another USD 250 for each year I have been searching for an opportunity.

No, UN organizations don’t have equal opportunities for highly competent professionals, at least not in translation. And I am highly competent, I don’t need to brag about it, my background shows it, my published translations are evidence, my successful test results are proof of it, my knowledge and analysis disseminated throughout the web are signs of it and my satisfied clients are an added value. Probably there are others, which are better, but the UN will never know that because they never gave me the chance. The UNEP didn’t even dare test me. Who knows why! Maybe the test was taken in Panama and in Braille.

For an organisation's purchasing system, which has to manage tenders at the million-dollar level, the services of a freelance translator, or small purchases, are a drop in the bucket; for the freelance translator it can be survival or not. Some people are incapable of getting into other people’s shoes, or they simply don't care. And the UN is an organisation one expects should care!





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