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September 07, 2005

UN management reform -- who's in charge at the UN?
Posted by David Shorr

Two weeks ago a senior US official reassured me that the UN reform talks would reach an agreement in time for next week's summit, but that there would be tough bargaining along the way. "It's going to get ugly," the official warned. And ugly it has gotten.

Negotiators have abandoned the seven working groups that were focused on the major issues of development, terrorism, disarmament, human rights, response to genocide, peacebuilding, and management reform (see below). This is a concession to the reality that lower level diplomats in those groups were not empowered to make the needed compromises.

Nor is there any progress to report in the core negotiating group of over 30 countries. Yesterday some of the ugliness took the form of diplomatic niceties.  Apparently much of yesterday's bargaining session was taken up with bland statements welcoming a new working draft submitted by UN General Assembly President Jean Ping, the Gabonese foreign minister who has been leading the reform talks.

Speaking of the draft, by the tally of a colleague here, there are between 250-300 suggested changes in the new draft (depending on how you count). As the clock ticks down to the summit, practical questions become a consideration -- like how much time will UN translators need to translate the statement into various languages?

In a closely related development, the Volcker commission on the Oil-for-Food program released its definitive report today. The so-called Independent Inquire Committee highlighted the implications for and in their press release  made the important point that the member states on the UN Security Council must share blame rather than scapegoat Kofi Annan and his Secretariat staff.

One passage from the report preface is worth quoting at length:

Neither the Security Council nor the Secretariat leadership was clearly in command. That turned out to be a recipe for the dilution of Secretariat authority and evasion of responsibility at all levels. When things went awry -- and they surely did -- when troublesome conflicts arose between political objectives and administrative effectiveness, decisions were delayed, bungled, or simply shunned.

I don't think you could find a clearer statement of the UN's fundamental management problem. With most administrative matters, it is the General Assembly's Fifth Committee (comprised of all GA member states) that hamstrings the Secretariat. In effect, the Secretary-General is supervised -- micromanaged really -- by a board of directors with 191 members. No CEO in the corporate world would work under these conditions.

So what management changes are proposed in the UN reform talks to improve the situation? First of all, since the Oil-for-Food scandal highlights the importance of oversight and financial controls, would-be reformers want to strengthen the UN's internal oversight office and give it an advisory board of outsiders to advocate for its needs.

The draft UN summit document would also set in motion a more detailed review of the various administrative burdens that member states put on the Secretariat. The Secretary-General is supposed to study existing budgetary and personnel regulations, review the mandates of offices and programs that are older than five years, and submit in early 2006 a plan of action for proposed changes.

In effect then, some of the key decisions are being deferred. But only for a few months, during which it should be possible to sustain the political momentum (especially after the Volcker report) and shine the the bright light of day onto the real problems. In fact, 0ne gauge of the seriousness of these steps is how vehemently they are being resisted in the current negotiations.

The management reform under discussion is one example, among many, of reforms long sought by the US. Now we'll see whether the Bush Administration can carry the reform package across the goal line.


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Some quick ideas that come immediately to mind:

1. There are a small horde of agencies with single-issue mandates. (I am excluding here technical groups like the ITU, UPU, FAO, IMO, ICAO, etc.; I mean groups like UNRWA.) The Palestinian issue has generated most of them, but not all.

You could get a lot of administrative (and other) savings, and restore some sanity to affairs, if you folded those agencies into their nearest broad-mandate cousin. UNRWA into UNHCR, for example; Fold some of the Mideast PKOs into a broader package administratively, or (even better) shut down some of the zombies like UNTSO (what, precisely, do they still do? UNDOF handles Syria and the Golan, UNIFIL handles Lebanon, and Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel (and thus presumably graduated from UNTSO's ambit)...).

2. The Agenda should be stripped of the Agenda items that keep coming up. The GA agenda has stuff on it from the 1970s; Put down those dogs.

3. Mandate revaluations of the formulas used to assess dues (general and peacekeeping) every 5 years. Like the US Constitution's requirement for a decennial census, this helps to make sure that the burdens reflect reality.

Thanks for the comments. I'll respond in order.
1. As you know, everything having to do with Israel and Palestine is sui generis, so folding UNWRA into HCR could be tough.
2. A lot of hot air could definitely be saved if the GA stopped debating the "hardy perennial" issues that come up every year but with no conclusion or action. There has been discussion of something along the lines of the agenda-setting Rules Committee as they have in the U.S. House of Representatives.
3. After all the time and effort that was expended over the last re-assessment (Suzanne was directly involved), I'm not sure I'd wish that on our friends in New York

I'm a bit befuddled on this "Oil for Food" program, its ensuing "corruption," the investigation by Volcker, and, summarily, Volcker's report. If memory serves me correctly, didn't this U.S. Administration have those partciular funds transferred to the U.S. for safekeeping as the Iraq war progressed? And, did not the U.S. totally expend these same funds -- and without accountability? As I said, I'm a bit befuddled and any enlightment by others on this subject would be appreciated.

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