Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ban finds it hard to use the new broom

Ban finds it hard to use the new broom

By : Tunku Abdul Aziz

The United Nations must be brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century — in terms of accountability, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.

THE United Nations (UN) has never been known to do anything by halves, except when it matters most in terms of human misery occasioned by war, strife or famine.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon like his predecessors, faces an uphill task in bringing reforms to the UN.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon like his predecessors, faces an uphill task in bringing reforms to the UN.

To its credit, though, it must be said that it is always ready to give even lost causes a go. The much-needed reform of its own house is one such cause.

Every secretary-general who has occupied the 38th floor of the iconic glass citadel on the East River has never failed to declare as his priority the reform of the UN's lumbering and, by definition, dysfunctional bureaucracy. Kofi Annan's successor, Ban Ki-Moon, made a similar gesture against unethical behaviour, corruption, inefficiency and waste.

Insiders tell me that his grand design, no pun intended, is like attempting a journey to the moon on a broomstick. Ban has come to realise that being a new broom does not sweep clean as far as the UN is concerned.

The UN reform process, like kim chi, is an acquired taste and certainly not for the faint-hearted.
It is not Ban's fault that his management experience has all been derived as a civil servant in an environment that is better known for its autocratic and inflexible "father knows best" regime. That obviously works in Korea but not in the United Nations, as he has already found to the cost of his reputation.

In a recent article that is not without irony, and spiced with a touch of black humour, the well-known and highly respected UN watcher, investigative journalist Claudia Rosett, has this to say: "The would-be regulators of the world's climate (and your wallet) will be jetting to Bali this December for Ban's next UN weather fest: 'UN Climate Change Conference 2007'".

Rosett tells us that "UN policy allows even the lower UN staffers to travel business class on long-haul flights (your tax dollars at work), the better to arrive wined, dined and ready to hit the ground... and the beaches... and the golf courses... and the tennis courts - running. Apparently, there is so much to discuss that the conference will run for a full fortnight, from Dec 3 to 14, at Bali's seaside luxury resort of Nusa Dua".

The ultimate put-down is put forward as a question: "Would 'climate change' be such an urgent UN issue were UN bureaucrats required to hold their meetings without availing themselves so amply of other people's money to enjoy their own convenient change of climate?"

This is the sort of criminal waste of public funds that gives international organisations as a whole a rotten name.

The problem with attempts at reform is that there is no one left with a sense of mission - after the departure of Chris Burnham last year, just before Ban's arrival - to take unpopular but necessary steps to create an environment in which unethical public behaviour would have absolutely no place.

Burnham, as UN under-secretary-general in charge of management, had tried to put in train a number of measures to "battle waste, mismanagement and corruption".

The affable, straight-as-an-arrow, no-nonsense investment banker and reserve US marine colonel had come to the UN with tremendous management experience and a reputation for ethical behavior, but soon found himself confronted by the foot-dragging, general malaise and cynicism that had wrecked earlier attempts at reform.

He must have felt at times that he needed the UN like he needed a hole in the head.

"We are bringing the United Nations into the 21st century - in terms of accountability, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness," he declared during his exit interview.

He no doubt believed that Ban would have what it took to carry the reform agenda forward as articulated by Annan in his "Investing in the UN", a document of great importance that was intended to show the way for a revitalized world organization.

Apart from fully supporting the creation of the UN Ethics Office under my charge, Burnham was instrumental in getting the office to incorporate two important programmes, namely financial disclosures and whistleblower protection, as part of the overall strategy for good, ethical governance.

He was "really proud" of the new whistleblower protection policy drafted by my team of extremely capable UN staffers, headed by Nancy-Hurtz Soyka, because he thought it was "the best in the world".

Burnham might have been too rash when he said: "We will soon have a culture that will not lie or cheat."

Since Burnham's return to the private sector as an investment banker, nothing at the UN has changed, and insiders who are in touch with me despair of the lack of progress on the reform front.

In a briefing the Ethics Office gave last year to Annan, in the company of his under-secretaries-general and assistant secretaries-general resident in New York (and televised to duty stations around the world), I reminded my audience that:

"The reform initiative before us is awesome in its scope and possible impact. This is not a tinkering job for a mere technician because we are talking about a comprehensive change of the order of magnitude that has never been attempted before in the history of an organization that is as large and complex as ours. The primary purpose of reform is to better prepare ourselves as international civil servants to serve the world community more efficiently in a highly demanding, ever changing and unforgiving environment. Not to press ahead with it, is to miss a great opportunity to serve our member states, and to redeem ourselves."

It would be naive to believe that the UN would cease to incubate corrupt practices because Ban said he would not tolerate corruption in any shape or form.

This then raises the question: "Has the secretary-general the strength, and the will, to remain focused on this unglamorous but vital part of his otherwise glamorous job on the 38th floor?" The world is watching his performance with keen interest.

The writer is a former special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on ethics. He can be contacted at

1 comment:

Eric said...

An excellent start,
However - yo have seen nothig yet. Allow us to feed you on what goes on in the country offices - for in the HQ we send less than 10% for approval