1. With yet another scandal erupting in UNDP - one cannot help concluding that something is seriously wrong with the United Nations. There is simply no room for complacency when this once well-respected organisation is suddenly seen stumbling from one corruption scandal into another, visibly unable to stop the rot.
2. How this long trail of crises may impact the Organisation and influence the course of reform is still too early to tell. What seems beyond any doubt is that the flaws are systemic, deeply ingrained into the structures currently in place; not just unfortunate symptoms of erratic human behaviour. As Nobelist J. Stiglitz once put it: if one accident occurs at a busy intersection, we call it “just an accident”. If ten “accidents” occur at this same intersection, in the course of a single day, they are no longer “accidents”. The system is at fault.
3. In fact, such was the sense that the UN Staff Council has made of recent developments at Turtle Bay. In a landmark resolution (RES/32/47) passed in September 2007, this representative body of UN employees deplored what it described as “a culture of impunity permeating the higher levels of the Organisation, compounded by a dysfunctional internal justice system, which continues to deny staff members justice”. The move was unprecedented and the language unusually strong, calling on Mr. Ban, the new Secretary-General, “to put his house in order”.
4. It is hardly surprising that the UN Staff Council should voice its deep concern over actions and decisions, which seriously undermine the prestige and credibility of the United Nations. What is even more remarkable is how, in a few words, it has been able to express what is precisely wrong: a “culture of impunity in the higher ranks of the Service”; a dysfunctional justice system, and a fragmented structure, which makes the UN today look like East Asia or Europe during the Age of Feudalism. Restoring a semblance of unity, of order and sound management may well need to begin with a review and revision of some of the departures of the past 15 years which, on the hallowed principle of “decentralisation”, fragmented the Organisation and sapped the needed coherence of its internal management.
5. Observers of the system will tell you that, periodically over the years, the UN Organisation has veered from one extreme of centralisation, to pronounced decentralisation. Still, until the early nineties there was a system in place. The locus of responsibility for the implementation of policies occasionally shifted, sometimes in the direction of the “Executive Offices”, in charge of the administration of the individual departments, and sometimes the other way, back to the central body in charge of overall management. However more importantly, until the early nineties, we had in the UN what an Executive Officer, who left at about that time, described characteristically as "an employee-friendly organization".
6. Not any longer. All of this came to an end in the wake of “decentralisation”, which gave the “programme managers” – mostly the Heads of Divisions – the power to hire and fire and virtually total control of their respective staff. Past safeguards introduced out of concern for equity were brusquely attenuated. The logic was impeccable; mostly private sector – inspired. According to this argument, the quality of outputs of any given Division or Department depended on total control over the needed inputs. The move to decentralise let it be understood that UN programme managers had been too greatly hampered by lack of such control and the “overprotection” of staff.
7. For all those who remember the seventies and the eighties at the United Nations, there may be a grain of truth in this line of argument. But while “overprotection” of the staff, during these earlier decades may have created problems in isolated cases, the other extreme has proved to be far worse. It cannot be overlooked that the United Nations does not operate on the logic of private enterprise and that its senior managers only remotely resemble CEOs of private firms. Tasks and attendant risks are simply not the same. Moreover, senior managers at the United Nations are subject to the ever-present tensions between their obligations under the UN Charter (Article 101 and Regulation I), which define their responsibilities as “exclusively international”, and pressures from national governments to which some often yield.
8. To compound the problem, two major attendant developments have further undermined the staff members’ sense of security and their trust in the Organisation. One is the drastic reduction of “permanent” appointments. They are now virtually limited to people who have entered after competing successfully in the National Professional Competitive Examination. The other significant factor was recently highlighted in the landmark resolution of the UN Staff Council: “a dysfunctional internal justice system” coupled with a fragmented organisational structure. The cumulative effect has clearly been to enhance the hold of senior managers over their staff, but correspondingly also to weaken the latter’s position.
9. None of this appears on paper. On paper, guarantees in the form of internal controls, an “Ethics Infrastructure” and “Accountability Mechanisms” are all in place. But do they work in practice? Too many recent happenings suggest that the answer is “NO”. An Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS) exists. It has no enforcement powers, cannot “sub-poena” documents and must depend on goodwill from members of the staff of the audited department, whose friendly disposition cannot be taken for granted. However heavily “edited” to ease the susceptibilities of senior programme managers, its final audit reports have very little effect. The targeted department may simply choose to ignore or opt out of them. This happened to audits on Procurement Divisions, on Funds and Programme and even in satellite offices and regional projects administered from OCHA and UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. What prompted the Staff Council to pass it Resolution of August 27 was the UNDP’s failure to abide by a decision of the United Nations Ethics Office and the Secretary-General’s reluctance to enforce ST/SGB/2005/21 in the face of opposition from the UNDP “higher levels”.
10. Implausibly, the UNDP has argued that the Circular protecting whistleblowers from retaliatory acts, did not apply to its staff. As if to assuage staff members’ discontent and counter bad publicity, UNDP declared its intention to “investigate itself”. It was manifestly oblivious of the fact and ancient legal principle that “no one is best judge in his own case” (nemo judex in causa sua).
11. Not surprisingly, in these circumstances, the message to the staff throughout the Organisation is plainly not to expect that justice will be done. In the prevailing climate of growing insecurity and declining staff morale, the lesson that staff members may be inclined to draw is to play it safe and look the other way in the face of arbitrariness, malfeasance or mismanagement. One does not have to read between the lines of the latest audit report to realise that, sadly, abuses and mismanagement are not in short supply. They mostly go unreported. If anything transpires which might make senior management look bad, the “little guys” are faulted, preferably in distant places. Twice in a row this happened with the recently BoM, OCHA and DESA audited project. Likewise, in UNDP little guys paid dearly for doing their duty to speak.
12. One needs to fathom the causes for this “culture of impunity” in the higher ranks of the Service, and the attendant culture of fear and conformity below. Other than fragmentation and the visible “infeudation” of parts of the Secretariat, we must look to the primacy accorded to “fund-raising” and “resource mobilisation” as major contributing factors. Simply put, the Organisation spends many times the amount that it receives in the form of the Regular Budget voted by the General Assembly. Extra-budgetary resources come from many different sources – mostly from contributions of major donor governments. What happens to these funds and how well they are expended requires more careful scrutiny than they receive at present.
13. However, more importantly, the cumulative effects of this increased dependency on “voluntary” contributions, chiefly from Member States, must also be confronted. We know only too well that, also internationally, there simply is “no free lunch”. This is certainly borne out by the United Nations’ evolving pattern of “operational activities”. Long gone are the laborious “programming cycles”, which in the past decades, in spite of limitations, served to ensure that programmes of technical cooperation with the developing countries were truly demand-driven. One has reason to believe that nowadays “who pays the piper calls the tune”. Of course, sometimes this works. However, all too often, in this “fund-raising” environment, high-visibility projects are those that will find favour. Sound bites and style over substance become the rule of the game. With decentralisation of power to hire and fire and lack of adequate safeguards, the effects on the selection and management of staff can hardly be beneficial. Expectedly, they induce a rampant disregard for independent judgment, professional integrity, and the staff’s disposition to “speak the truth to power”.
14. One hopes that this will change, indeed change for the better. But this will only happen if certain conditions are met. From what has been previously argued, chief among these conditions are: [a] the righting of the downsides of decentralisation; [b] making managers accountable in practice; not only in word or paper; [c] restoring and reinforcing the safeguards for the staff throughout the Organisation; [d] arresting and reversing the fragmentation of the United Nations, which has advanced too far; [e] building an effective and autonomous Ombudsman institution, which can protect staff members from the culture of impunity in the higher ranks of the Service; [f] protecting whistleblowers; and [g] significantly raising the effectiveness, autonomy and independence of the accountability mechanisms and ethics infrastructures.
15. Last but not least, we need to strictly enforce the duty of all UN Departments to acknowledge communications and to respond to queries which are addressed to them but also to account for their actions.