Monday, April 14, 2008

Can the United Nations and its agencies be reformed?

Two years ago exactly, Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was asking this very question in a short article published in Commentary (April 2006,pp.29-36). Revisiting this question today would not leave the answer in doubt. Not only is the UN very corrupt but also, as often happens in organizations which are not strictly accountable and subject to controls, it seems far more concerned with covering up than with combating corruption.

A versatile phenomenon, corruption in the UN takes many forms. Embezzlement, of course, as in the “Oil for Food" and recent "procurement" scandals, which made the news world-wide. However, far more common are cases of rent-seeking, abuse of power, clientelism, intimidation of staff who fail to toe the line and favoritism to those that jump at the boss's command, with an observable deficit in the professional ethos that one had come to expect from certainly well-paid and seldom overworked international civil servants.

It is hardly the lack of incentives that makes for this overall dearth of talent and integrity in the Organization. There is no lack of candidates for vacant costs. But, as the saying goes: "it is not what you know but who you know that counts".

Rampant cynicism, indifference and low morale explain the amount of time that many spend "networking", in search of better openings or more secure positions at times of insecurity and rapid change. In contrast to the pattern which prevailed in previous decades, few permanent appointments are offered any longer. Drastic decentralization, during the early nineties, has given programme managers the power to hire and fire with very few restrictions.

Discretionary power with few remaining safeguards for members of the staff have followed the observable weakening and deterioration of mechanisms which had been put in place to curb egregious practices, contain the abuse of power, enforce some minimum standards and right the wrongs committed against the members of staff.

The mechanisms are there, but no one would call them effective: an Ethics Office, which mostly looks the other way and seldom takes a stand; an Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which is completely powerless to investigate effectively and whose recommendations can be safely ignored by the departments concerned; and lastly a Joint Appeals Board, whose very uneven performance has greatly lowered its standing among the staff..

In a stunning Resolution of August 27 2007, the UN Secretariat Staff Union, expressed its deep concern that“ the culture of impunity permeating the higher levels of the Organization, complemented by a dysfunctional internal justice system, continues to deny staff members justice." The resolution {Res./42/37} urged the Secretary-General to “scrupulously apply the existing standards of conduct and develop a system -wide code of ethics for all UN personnel". But will the S-G listen? The claims of prerogative powers and total obedience to orders rather than the rights of staff or professional autonomy appear to be supreme in his order of priorities.

The prospects for reform do not look very bright. Sound bites there have been plenty, but political will to rebuild the institutional capacity and professional integrity of the United Nations require a long-term vision and singleness of purpose, which have been remarkably absent from Turtle Bay, in recent years. Both major political players and top administrators have visibly grown cozy with the pattern of financing of the UN activities, which Claudia Rosett has described but which defies all discipline, transparency and accountability.

Simply put UN’s core budget is but a small proportion of its total annual outlays. The bulk of financial resources, financing its activities, comes in the form of "funds" from various Member States, as well as corporate donors, whose ostensible largesse accords them considerable leverage.

Whole departments, divisions or offices operate as virtual dependencies of their respective donors and those who "pay the piper call the tune" in matters of appointments or even questions of policy. With the traditional principle of "geographical distribution", for all intents and purposes excluded from the posts financed from extra-budgetary resources, the staff composition of offices has come to reflect closely the donor institution or government. The upshot is, however, a United Nations organization deficient in cohesion; an entity which looks too much like warring fiefdoms and, for this very reason, offers plenty of opportunities for patronage, corruption and the abuse of power. That something must be done to change this state of affairs is generally conceded. Where to begin may also not be in doubt. But who will take the initiative; that is the real question.

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