U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is suddenly scrambling to roll out a new “agenda for change” at the U.N. this spring -- an agenda that also saves money -- before he must seek re-election as head of the world organization next fall.
The agenda seems aimed to blunt two major criticisms of his first, five-year term of office: that he has done little to improve the performance of the organization, and that he has not reined in its rapidly ballooning costs -- indeed, he has become the U.N.’s spender-in-chief.
Ban’s abrupt change of course may have gotten some prodding from President Obama, who met with Ban at the White House on Feb. 28. At the time, according to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, the two men “discussed their shared agenda to build on the strengths of the United Nations while pursuing and implementing very important management reforms as well as budgetary discipline.”
Ban unveiled the idea of his new agenda not long afterward, at an “extraordinary meeting” with his top lieutenants in the U.N. Secretariat on March 15, according to a follow-up letter dated the next day, which has been examined by Fox News.
In the letter, Ban’s deputy, Asha-Rose Migiro, encapsulated the previous day’s session by declaring that “we agreed on the urgent need to find ways to do more with less.” She then repeated Ban’s demand from the session that top managers “submit concrete proposals for modernizing our operations, identifying efficiency gains, and equipping our staff with state-of-the-art skills” by no later than March 28.
Those ideas will then be chewed over by top level U.N. policy and management committees at a joint meeting under Ban’s direction in late April. “The joint committee meeting will produce an agenda for change that we will all work together to implement,” Migiro said.
The focus will be on “delivering more, on becoming a stronger and more effective organization as well as ensuring long-term cost-containment.”
Drastic cost containment is very much in the cards for the U.N., especially after the huge environmental and nuclear catastrophe that has stricken Japan, the organization’s second-biggest donor (after the U.S.) in previous weeks. Japan’s disaster, which will require hundreds of billions of dollars in recovery costs, came atop Europe's fiscal meltdown, which has also strained the resources of major donor countries.
And then there is the U.S. itself, where the White House is on a collision course with the Republican-dominated House of Representatives over runaway spending -- and where generous, unconditional U.S. funding for the U.N. has come under sustained fire from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Iliana Ros-Lehtinen.
As Fox News revealed last week, Ban has issued a call to the same subordinates for suggestions on how to achieve a “painful” 3 percent cut in the Secretariat’s regular budget for the next two years that would, essentially, leave spending exactly where it left off at the end of 2011.
Ban’s new “reform and strengthening” plan tells top managers to focus on five areas: staffing, budgetary “cost containment over time,” improving business processes through high-tech means, “rationalizing structures” and “engaging member states on closer alignment between mandates and support provided for them.”
The last two points are possibly the most drastic, depending on the ideas offered. “Rationalizing structures” appears to be an oblique reference to bureaucratic streamlining, and few doubt that the U.N. could accommodate a lot of that. “Closer alignment” between U.N. mandates and money points to a longstanding fact of U.N. existence: that only a relative handful of countries, led by the U.S., provide the bulk of U.N. finances, while 192 members, most of them contributing a relative pittance, decide how the money should be spent.
Migiro’s letter on behalf of her boss calls for “bold and forward-looking” suggestions, and a “fresh injection of ideas,” and urges top managers to “draw on the creativity and ideas of your staff.” Ban’s much more charismatic predecessor, Kofi Annan, offered up sweeping and extensive reform proposals before the end of his second term, and the result is the organization Ban now runs.
When it comes to technological fixes, the U.N. track record is equally dismal. A high-tech “enterprise resource planning” system known as Umoja was supposed to be ready next year, but the project, originally budgeted for about $286 million, is tens of millions over budget. Umoja this summer was mired in a procurement scandal and is now not expected to be ready before the end of 2013.
Any “bold and forward-looking” ideas that Ban gets will also face a familiar policy grinder. As Migiro’s letter states, they will be compiled, then returned to their originators for comment. Then they will go to a joint meeting of Ban’s policy and management committees in late April, which will, she says, “produce an agenda for change that we will all work together to implement.”
In fact, Ban, who is notorious for his secretiveness and closed decision-making style, may also have an alternative process in mind.
Migiro’s letter closes with the observation that alongside the bulky but relatively open suggestion routine, “the Secretary General will form a small change management team composed of specific staff members who have relevant expertise” to “support this process.”
In other words, a small group of insiders may still run the show.
By whatever process he chooses to give birth to it, however, Ban’s instant “agenda for change” will still face the same question: after years of unimpressive, expensive results from the same management, how will it avoid being more of the same?
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News