Published March 06, 2013
Alarmed at a concerted push-back by member nations who are getting tired of funding the bloated and ineffectual United Nations, top U.N. managers are urgently trying to figure out a reform plan to repair at least some of their credibility over the next few years.
The exhortation to think big and look beyond the normal endless talk sessions came in a consultative “non-paper” at a two-day closed-door meeting of senior U.N. officials in Turin, Italy, in mid-January. The discussion document also proposed a new propaganda campaign to convince governments and sympathetic legislators that their money was being well spent.
The meeting was intended to brainstorm ideas for a managerial plan to guide the organization over the next three to four years, according to the document.
A copy of the 19-page “non-paper” was obtained by Fox News, which reported last month that wealthier member states were increasingly questioning the way their money is being spent by the U.N.
That impatience was underlined once again on Monday by the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. for management and reform, Joseph Torsella. At a meeting of the U.N.’s finance committee, he noted that the world organization had spent about $769 million just on travel-related expenses in 2010-2011, “nearly as much as the two-year budget for all international and regional cooperation for development” which is about $1 billion, and “nearly equal to the entire two-year budget” of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization ($1 billion).
“We have let this languish for far too long and we can no longer afford to talk about the problems; we need to begin solving them," Torsella said.
Whether the U.N. will rise to that challenge remains to be seen. A “non-paper,” in U.N. parlance, is a highly informal document—in other words, it has no official existence-- that is intended for discussion but commits no-one to its contents. But in the murky world of U.N. bureaucratic maneuvering, it can offer an unusual opportunity for frankness.
The principal points of the Turin document were apparently derived from consultations among many of the top managers themselves. The roster of those consulted included at least 22 U.N. organizations, as well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Among other things, the non-paper announced a blunt fact: the sprawling U.N. system “has been called into question, and its governance and mechanisms challenged.” Much, the document indicates, needs to be done about it.
Just how much of that has actually been done in any updated strategic plan may be revealed soon. Martin Nesirky, press spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, told Fox News in late February the strategic plan that the non-paper was meant to inspire was “still under preparation.”
He also said it would cover three to five years, instead of the three to four mentioned in the non-paper.
According to the non-paper itself the strategic plan is supposed to be presented to a U.N. high-level committee on management (HLCM)—virtually the same group that met in Turin--for approval at a regular session, one of which is slated to take place this week in Rome on March 7 and 8.
“The HLCM gathers high-level talent and expertise in the area of management,” the non-paper intones. “It should better leverage this talent to drive a number of system-wide reforms.”
The HLCM is one of the U.N.’s top internal coordinating bodies, operating beneath the U.N.’s Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), which in turn is made up of 29 heads of U.N. institutions ranging from UNICEF to UNESCO and the World Trade Organization, under the chairmanship of Secretary General Ban.
According to the non-paper, the HLCM often hasn’t been very good at its job either.
“The dynamics within the HLCM too often exhibit damage control rather than constructive discussion,” the document observes. But now, the committee should be “more decisive,” the non-paper urges. Indeed, it says its member bureaucrats should be less like the groups of nation states that supervise them, described as “long on courtesy and striving for consensus.”
According to the non-paper a key objective of the Turin discussions was for the managers to spend less time talking among themselves and take “bolder” actions, including unspecified “far-reaching, game-changing” and even “radical” proposals—whatever that may mean in U.N. parlance--even if they did not have “explicit mandates” from the nation-states that ostensibly guide and supervise the organizations themselves.
The idea behind the plan is apparently not merely to change the New York-headquartered U.N. Secretariat, but to bring some measure of cohesion to the crazy-quilt array of U.N. funds, programs and agencies which sprawl across the globe, offering often-overlapping services and functions with varying degrees of effectiveness.
The “priority issues” for discussion apparently include shaking up the U.N.’s staffing and their skills, not to mention comfortably padded pay scales; reassessing the system’s performance standards; pooling many of its overlapping support services; and furthering efforts to have U.N. agencies “deliver as one,” meaning actually combine and coordinate their activities.
“There is an increasing mismatch between the programs the U.N. system organizations are called upon to deliver, and both the skills of their staffs and the tools available to manage them,” the non-paper notes, indicating that procedures to hire and fire, evaluate and motivate all need new approaches.
The notion of such reforms has definitely taken on a new urgency as the countries that pay most of the U.N.’s bills are themselves beginning to look for new methods of reining in the world organization’s epic inefficiency—and saving money to boot.
Perhaps as a result, the world organization’s more expensive failings, ranging from bollixed peacekeeping operations in the Congo to its unimpressive efforts to alleviate fundamental issues of global poverty to its fumbled efforts to introduce sophisticated technology to speed management reform in the U.N. Secretariat are getting broader attention.
The non-paper also has an answer for that: it pushed the notion of energetic propaganda campaigns to provide “government representatives and lawmakers” with new tools to “justify to their constituents support for United Nations organizations.”
“The United Nations system must consistently and continuously nurture its constituencies,” the non-paper says. “Governments and the general public alike, all-too-often, do not understand the scale and universal nature of the system.”
“Because the U.N. system is not always good at telling its story,” it continues, it risks being crowded out by organizations more skilled and forceful in getting out their message. In order to address this challenge, the system and its partners have to consider more direct, emphatic and compelling approaches to communication, so as to positively influence perceptions.”
The document makes no mention of the U.N.’s current public information budget, which is more than $182 million for 2012-2013 alone.
But it says one organization that could help in that public support exercise is the United Nations Foundation, the non-profit organization which was originally funded by media tycoon Ted Turner as “an advocate for the U.N. and a platform for connecting people, ideas and resources to help the United Nations solve global problems,” according to the foundation website.
“Advancing the conversation” with the U.N. Foundation, the non-paper says, could be “an effective first step” in a new public relations offensive.
According to U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky, “no further steps have yet been taken by HLCM to advance this conversation.”