Global Policy Forum

Image and Reality: "A Vast, Sprawling Bureaucracy"?



by Erskine Childers & Brian Urquhart

from Childers and Urquhart, Renewing the United Nations System, pp. 26-30
Dag Hammarskjí¶ld Foundation

A commentary in some journal long ago must have declared that the UN is 'a vast, sprawling bureaucracy'. This phrase entered the language and is routinely repeated in most Western media descriptions and politicians' speeches, often picking up additional adjectives like 'swollen', 'bloated', and/or 'Parkinsonian'. In the mid-1980s the phrase fuelled a drive by major contributing countries that cut the staff of the central UN Secretariat by 13 per cent, (39) and it still inspires attempts further to reduce the capacities of the system. While there is no dispute that the UN and its associated agencies urgently need reorganization and better management, clear understanding of the actual size of the system's stffing is essential in any review of needed reforms.


  • Size of System Staff

    The figures for the staff of the UN, its funds and programmes, and of the agencies, are provided in the table that follows. The total does not include the staff of the World Bank Group and IMF, because they are financed and paid on totally different bases or, of course, temporary peace- keeping and other emergency personnel.

    The staff numbers are divided into Professional and General Service. The table also distinguishes between those employed from Regular Budgets, who constitute the long-term worldwide civil service, and those employed from Extra-Budgetary funds contributed voluntarily for development and humanitarian operations.


    Paid by Regular Budget Extra Budgetary Posts Total All Posts
    Organization Profnl GenSvcs Total Profnl GenSvcs Total Profnl GenSvcs
    United Nations 3,265 5,829 9,094 1,604 3,198 4,802 4,869 9,027
    UNHCR 106 179 285 643 1,198 1,841 749 1,377
    UNITAR - 1 - 10 8 18 10 9
    UNRWA 51 2 53 67 7 74 118 9
    ITC 1 1 181 192 373 182 192
    ICSC 18 22 40 - - - 18 22
    ICJ 19 28 47 - - - 19 28
    UNU - - - 36 65 101 36 65
    UNDP - - - 1,571 5,033 6,604 1,571 5,033
    UNICEF - - - 1,179 2,623 3,802 1,179 2,623
    ILO 678 1,012 1,690 695 692 1,387 1,373 1,704
    FAO 1,051 2,062 3,113 1,608 1,649 3,257 2,659 3,711
    UNESCO 808 1,406 2,214 248 341 589 1,056 1,747
    WHO 1,269 2,350 3,619 564 1,208 1,772 1,833 3,558
    ICAO 248 350 598 231 223 454 479 573
    UPU 62 84 146 25 1 26 87 85
    ITU 240 395 635 135 99 234 375 494
    WMO 104 124 228 78 72 150 182 196
    IMO 88 146 234 34 47 81 122 193
    WIPO 114 237 351 4 18 22 118 255
    UNIDO 355 665 1,020 305 458 763 660 1,123
    IAEA 684 958 1,642 15 108 123 699 1,066
    Total 9,161 15,850 25,011 9,233 17,240 26,473 18,394 33,090
    Grand Total UN System 51,484

    Several important points emerge from these figures. The first is the very small size of the central professional-level civil service of the United Nations itself. Governments have authorized only 3,265 professional posts for the central UN Secretariat at New York, Geneva, Vienna, the five Regional Commissions, and its many other units around the world. These professionals are supposed to do all the substantive work of analysing (and providing public information on) global and regional trends in political, security, disarmament, economic and social and environmental, and human rights fields; as well as organizing and directing peace-keeping and other emergency operations; preparing the Secretary-General's reports on these issues for the General Assembly, Security Council, ECOSOC and all the subsidiary bodies, and implementing the work-programmes that these bodies mandate. Together with supporting (general service) staff, the core UN Secretariat has a smaller civil service for all these worldwide responsibilities than the City of Winnipeg (9,917 staff) in Canada, or than the staff of the international advertising firm, Saatchi & Saatchi. (41)

    There are some distinct anomalies. The World Court (ICJ)—the principal judicial organ of the United Nations—is provided only 19 professional posts (15 Judges plus 4 professionals to assist them). On the other hand, the nuclear powers have agreed to no less than 684 professional posts for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as many as the International Labour Organization (ILO) is provided for all its responsibilities in world labour and employment issues, standard- setting, and legal conventions.

    The total number of professional-level posts in the whole UN system, worldwide, for all the work noted above by all the agencies listed, numbers some 18,000. Almost half of these are extra-budgetarily funded specialists engaged in development and humanitarian activities; not part of the 'line strength' of the system. More or less the same proportions apply within the total number of general service supporting staff. The total staffing of 51,484 has, nonetheless, been shown because it is the frame of reference for examining the constantly raised issue of size.

    The 51,484 includes all civil service staff, whether drivers or directors, employed at all points in the world for everything—political, economic and social affairs, industry, education, labour and employment, development, refugees, human rights, civil aviation, agriculture, health, children, population, world weather services, telecommunications, postal services, international maritime cooperation, intellectual property, atomic energy, et cetera.

    There is little realistic justification for describing this civil service as 'a vast, sprawling bureaucracy.' While not precisely comparable with governmental institutions, the entire UN system world-wide, serving the interests of some 5,500,000,000 people in 184 countries, employs no more workers than the civil service in the American state of Wyoming, population 545,000.(42) Its staff is actually smaller than the number of public-service employees of the city of Stockholm in Sweden, with a population of 672,000.(43) It is less than the staff of the District Health Services of the Principality of Wales in Britain,(44) and less than the combined civil services of the Canadian Province of Manitoba and its capital city of Winnipeg.(45)

    The reality is that, even though the administrative structure and personnel and management practices can be legitimately criticized, the international community employs astonishingly few people to handle the enormous workload that its governments perennially demand of the UN system. This, of course, places an even higher premium on the quality and productivity of the staff so far made available. But the aging canard so routinely and so damagingly repeated—often by many intelligent people claiming to be well-informed—should be put to rest.


  • Size of system budget

    A companion set of popular epithets implies that the UN system, has large and extravagant budgets. The politicians and editorialists of some major contributing countries repeatedly argue that the budgets have grown too large (often citing Parkinsonian 'laws'), and that they are a serious drain on their countries' resources. Here again it is vital to consider the facts.

    The worldwide expenditure of the organizations in the UN system . . . against both its regularly assessed and voluntarily contributed budgets, and including the phenomenal recent increase for peace-keeping and humanitarian relief, are running at about $10.5 billion a year.

    That is less than the annual expenditure of the British Government on Public Administration and Police. The UN-proper's portion of the total (including the vastly expanded current peace-keeping) is, for 1993, about $4.1 billion, scarcely more than the budgets of the fire and police departments of New York City.

    Budgets for the whole system's regular activities—excluding peace-keeping and other emergency costs but including the running costs of the UN and all the agencies, plus their development assistance activities—currently total about $6.5 billion a year.

    The citizens of the United States spend approximately the same amount on cut flowers and potted plants each year. (46)


  • 'Gigantic paper factory'

    Another popular target of derision is set up in the phrase, 'a gigantic paper factory'. The UN does indeed produce a great quantity of documents at the request of member-governments, dealing with virtually every facet, large and small, of the human and environmental condition. It is required, moreover, to produce each official document in the six official languages. It is worth considering, however, that the New York Times consumes more paper in one single Sunday edition than the United Nations consumes in all its documents in a whole year.(47)



    (39) The mid-1980s campaign became commonly known as 'the G-18' process, after the group of 18 intergovernmental specialists appointed in 1986 by the General Assembly to recommend and oversee the reforms.

    (40)[This footnote referred to the table in the original version. See footnote at bottom of table, via link above.]

    (41) For Winnipeg see footnote 45. Saakhi & Silatchi has some 11,000 staff. Financial Times, London, 16 March 1994.

    (42) Public Employment 1991, Table 6, Document GE/91-1, US Department of Commerce.

    (43) Kommunal Personal 1991, Svenska Kommunforbundet (Swedish Association of Local Authorities), Stockholm, 1992.

    (44) Public Bodies 1991, Office of the Minister for the Civil Service (London, Her Majesty's Stationery Of fice, 1991), p. 99, citing the staff of the District Health Authorities of Wales at 54,200.

    (45) Data provided by the Government of Manitoba Civil Service Commission and the City of Winnipeg Personnel Office, May 1993. The City of Winnipeg employs more civil servants (9,917) than the regular staff of the UN-proper at New York, Geneva, Vienna, and the regional commissions.

    (46) Surveys of Current Business, US Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C.


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