Global Policy Forum

UN Looks at Ways to Reduce its Staff


Outsourcing of Some Jobs Weighed In

By Joe Lauria

Boston Globe
February 10, 2006

Under pressure from Washington to streamline its bureaucracy, the United Nations is quietly considering a proposal to outsource hundreds of translation and documentation jobs to private, for-profit companies. The proposal will be presented to the General Assembly this month as part of Secretary General Kofi Annan's highly anticipated report on the reform effort, according to internal UN documents obtained by the Globe.

Annan commissioned a study by two US consulting firms, Epstein & Fass Associates and Faulkner & Associates, to lay out the pros and cons of privatization. A preliminary draft of the study describes possible options, from retaining a slimmed-down, in-house translation service -- and allowing about 200 jobs to be lost to attrition by 2009 -- to outsourcing the work of the translation and publishing department, which currently employs more than 800 workers. Annan will send recommendations to the General Assembly, which will decide whether to enact the changes.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has made no secret over the years of his view that the world body must cut back on what he considers a bloated bureaucracy. But yesterday, his spokesman Richard Grenell said the United States has no policy on privatization and had nothing to do with the study. ''Our position is that the UN needs to function better, whatever it takes," Grenell said. ''We need to look at all ways to make that better. No one is talking about cutting jobs or turning out lights. Talking about outsourcing is way ahead of the game."

A year ago, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, Mark P. Lagon, singled out the need for privatization of translation in a hearing at the House International Relations Committee. ''A reform that would improve effectiveness is expanding the use of outsourcing and automation of translation services, which in the current budget cost nearly $200 million" in a two-year budget, he said at the time.

The UN's General Assembly and Conference Management department, which is responsible for translation, interpretation, printing documentation, and transcripts, cost $565 million in the 2003-2005 UN budget, the single largest item, according to the State Department. Verbatim transcripts of UN meetings can cost as much as $8,000 per hour to produce, according to Lagon.

But the study commissioned by Annan says privatization may not save money in the end. ''Outsourcing does not guarantee reduced cost," the draft reads, adding that the cost of such services depends on market factors and on how outsourcing is managed. The study also warns of other problems with privatization, including issues surrounding secrecy and the translation of private meetings, loss of institutional memory, and the ''political unacceptability to member states."

Talk of privatizing jobs has raised fears among UN staff that reforms will mean a loss of hundreds of jobs deemed critical to the UN's international operations. Outside the organization, others question the wisdom of privatizing parts of the UN's 60-year-old international civil service. ''Just as the Third World and much of the First World are beginning to think about the weaknesses of privatization and it not serving the public in an optimum manner, Kofi Annan is thinking of privatizing the UN," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

Since last year, the United States has exerted more pressure on the UN to cut costs. The United States pays 22 percent -- around $439 million -- of the UN's general budget, according to the White House's 2006 budget proposal.

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