Global Policy Forum

UN Reform Plan Is US Driven


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
March 22, 2006

The 5,000-strong U.N. Staff Union, which passed a vote of "no confidence" in Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month, has implicitly declared that his much-publicised plan to restructure the world body is driven primarily by a single country: the United States. "Management reform is not the agenda of any single government or group of governments," says Staff Union president Rosemary Waters. "The process must be owned and driven by (all 191) member states."

Last July, the U.S. Congress passed a bill "to seek urgent and essential institutional reform at the United Nations". Some of the proposals in that bill -- including the creation of "an office of ethics", "a one-time severance programme designed expressly to remove un-needed staff" and "expanding outsourcing and automation of translation services" -- have already found a place in Annan's ambitious plan for the restructuring of the United Nations.

"The reform agenda of the United Nations is clearly being set by the United States," complains one longtime U.N. staffer. "A lame-duck secretary-general is obviously bending over backwards to please Washington," he added. Annan, who introduced his landmark management reform plan last month, is due to leave office in December after a two-term, ten-year stint as secretary-general. But he is hoping to leave a restructured world body as his political legacy.

The secretary-general's plans -- detailed in a 43-page report -- include increasing investments in staff training, cutting down on redundant staff and streamlining budgetary management. Perhaps one of the most contentious proposals is to outsource some of the work now done on the U.N. premises -- including translations and printing -- to offshore locations or to outside contractors.

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Management Chris Burnham, a former U.S. State Department official, has been quoted as saying: "What services should we continue to provide in-house, and what services are available surrounding the United Nations that are no longer essential for us to be producing in the basement of the United Nations (where the U.N. print shop is located)?" "But we're running huge printing press operations between 43rd street and 45th street on First Avenue at the United Nations, and you have to ask yourselves whether or not that is the proper location for an enormous printing operation."

In her address to the U.N.'s advisory committee on administrative and budgetary questions (ACABQ) last week, Waters said that Burnham has already informed staff representatives that translators and the publishing service are taking up valuable space in the U.N. Headquarters complex. She said that Burnham is not sure that prime rental space is being properly utilised. "Staff representatives were under the impression that we are discharging the mandates of the organization, not reviewing New York city rental space costs," Waters said, striking a note of sarcasm.

Referring to outsourcing, Burnham said: "If we're going to translate a document into Russian, should we be doing that in Russia?" "I know that is a radical question, but it's that one we should find an answer for, because we want the most effective, we want the most efficient and we want the most cost-effective way of delivering these services," he added.

Waters told the advisory committee that the issues under discussion will have a decisive effect on the future of many staff in the United Nations. "It was, therefore, important to the U.N. Staff Union that you be given an accurate picture of the most serious concerns of the staff representatives," she said. "We have other concerns, for example, the attempt to change the very nature of international civil service, the future of jobs, the exclusion of general service (non-professional staff) and related categories of staff from this reform," she added. She also said that Annan's current report repeats a number of proposals that were included in the 2002 reform document: "Strengthening of the United Nations: An Agenda for Further Change". However, four years later, they are still not implemented.

In his report, Annan calls for over 500 million dollars in new investments to implement the far-reaching proposals. The secretary-general plans to rid the organization of excess staff with a "buy-out" plan. The estimated cost for buying-out 1,000 staff members is around 100 million dollars.

Waters said that Annan's reform proposal is neither a blueprint to enhance management, nor did it conform to a request made by member states to make more efficient use of the organisation's financial and human resources. "While the document contains several proposals that could be supported by the U.N. staff union, it does not address the fundamental causes for the lack of adequate management in the United Nations," she said.

Despite repeated assurances, and numerous requests in General Assembly resolutions, the secretary-general has still not presented a solid plan to enforce personal accountability with clear measures to address managerial failures, Waters argued. "Further, the current report insults the staff by identifying specific failed systems without any indication of how those responsible will be held accountable," she said. The biggest examples of these are the multi-million dollar Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) and Galaxy systems -- both overseeing management -- which are now proposed for replacement. "What modern management system gives expanded authority to individuals without accountability?" Waters asked.

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