Global Policy Forum

The UN’s Management Crisis


Laura Trevelyan

May 4, 2006

A most undiplomatic row is raging at the United Nations in New York. Developing countries have voted down proposals from Secretary General Kofi Annan to reform the UN's management structure in the wake of the recent oil-for-food scandals... and the richer countries are threatening to retaliate.

In a windowless basement, a power struggle between the rich and poor nations of the world has been taking place. Management reform might sound bland but it has polarised the UN to a degree not seen since the 1970s. Kofi Annan's mild-sounding proposals to allow him to hire and fire more staff and have greater control over the budget, have provoked a crisis here.

The countries from the developing world say the reforms take power away from the 191 member general assembly, the UN's debating chamber, and give more leverage to the secretary general and his staff. This is a power grab by the developed world, South Africa's genial but forthright ambassador Dumisani Kumalo told me.

But the US, Japan and the EU countries - who together contribute 82% of the UN's budget - are adamant the changes are needed to make the organisation more efficient. The US's combative ambassador here, John Bolton, has insisted on tying the UN's funding for the second half of the year to progress on management reform. "So they're threatening to turn the lights off in June?" smiled Ambassador Kumalo. "At least give me time to pack."

Whispered conversations

Against this backdrop of the rich world using its financial clout to push through reform, and the developing nations calling for their rights to be respected, a tense atmosphere has developed.

In the Orwellian sounding fifth committee of the general assembly, which handles the UN's budget, the less well off nations - led by South Africa - threatened to effectively vote down Kofi Annan's reforms. For 20 years budget decisions have been decided by consensus, rather than a vote - a system designed to stop the developing countries, who are in the majority, from railroading through decisions.

To avert the unseemly prospect of a vote, ambassadors from what seemed like all the countries at the UN, milled around until late into the night, smoking, debating, gesticulating, wheeling, dealing and trying to come to a compromise. The Pakistani and the Mexican delegations conferred in one corner, while the Austrians - who were acting as the peace makers - scurried from one end of the conference room to the other. The Argentinian ambassador, usually so suave looking, seemed more than slightly perturbed. The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, appeared in his element.

Mounting tension

In a moment of high drama, a letter from Kofi Annan himself was delivered to the committee, setting out a middle way. As a former political correspondent at Westminster, I found the scene to be a cross between a late night sitting at the House of Commons and a block vote at an old-style Labour party conference. Veteran diplomats found the spectacle equally baffling. "Usually I know exactly what's going to happen at every set piece meeting here," observed one senior ambassador. "It's all pre-cooked. But I haven't the faintest idea what's going to happen next."

Meetings were adjourned, and as the ambassadors retired to bed, technical experts from the different country's delegations met until dawn, without resolution. The tension continued to mount. The usually softly spoken British Ambassador, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, warned the developing countries they were playing with fire. But they ignored his warning, pushed the issue to a vote, and duly won the day. Faces fell in the delegations of Britain, the Japan and the US. "It's a failure of diplomacy," said one Western official.

Internal wrangling

The recriminations began immediately. Now reform has been kicked into the long grass, a bitter series of negotiations loom on the budget and much else besides. It is as if all the deeply held traditions of the UN have broken down: consensus, diplomacy, bridge building... and been replaced by a deep divide.

Thirty years ago, the Third World flexed its muscles here, most notoriously when the General Assembly passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. Now the developing nations are once again showing their strength, fed up with what they see as an American-led effort to tell the UN what to do.

Seasoned diplomats are staring into their tea leaves, wondering what all this means for the selection of the next secretary general, a critically important task that must be completed this year. Usually that is a decision taken by the Security Council and rubber-stamped by the General Assembly, but there is no telling what might happen this time.

"The West cannot push us around just because they pay the biggest share of the bills," says ambassador Kumalo firmly. "We have rights too."

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