Why This UN Reform Plan Will Work

Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, made public on July 16 his plan to reform the UN system. Indeed, it describes the most sweeping reform ever to be undertaken in the 52 years of the organization's existence.

The secretary-general presented his reform plan in a speech to the United Nations staff, not the member states. It was an important gesture that went unnoticed. It should not have. Only a man with a profound knowledge of the system, a sensitivity toward the human component of the world body, and an appreciation for the many staff members who risk their lives every day for the organization could have done what he did.

The logic of the reform is to give the system a more cogent and manageable structure. Mr. Annan has grouped together the various departments, offices, programs, and funds into four clusters: peace and security, social and economic, development assistance, and humanitarian rights. The various agencies and funds still retain their own independent financing and executive boards, which means that governments can still undermine logical reform indirectly through the agencies. The UN system was developed over the years by its member governments to keep different fiefdoms under the control of different departments, even if it means extra expenses and increased bureaucracy.

Better communication a must

On the managerial side, the secretary-general's suggestion of a cabinet of eight or nine people, of whom four will be chairs of the four clusters, deserves praise for its logic. He clearly understands the value of two-way communication between his office and the system. This is a welcome change from the period when the office of the secretary-general was seen as a black hole: There was input but never output and no communication between the "supreme" and the staff.

The reform will also create "UN Houses" that will serve as a single center for various UN programs and agencies operating in a given country. This idea provides a sense of belonging and unity, a better working atmosphere for staff, a show of greater respect by governments, and a considerable saving of both money and time.

Delegating responsibility

The reform plan stipulates that administrative decisions be delegated to the field offices that have individual accountability. This is what makes a bureaucracy work more efficiently. People want responsibility, and they are prepared to work harder and better when they have it. On the other hand, they tend to be discouraged and work less when they are given no responsibilities.

The secretary-general knows the secret for any successful reform: No matter what the plan's content, only human beings can transform an idea into reality. Offices and departments and funds do not wage wars or solve problems; only individuals can do that.

Neither the possible creation of a structure called the cabinet, nor a deputy secretary-general, nor the idea of "UN Houses" - no matter how useful these steps appear - can improve the UN itself. That can be done only through the devotion, sacrifice, and vocation of the organization's staff.

The UN's basic purpose

The UN was established to free the world from the scourge of war. If that purpose is still paramount, then the most effective and, incidentally, the cheapest way of achieving it is to propagate a culture of peace. That implies recognizing that one of the seeds of war is to perceive difference as a threat. Those who believe that differing religions, ethnicities, colors, languages, cultures - or simply people who are called foreigners - are a threat, are indeed planting the seeds of future wars.

I wonder if those who always criticize the UN and don't know its purpose, those who fear the "others" and the "different," are interested in reforming the UN, or rather in its destruction?

The new secretary-general should not expect those who have made a career of criticizing the UN to ever be satisfied. The moment they agree that any reform package proposed by the secretary-general is adequate, they will lose the clout they appear to have. The next time critics of reform raise their voices it may be useful to remind them that UN staffers have risked their lives many times to save those of American citizens. Can the harshest critics of the UN in Washington make a similar claim?

* Giandomenico Picco was a UN staff member from 1973 to 1992. He was UN assistant secretary-general for political affairs, and a negotiator for the release of the western hostages in Lebanon from 1989 to 1992.

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