A Fitness Program for the UN

The UN system has grown programmatically and functionally since 1946, but without apparent design. Many parts are no longer necessary, and many are mismanaged. There is a formlessness that "even the sloppiest spider would reject," says Leon Gordenker in a report prepared for the World Peace Foundation of Cambridge, Mass.

By pruning obsolescent, inefficient, redundant, and corrupt branches, the UN could cut its budgetary costs in half.

The world body's unwieldy organizational structure has resulted from five decades of unchecked proliferation. Intergovernmental treaty organizations (the International Labor Organization is an example), decision-based agencies (the United Nations Development Program, for example), interorganizational entities (like the Global Environmental Facility), intergovernmental bodies (like the Trusteeship Council), and process-assisting bodies (hundreds of procedural organs, including the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions) abound. Each soaks up funds, sometimes solely to keep an outdated bureaucracy in business. If some or all were disbanded, the money freed up for crucial peacekeeping endeavors could be substantial.

The sections of the system now deemed less necessary were nearly all begun with the best of intentions. But in many cases the UN agency or committee remains while the problem it was meant to monitor or resolve has long since disappeared.

One example among many: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Since 1948, it has assisted with the political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by providing temporary services to refugees from Palestine. But Palestinians now have their own Authority. Another example: the Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. Yet most colonies have disappeared.

The functions of some UN bodies overlap. Some are widely regarded as ineffective, with better work in their fields being produced either elsewhere within the UN or outside that system. Examples include the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the UN Industrial Development Organization, the World Industrial Property Organization, the UN Research Institute for Social Development, and the UN Institute for Training and Research.

Many process-assisting committees cover the same ground. For instance, the Second (Economic) and Third (Social) Committees of the General Assembly often discuss the same subjects as the UN Economic and Social Council. If the spider's web were trimmed, funds ranging from the minuscule to the significant could be saved. The goals are to rechannel scarce funds to more critical or relevant uses and to ease the UN's bureaucratic overhead.

But advocating such goals hardly means accomplishing them easily. The UN is a collection of individual nations with distinctive, sometimes narrow national interests. Almost all of the outdated or dysfunctional sections of the UN still have constituencies. One person's obsolescence is another's vital need. Given the minority national support tied to almost all potential money-saving opportunities, budgetary relief will not come easily, and certainly not without strong leadership from inside and outside the UN secretariat.

Bashing the UN is not what's needed. More useful is the realization by UN officials and leaders in Washington, Ottawa, London, and other capitals that the UN can only be financed effectively if new tasks are supported by eliminating older, less necessary ones.

Mr. Gordenker's report lays out this strategy. It also provides the clearest analysis to date of why and how the UN system is overgrown and what can be done about it.

Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

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