UN Reformer Skilled At Art of the Possible


The smoke has cleared from last year's bitter battle over who will head the UN and whether it needs radical reform.

Now four months in office, Washington's choice for a new secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has laid down a course of action that appears to have met with early approval from all sides - but the former lower-level UN bureaucrat still faces a daunting challenge.

Mr. Annan's changes must not only produce a stronger body, it also must appease a wary US Congress, whose $1.6 billion owed to the UN is tied to the success of his reforms. And he must convince a skeptical American public that such a world body even deserves to exist in the post-cold-war era.

A plan he unveiled last month sounded straightforward enough: Create a "leaner, more efficient UN" by tightening up the world body's legendary $3 billion, 10,000-member bureaucracy. And encourage member states to participate in that reform.

Balancing the competing agendas of 185 countries will take some doing. "At each level you're negotiating and selling something," Annan told the Monitor. "The power is diffused here ... it's all a matter of the art of negotiation."

If cost-control is the measure of success, Annan is looking good. The budget for 1998-1999 is $123 million less than the current $2.48 billion. The $1.2 billion spent on administration will be cut by a third, with the money going to development agencies. In addition, 1,000 posts already vacated will be eliminated. Three major economic and social affairs departments will be consolidated into one overarching department.

An independent, internal auditing department [see related story, below] has been beefed up, already having called the UN down on severe mismanagement charges. A level of cabinet positions has also been eliminated, and a UN staff "code of conduct" will be introduced.

On the surface, the plan also seems free of the kind of controversy that has rocked the UN. Under a World Bank and Wall Street "dream team," UN finances, once carelessly spread out over duplicated departments, outdated accounting practices, and little or no management oversight, would finally come under tighter guard.

But the push for member-led reforms raises a fresh set of problems. The US, debts and all, still leads the way in decisionmaking, while other countries seek to acquire more influence.

Dealing with that issue could be Annan's next trick. Following this first round of reforms, a broader set of changes proposed by member states themselves are to be specified by midsummer. Such issues will include the hot topic of expanding the Security Council, the 15 member deciding organ that may grow to include as many as 22 members. Another objective is to redefine UN peacekeeping after a series of failed interventions.

An end to US dominance?

Already begrudging what was seen by some members as excessive kowtowing to the US by Annan, other member states, particularly the poorer ones, are impatient in their demands for a better balance of power. Some analysts see talk of expanding Security Council membership as a way to buffer complaints of US domination.

"It's all a political game of mirrors," says Stephen Marks, a professor of international law and director of the UN study program at Columbia University in New York. "Talk of reform is a disguise for underlying political issues. The financial crisis is a smoke screen."

The examples of US influence provide a quick study of the politics behind the purse strings.

One case concerns US "holding" of certain Secretariat posts deemed more influential than others, such as Undersecretary-General of Administration and Management. In charge of management policy, it has become the unwritten seat of influence for the US since the Clinton administration in 1993 told the UN it "needed a businessman" at the helm.

"In the end it [reform] is all a matter of political will. If there is no will, then nothing changes," says Annan.

"The UN knows who to put where. Geographical distribution is officially emphasized, but, simply put, the key countries get the key posts."

While the US command five top posts within the UN - more than any other member - other countries, mainly Western ones, have their say as well. The UK, for instance, is said to be the only other country that has a "hold" on a major post, that of the Department of Political Affairs, again one of the more prominent Secretariat positions. France, according to some officials, insisted that in return for its vote on Annan as secretary-general a Frenchman be put in a top Secretariat post. Today, Bernard Miyet heads the Department of Peacekeeping.

Prior to reform efforts, daily reports of duplicated administrative posts, sloppy accounting procedures, $1,300-a-page daily press releases, and extravagant staff-conferencing were common features of the UN. And where the US has moved against waste, other countries have taken its lead. The US pullout from UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) in January, which reduced the agency's budget by 25 percent, has been followed by the UK's and Australia's stated intention to leave as well.

But while the US insists that its prominence in top posts is strictly a matter of its concerns over poor financial management - and US taxpayer money that contributes the most to the UN budget - accusations against the US by developing countries decry such bureaucratic dominance as going beyond the call of mere "management."

They also say US commitment to UN development programs is wavering, and that US refusal to contribute to UN Palestinian programs is aimed at stripping them of funds (some 80 percent of UN funds goes to programs for developing countries).

In one of the more publicized examples of such tension, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the main development agency within the UN and one of its largest departments, saw its contributions from the US drop 55.1 percent, from $113 million to $51 million, between 1995 and 1996. UNDP's program director, James Gustav Speth, an American who was nominated to the post by Vice President Al Gore under strong Clinton administration backing for the program, strongly criticized the move.

"The US has taken to the UN much more talk about privatization, free trade, and foreign investment - away from the 'Roosevelt' role of the UN," says Dr. Marks, the Columbia professor.

"Now the world's problems are thought to be a matter of economic action. And other member states, who are already under World Bank pressure, are not going to fight that."

Still, it is not to say that everyone is backing down. Frustration against the US exploded last November when the US representative to the 16-member Advisory Committee in Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), a powerful budget committee, was voted out of office.

The latest display of such tensions concerned the contentious issue of "gratis personnel," the Secretariat practice of hiring outside employees, usually experts in a certain field, to staff various departments with their salaries paid for by individual member states. The US maintain the highest number of gratis personnel in a single department - 10 percent of the Department of Peacekeeping.

Speaking out against such influence, several developing countries in a statement referred to the "political interest of some member states that want to infiltrate the Secretariat."

The US position, meanwhile, remains stronger than ever, even to the point where reform proposals for itself are likely to get UN approval. A US campaign to lower its budgetary assessments from a current 25 percent to 20 percent for the administrative budget, and to 25 percent from 30 percent its peacekeeping dues, is just one condition of US approval of Annan's reforms.

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