|A Time For Renewal: The United Nations After Fifty Years|
by William H. Barton1
New World, Issue No. 1, January 1994, pg. 6,7,12
Canadian Network on United Nations Reform
As the United Nations approaches its fiftieth anniversary it is being called upon to respond to unprecedented challenges and responsibilities. But the resources needed to meet these demands must come from member governments and, at a time of economic recession, they find it exceedingly difficult to provide them.
Not surprisingly this has turned the spotlight of attention on the way the organization uses the resources already made available. A recent article in Time magazine, "Running on Empty", catalogued the UN's horrendous cash crunch, particularly in meeting the costs of peace-keeping operations. It repeated the arguments of critics that the crisis is due in no small measure to inefficiency, corruption and mismanagement. Similar condemnations have been aired recently on the CBS programme, "Sixty Minutes", and in U.S. and Canadian newspapers.
Defenders of the UN will argue with some justice that flaws in its administrative practices are duplicated in most national governments - people in glass houses should not throw stones. But inefficiencies do exist, and now is the time to take corrective measures: there is a vital need for effective use of limited resources while the mobilization of world opinion surrounding the UN's 50th anniversary provides a challenge for reform to respond to the demands of a new century.
But why have the logic and advantages of using resources to maximum advantage not always been to the forefront? It is worth examining the obstacles that over the years have impeded efforts to achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness, because they still have the capacity to frustrate change for the better.
The Conflict of Purposes
From the outset the UN was bedeviled by the consequences of the Cold War, which manifested themselves in every sphere of activity. Not only was there lack of agreement on what should be done and how; the execution of programmes was distorted by ideological divisions within the Secretariat. These divisions were compounded when the developing nations became a majority in the General Assembly.
Over the years the developing nations have had several key political objectives: the end of colonialism; the end of apartheid in South Africa; the liberation of Palestine; and the UN's responsibilities in the economic and social fields. Thwarted in their efforts to get the UN to force solutions to their taste, the developing nations have used their voting power to set up committees, conferences, secretariats and public relations programmes designed to focus world attention on these issues.
Resistance by the principal contributors to the budgetary consequences of these initiatives has encouraged the conviction by the developing nations that calls for efficiency and effectiveness are really motivated by the desire not to pay for activities that the principal contributors dislike. On the other side of the coin, although the principle of "capacity to pay" in determining the "membership fees" of governments sounds equitable, the amount assessed against the vast majority of members is derisory and does not encourage financial responsibility.
Responsibility for oversight of the UN's financial health and its budget process rests with the General Assembly's Fifth Committee and the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ). The ACABQ is reasonably effective in dealing with technical details, but sooner or later the responsibility shifts to the General Assembly and politics take over.
Both the Security Council and the General Assembly approve activities without ensuring that the necessary resources are going to be available; the General Assembly has made no serious effort to control the bureaucracy of the Secretariat; and Governments are delinquent in paying their assessed contributions, forcing the Secretariat to operate on a hand-to-mouth basis. The focus of member governments has been on attaining their disparate goals rather than cooperating to maintain a sound fiscal position and achieve organizational efficiency and effectiveness.
By design, the Specialized Agencies operate as independent entities, but the Heads of Agencies have all too often run them like satrapies, pursuing their own aims. The mechanism for cooperation, the Administrative Committee on Coordination, is notorious for its ineffectiveness. Reform will require firm pressure from governments.
The UN Charter specifies that "Éthe paramount consideration in the employment of staff and in the determination of the conditions of service shall be the necessity of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity. Due regard shall be paid to the importance of recruiting staff on as wide a geographical a basis as possible." By its very nature an international secretariat cannot hope to match the high standards of the best national services. In addition to the pressures caused by the requirement of geographical representation -- which has acquired great weight and forced compromises in the search for quality -- there is the problem of language. For a large percentage of the staff the working languages of the organization are "second languages", and working cultures vary widely.
But after fifty years of growing like Topsy, the Secretariat suffers from elephantiasis. Vested interests, both external and internal, operate with impunity, frustrating the efforts of those dedicated international public servants who are doing their best. Both in organization and numbers the Secretariat Augean stable needs a thorough cleaning.
Elements of a Renewal Programme
The Secretary-General has provided or is about to produce the key documentation to focus debate on the underlying purposes of the UN as it enters the new century: An Agenda for Peace, an Agenda for Development, and a report on Inter-Agency relations. The issues raised in these documents are critical to the future role of the Organization. Whether Governments deal with them on an ad hoc basis, or reach considered decisions after thoughtful consideration and debate, the result will have a profound effect on their relationships with the Organization, and between its component parts. It will also be a major determinant of the shape and character of the Secretariat.
Resolution of the issues raised in these Agenda documents will not come quickly or easily, but the mere fact that they are being addressed coherently may make it easier to identify and take steps to implement supporting reforms. Thus, it should be possible even now for member governments to come to some sort of consensus on the urgent importance of a management reform programme and what is to be encompassed within it. A concerted effort should be made to enlist influential delegations in all regional groups to support a planned series of initiatives aimed at making each component of the Organization more efficient and productive, and accountable for its operations.
Canada should set management reform as a principal goal of its contribution to the 50th Anniversary reform package. It is essentially an exercise in bridge-building between the have and have-not nations. Successful initiatives would have a major impact on the effectiveness, and therefore on the credibility of the United Nations. The following suggestions are put forward primarily by way of illustration.
Fiscal ResponsibilityCanada has always supported sound budgetary policies, but we must pay attention to whether budgetary provision has been made for programmes and to whether the level of forthcoming contributions makes it realistic to proceed. We should press for action on the recommendations of the Secretary-General regarding the financing of peace-keeping operations and should examine the question of the viability of the Working Capital Fund. A few years ago an uneasy compromise was worked out regarding the approval of contentious items in the budget. Has it stood the test of time or should efforts be made to find a different and better solution? Are the principles and practices for determining the Scale of Assessments for the regular budget appropriate to the UN of today? Should the United States contribution be reduced to offset the concern of undue influence? What principles other than capacity to pay should govern the special scale for financing peace-keeping operations?
The key to efficiency and effectiveness in any organization is to establish a system to hold it accountable - to insist that it be able to demonstrate that it is giving value for money. This is why many governments are not satisfied with audits that simply account for expenditures and have adopted a more comprehensive approach. Does the organization have management systems in place to ensure that it is doing what it is mandated to do with maximum efficiency and effectiveness?
The first place that the UN fails this test is the audit system itself. Audits are limited to ensuring that the books balance. The practice of utilizing the national staffs of the members of the Audit Committee means that the skill-levels of the auditors vary widely, and makes consistency in the quality of the audit a matter of good luck rather than good management.
In 1979 the Canadian Delegation proposed that the UN adopt value-for-money auditing. We also proposed that the Audit Committee should become an advisory body, and an Auditor-General should be appointed by the General Assembly for a set term of office, say five years, and accountable to it. He or she would have a small staff of highly qualified comprehensive auditors, supplemented by assistant auditors seconded from national audit offices, mainly from developing countries, for two-year terms, during which they would be taught the skills of value-for-money auditing.
The Auditor-General would be expected to submit an annual report to the General Assembly. This report would be reviewed by the Fifth Committee, but in order to facilitate its work it would probably be desirable to have it studied in the first instance by a smaller, but representative body, which would focus attention on elements deserving particular consideration.
An important element of the Canadian plan was that the product of the office of the Auditor-General would be an external audit carried out for the information and guidance of the General Assembly. It is essential that it be matched by an internal management review system accountable to the Secretary-General.
In advancing our proposal we informed the Fifth Committee that we were setting up an International Audit Assistance Programme providing one year fellowships in Canada for nominees of national audit offices of developing countries. That programme has been operating continuously since 1980 and has trained more than 100 auditors, many of whom have become the heads of their national audit offices.
The Canadian initiative did not find support in 1979. Today, however, many more national audits are comprehensive rather than purely financial and such an initiative might find greater favour.
After fifty years during which the personnel policies and practices of the UN have become increasingly complex, surely the time has arrived for a review of the system. Do the basic assumptions on which it is based reflect the current views of the member governments? In 1945 it was agreed that the conditions of service and remuneration should match those of the best national service. How has this mandate been fulfilled? Has it met the test of time or does it need to be revised?
It is recommended that Canada explore with other delegations the desirability of conducting a review of the basic elements of UN personnel policies to determine their continued applicability in the world of the 21st century. This review should be conducted by a committee made up of representatives of governments and not by the Secretariat.
Governments or, at any rate, their delegations at the UN, do not like dealing with the kinds of issues raised in this paper. They are controversial and lackthe glamour of political items on the agenda. But perhaps the pressure of events and the logic of the occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary will make it possible to make some gains. Canada should do its best to try to see that this happens. Even small steps in the right direction are worthwhile and may pay bigger dividends in future years.
1 Now retired, William Barton was Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva from 1972 to 1976 and in New York from 1976 to 1980. He represented Canada on the UN Security Council in 1977-78. He recently was awarded Membership of the Order of Canada. [return]