The U.N. at 50: Will disorganization prevail? Reforms: The needs are largely ignored


The United Nations, celebrating its 50th birthday, is in crying need of tough love: Structurally, it is unmanageable. Yet, those who might influence reform have paid little attention to real cures. The U.S. Congress has preferred to bludgeon the patient.

The U.N. has also been neglected for years by political reporters and academic writers. The great legal casebook of Louis Sohn on U.N. law was allowed to go out of print. Case studies of U.S. foreign policy crisis management had little occasion to look at the U.N., except for Adlai Stevenson's famous Security Council demonstration of Russian missiles in Cuba, and elegiac accounts of the death of Dag Hammarskj..old in the Congo.

The stakes have changed now, after the Cold War.

Working the cloakrooms of the Security Council, George Bush cobbled together his world-wide coalition against Saddam Hussein. The Security Council embargo against Iraq has lasted five years, despite occasional European feints at loosening its cinch, as U.N. inspectors dismantle Saddam's biological, chemical and nuclear facilities.

Peacekeeping operations have demobilized soldiers, resettled refugees and supervised democratic elections in old Cold War conflict zones such as Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The U.N. was crucial in the transformation of Namibia and South Africa.

With real work to be done, the Rube Goldberg machinery of the U.N. can no longer suffice. Like Topsy, much of the U.N. system just grew. The place is, to choose a kind word, polycentric. Many agencies tackle the same problem. Some agencies tackle no problems at all. Downsizing supervisory personnel - the rite of passage common to most American corporations and government agencies - has yet to take hold at Turtle Bay.

The U.N.'s budgeting system is chaotic. For example, each of the U.N.'s 17 peacekeeping operations comes up for renewal before the Security Council every six months, and the costs are assessed to member governments after each vote. This throws congressional budgeteers into a tizzy. Funding U.N. activities is a complex hodgepodge of regular assessments, peacekeeping assessments, voluntary contributions and even private contributions. Financial crisis has required shuffling money from one account to another, giving goosebumps to conservative accountants, annoying member governments that have to wait for reimbursement of peacekeeping expenses.

The U.S. needs to pay its dues. But management reform is also needed to rebuild confidence. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali has taken the pledge. Joe Connor, a former CEO of the Price Waterhouse Big 8 accounting firm, has been brought in as

under-secretary-general for administration to fix the U.N.'s hide-bound personnel system.

A newly minted under-secretary-general for internal oversight services, Karl Th. Paschke, is building an investigative staff, though Congress seems unaware. Legislators continue to demand that a single inspector general be given immediate authority over all U.N. operations, without regard to the independent governing structures of many agencies. European countries also feel sensitive about the use of intrusive law enforcement techniques, such as informants and undercover stings, from their wartime political histories.

Assessed aggressively

U.N. budget assessments, scaled to each country's Gross Domestic Product, are under reexamination in a working group chaired by the Austrian ambassador Ernst Sucharipa. Newly prosperous member states should be assessed more aggressively; some members are also veering to the late Olaf Palme's view that it is imprudent to depend too heavily on any single member's contribution.

What is needed, in addition, is close political reporting on the U.N. - from the inside, not just its travails on Capitol Hill. One needs to know who is effective or inept, which agencies are running well or poorly. The high commissioner for refugees, Mrs. Sadako Ogata, deserves accolades for turning around a difficult office. The management of other agencies, such as the World Health Organization, has received mixed inside reviews.

The best current source of political reporting is an I.F. Stone-style weekly newsletter published by former U.N. insider Bhaskar "Pappy" Menon. His "International Documents Review:

The Weekly Newsletter on the United Nations" (318 Edgewood Ave., Teaneck, N.J. 07666. $200/year), has a North-South bite that will leave some American readers edgy, but Menon provides assessments of agency performance and closed-door meetings available nowhere else.

Rosemary Righter's "Utopia Lost: The United Nations and World Order" (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund Press. 421 pages. $12) critiques the performance of U.N. social and development agencies. UNESCO and the Food and Agriculture Organization come in for especially bad grades. Ms. Righter argues that U.N. agencies can't be reformed from the inside. Her strategy is privatization and competition - allow other agencies and market alternatives to bid for providing the same services. This Thatcherite prescription may not be to the taste of other readers. But Ms. Righter, a former development correspondent and now chief editorial writer of the London Times, provides the type of invaluable first-hand reporting neglected by most of the press corps.

Other recent reform studies have focused more on political structure. "Our Global Neighbourhood: The Report of the Commission on Global Governance" (Oxford University Press. 410 pages. $14.95) proposes a new Economic Security Council, to give the Bretton Woods monetary institutions advice more representative of the views of non-industrial countries. "The United Nations in Its Second Half-Century" (New York: The Ford Foundation. 53 pages. free), an important study co-chaired by former President Richard von Weizscker of Germany and former Prime Minister Moeen Qureshi of Pakistan, sees utility in establishing separate high-level U.N. councils to address economic and social questions. Both argue that expanding the Security Council will be necessary over the long term, to retain political legitimacy and avoid the tension that arises from a closed-door institution.

Outside review

Erskine Childers and Sir Brian Urquhart's "Renewing the United Nations System" (Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, available from the Ford Foundation. 213 pages. free) usefully recommends an outside review of high-level Secretariat staff by an independent commission of civil service specialists, buying out the contracts of less competent personnel, ending permanent contracts, curing the U.N.'s widely observed failure to promote women to senior positions, and finding the best qualified candidates for senior posts, rather than routinely accepting member governments' nominees.

None of these studies says much about the political ecology of particular agencies - how voluntary budget contributions give some countries greater influence in the funded activities, how the varied location of headquarters may maintain a broader base of support for the hosted programs, how procurement practices also build support ("pork for peace"). A business school manager, entering the U.N. arena with clipboard and green visor, had best understand the politics, as well as economies of scale, to grow a healthy organization.

Ruth Wedgwood is senior fellow and director of the Project on International Organizations and Law at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of Law at Yale Law School. She is also a former federal prosecutor and has published many articles on international institutions and international criminal law. She is working on a book, "Regional Organizations in Peacekeeping and Conflict Resolution."

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