A Question of Pride: Leveraging Human Nature to Build a Better United Nations

By Smith, Nick | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

A Question of Pride: Leveraging Human Nature to Build a Better United Nations


Smith, Nick, Harvard International Review


What problem facing the United Nations is as challenging as Cyprus, as intricate as the Middle East, and as erratic and unpredictable as El Nino? According to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the answer is human resources management, a make-or-break issue that needs to be "at the heart of our efforts to make the United Nations as good as it can be."

Annan's inauguration in 1997 heralded an era of UN reform. While UN leadership had long recognized the organization's shortcomings, real solutions had been sorely lacking and, within a year of his inauguration, Annan broke the mold by replacing rhetoric with action. At that time, reformers set the horizon for real outcomes at three to five years. Five years later, however, action has led to ambiguous results and the need to reconsider the path forward. While the leaner, more efficient organization UN reformers have struggled to build is a laudable goal, it is only a fraction of the whole. Structural changes guided the reform effort's first sure footsteps, but they have since faltered, and it is evident that the United Nations is in need of a more holistic approach to healing. The United Nations will find itself on much more solid footing in the future should it learn some recent lessons from the private sector and capitalize on its most crucial asset: its people.

Swimming Against the Tide

Reform has been far from easy in the difficult UN environment. Conservatives are quick to point out that private sector reform strategies are not easily employed at the United Nations, where reform must reckon with the organization's unique combination of historical, political, and cultural pressures. The United Nations is a far cry from a publicly traded corporation, where the Chief Executive Officer exercises direct control over personnel and budgetary policies. The UN Secretary-General, on the other hand, is subject to the whims of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) and the Fifth Committee, which can tie up budgetary initiatives in a politically charged environment dominated by North-South tensions. While the United Nations is widely touted for its highly meritocratic selection process, hiring and placement decisions are severely restricted by geographic quotas, and the Secretary-General is similarly hog-tied when it comes to firing staff. An extensive pension system makes widespread or even targeted lay-offs a prohibitively expensive proposition. Instead, cutbacks have taken the form of regressive hiring, as they did in the mid-1990s, when 1,000 posts were permanently eliminated after they had been left vacant for several years. As a result, reformers repeatedly knock their heads against redundant or even useless subsidiary bodies preserved as reservoirs for pensioned underperformers.

Such brick walls also linger as ghosts from the past. The Cold War, for instance, bequeathed a heritage of redundancy and dissonance to the United Nations, which, in its effort to maintain global inclusiveness, was faced with resolving the competing agendas of the world's superpowers. This schizophrenia resulted in the duplication of purpose of the Security Council and the Special Political Committee. The largely Soviet-controlled Security Council bore the official mandate for handling security issues, but the Special Political Committee, under the sway of the United States, exercised greater effective influence in such matters. Not only did this situation leave a legacy of redundancy that has taken over a decade of careful work to dispel, it also bred an organizational culture that discourages horizontal communication, a problem that has not proven as easily curable.

Efforts to pull aside the foggy curtain of miscommunication and to eliminate maW of the redundancies have repeatedly run afoul of the intensely political nature of the organization, where back-scratching among member states is rampant. One UN official bemoaned a late 1990s effort to identify and weed through subsidiary, bodies within the organization. …

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