United Nations Management-An Oxymoron?

By Baumann, Franz | Global Governance, October-December 2016 | Go to article overview

United Nations Management-An Oxymoron?


Baumann, Franz, Global Governance


Our fifteen-year-old daughter and a friend have organized several bake sales to raise money for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). They trust that the $100 or so they take in each time will be put to good use, and I do not hesitate to reassure them. Unlike UNICEF, the UN Secretariat proper, headed by the Secretary-General, is financed only by assessed contributions from member states, and does not raise funds from teenagers. This is just as well since I could not give a similar assurance. Management problems at the Secretariat are stark and delivery is spotty, despite the good work of its often brilliant, mostly dedicated, and sometimes heroic staff. Among the daunting challenges for Ban Ki-moon's successor, who will assume office on 1 January 2017, will be rebuilding the decrepit Secretariat: not the building--that has been done (1)--but what goes on inside. This essay, while not a comprehensive survey of management challenges, will recount some recent scandals that have tarnished the organization and explore if these are random occurrences or, rather, systemic pathologies.

The red thread running through the essay is the supposition that the choice of the right Secretary-General is key to stanching future scandals and to reclaiming the UN's moral authority. The year 2016 offers a unique opportunity, with the General Assembly having asserted its role in the selection of the Secretary-General by demanding a more transparent process. (2) Heretofore, the General Assembly, nominally the appointing authority, simply confirmed the single choice offered by the Security Council. For the first time in the UN's history, all declared candidates appeared before the General Assembly in April and July of this year to present their vision and to answer questions, including from civil society representatives, in public sessions. This refreshing departure from opacity might well produce an outcome previously unimaginable. At the time this article is written, the process is ongoing; by the time it is published, the results may be known.

The previous eight Secretaries-General were chosen solely by the Security Council, which means in effect by the veto-wielding Permanent Five (P5). While some turned out winners (Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan come to mind), the historical record is quite conclusive that the P5 prefer a weak and pliable, if respectable, Secretary-General over one with proven political leadership skills and strong managerial competence. Since it takes someone with a robust sense of autonomy, decency, determination, and integrity to turn around the organization, the primary responsibility lies with the P5.

However, regardless of the P5's motives, the incoming Secretary-General could opt to treat her (hopefully) appointment as the pinnacle of a successful career and use the position to leave a lasting legacy of making the United Nations relevant again, respected and effective on its major normative mandates of peace, development, human rights, and sustainable environmental stewardship. She or he should also appoint effective and powerful as well as empowered leaders to head the many departments, funds and programs, peace operations, and special political missions around the world.

Systemic Pathologies

A cascade of revelations has recently focused the spotlight on egregious ethical and management glitches. In March 2016, the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) issued an audit "of the management of the trust fund in support of the Office of the President of the General Assembly," which uncovered lapses, deficiencies, and due diligence failures. (3) The audit was requested by the Secretary-General after a former president of the General Assembly was charged by the US attorney for the Southern District of New York with tax evasion after corruptly receiving $1.3 million in bribes. The Secretary-General, but only after the former president had been arrested, convened a task force to review the functioning of the Office of the President of the General Assembly. …

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