The World of International Organizations Explained

Case made for top-down U.N. reforms

The entrance to the the Palais des Nations in Geneva (ARÊTE/John Heilprin)

GENEVA — The United Nations is weighing proposals to add two new departments and revamp its 44,000 staff — about a third the size of Microsoft or Apple — in a broader effort to radically shake up management.

The need to overhaul the U.N.’s vast bureaucracy is a more urgent topic with the pressure coming from its single biggest donor, the United States, where U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is turning up the heat in response to U.N. criticism of American policies.

But the issue is not new. In talks before the U.N.’s budget-writing Fifth Committee, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, chief of staff to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said Guterres wants to overhaul management including financial approval to create two new departments.

The U.N. General Assembly agreed to a resolution last December that encouraged Guterres to propose sweeping reforms. He responded by asking for a new department to handle management strategy, policy and compliance and another new one to support operations.

“We hope for a positive decision in June that will enable us to launch the new departments in January 2019,” she told the committee.

The U.N.’s nearly $5.4 billion core budget is 5 percent less than the previous year, largely owing to big cutbacks in U.S. funding that mean less money for special political missions and a 10 percent reduction in an array of services. The General Assembly, however, agreed to set up two new offices for counterterrorism and victims’ rights.

“Management reform is about more than restructuring,” said Viotti. “It is about making sure that the Secretariat is better positioned and equipped to fulfill its duties. It is about greater transparency, accountability and effectiveness. It is about changing the status quo.”

Viotti, a career diplomat who formerly was Brazil’s U.N. ambassador, said decentralization, less bureaucracy and more focus on getting results were needed. She said bringing about changes will takes streamlining to eliminate duplication and clearer employee roles.

“The secretary-general strongly believes that segregating policy from operations in our management structures is a prerequisite for meaningful change,” she said. “Procurement and human resource management are two areas in which our current structures are particularly slow and cumbersome.”

Guterres said in a report to the General Assembly that he had broad concerns about “slow, unresponsive service delivery, fragmentation in management structures, inadequate resourcing, ineffective mandate delivery and a lack of transparency and accountability.”

For example, U.N. bureaucracy was to blame for the 288 days it took to get approval and 114 days to amend an existing contract to buy supplies in Somalia.

U.N. managers must become “more nimble, effective, transparent, accountable, efficient, pragmatic and decentralized” to support operations. He recommended giving managers more responsibility and holding them accountable for the financial performance of programs.

From 300 to 44,000

Earlier this month, Norway called for a change of institutional culture and Switzerland said it was time to act. Ecuador, representing the Group of 77 coalition of developing nations and China, said the U.N. Secretariat needs better transparency, accountability and results.

Ethiopia, representing Africa, said there were too many conflicts of interest. The European Union urged more U.N. efforts against sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.

The proposed management reforms reflect the growth of an international organization since its founding at San Francisco on October 24, 1945 based on its foundational Charter of the United Nations. By early 1946, it had about 300 staff.

Six months later, it expanded to 3,000 employees. In October 1949, the cornerstone was laid for what became the U.N. Secretariat’s headquarters in New York on Manhattan’s East Side.

Today, 40 percent of the U.N.’s 44,000 employees work at the headquarters; 60 percent is in field operations. The Secretariat has three more central offices in Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna. Five U.N. economic commissions are in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva and Santiago.

The world of international organizations explained.

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