Reforming the U.N.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

IT'S RARE THAT doorstop-size reports appear just days before an opportunity to act on them, but that is what's just happened at the United Nations. The commission headed by Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, has delivered a massive indictment of the United Nations' handling of Iraq's oil-for-food program just ahead of next week's summit at which U.N. reform will be on the agenda. When Mr. Volcker delivered his report to the Security Council yesterday, his call for change was echoed both by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and by ambassadors representing the United States and other member nations. There is no debate, in other words, as to whether reform is necessary. The challenge is to get agreement on it in the next few days.

To forge such a consensus, it's important first of all to understand what the Volcker report did not find. Despite a budget that ran into the millions, the inquiry did not nail large numbers of U.N. officials for personal corruption in administering the oil-for-food program. If it had done that, life would be easier; firing the wrongdoers might fix the problem. Instead, the inquiry found evidence of corruption on the part of just two officials, both of whom have since been forced out of their jobs. The real scandal that Mr. Volcker underlined is that the United Nations' culture is dysfunctional. The secretariat headed by Mr. Annan is badly managed and incapable of holding employees accountable. It is not equal to the difficult tasks that it is increasingly called upon to perform, from disaster relief to peacekeeping.

Again, it would be nice to believe that replacing Mr. Annan with a stellar manager would change this. But the United Nations' incompetence is hard-wired into the institution's DNA: the rules created by its member states that make it impossible for the secretary general and his top staff to hire good people, fire bad ones and move resources from unneeded programs to priority ones. To give one small flavor of this problem, the General Assembly passed a resolution last year giving Mr. Annan the "extraordinary" authority to eliminate 50 unnecessary staff positions and to create 50 jobs where they are needed. But Mr. Annan's lieutenants have spent months pressing the United Nations' semi-independent fiefdoms to identify 50 posts that can be closed. Even baby steps can prove all but impossible.

Mr. Volcker has proposed some changes that might alleviate this management morass, notably that officials whose work is identified as inadequate by the United Nations' internal auditors should not be able, as they astonishingly are, to ignore the criticism with impunity. Mr. Annan is already trying to change that, and some of Mr. Volcker's other proposals, such as the creation of a chief operating officer, echo reforms that the United Nations has attempted without having much to show for them. If the United Nations is going to turn a corner, the member states that micromanage U.N. officials are going to have to rethink their approach. They won't ever be able to hold the secretary general accountable for mismanaged programs unless they first give him more responsibility.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company