1 November 2003

The concept of a regional hub for field information offices may be right, but the implementation imposed on the European centres is wrong, unfair and counter-productive. The original idea, proposed in conjunction with a task force headed by current UNDP Administrator Marc Malloch-Brown, was to maintain national professionals in key countries while placing a senior international official at an appropriate regional location with enough resources to supervise and co-ordinate the geographically spread team. Economies of scale were also an important factor. For example, centres in Paris, Rome, Athens, Madrid and Lisbon all had free premises offered by the host country plus operational expenses. London was the major exception. The first U.N. "branch office" established by General Assembly resolution, the rental alone of the office in the British capital cost around $300,000 dollars annually. Negotiations over the years yielded no results and a successful attempt to get into a less expensive -- and more convenient -- location were undercut by an unfortunate ruling to move into the highly visible yet overly expensive Millbank Tower. Why should other centres in Europe (and the U.N.) suffer remains to be answered. If the issue is financial, it could be pointed out that one trip by a senior official costs more than the U.N. share of the budget of UNIC Lisbon, Athens, Rome, Paris, Madrid or Brussels. Again if the guideline is merely financial, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte has reportedly suggested closing UNIC Washington, thus saving about one million dollars. Would the Secretary General agree to do so? Practically and logistically, the U.S. capital is much closer and more manageable from New York than European cities.

Now that the decision -- however wrong -- has been pushed despite general advice against it, what about proper implementation? How about some considerate planning? Despite two years of talk, there is only one month to go but hardly anything concrete on the ground. The proposed "hub" in Brussels is not yet ready; a temporary location will reportedly be made available until something more regular is found, depending on clearer indications on who and how many will occupy it. The status of current staff is not yet finalized in disregard of basic consideration to those who devoted their careers to the United Nations. There may also be a disregard for basic human values that the Secretary General repeatedly addresses in statements to the press. The grapevine has it that the national officer from Madrid -- and possibly Athens -- have volunteered or agreed to go to Brussels. But, again with one month to go, there seems to be no apparent plan of practical action to deal with one of the major communications decisions by the United Nations. That is what happens when institutional concerns are overtaken by personal agendas.