15 May 2005

Failure was officially admitted. In an opening statement to the Committee of Information, the "Under Secretary General for Public Information and Communication" conveyed the "sobering news" that "the U.N. standing in many countries has never been lower." Public perception of the U.N. was the sum total of views held in the public mind, he added somewhat philosophically, and in the past two years that view had acquired a negative cast. That is, the image of the U.N. had been badly bruised, commenting, correctly, that "people want the U.N. to do more, not less".

However, the person mainly responsible for handling the U.N.'s image and its public perception did not seem to have a sense of accountability. Nor was there any serious assessment of the glaring and embarrassing communications gap. As far as Shashi Tharoor was concerned, he assured delegates of a "blizzard of public information initiatives," which had obviously gone unnoticed. Indeed, the escalating blizzard was from the other direction. He also talked of similarly unnoticed "proactive and preventive action." In sheer desperation, he valued the work of Information Centres, which he persistently sought to decimate over the last three years.

Tharoor, former Special Assistant to Kofi Annan at Peacekeeping, was leapfrogged from D-1 level when Annan became Secretary General to Under-Secretary General on the false assumption that he will be saving the U.N. image for succeeding generations. It has been downhill ever since. Public perception of the U.N. is inversely proportional to Tharoor's personal rise. The unabashed self promoter failed completely in defending the organization that embraced him.

Why did Shashi Tharoor succeed in advancing himself but failed to defend the United Nations?

Maybe because he had No Management Experience. Until taking over the Department of Public Information, Tharoor always had a one man constituency: first Marrack Goulding, then Kofi Annan. He drafted good speeches, sprinkled a few laughs and displayed visibly admiring allegiance. His excellent contacts with some New York Times and ABC Television reporters was particularly appealing to Under-Secretary Annan, particularly when certain stories were leaked about some operations placing the blame elsewhere. As Communications Director of the new Secretary General, he continued to deal mainly with his immediate boss. His forays into self-promotion were smiled off as excessive zeal which could be eventually pruned and polished to prepare him for senior management. But, possibly for varied purposes, he and Mr. Annan were in a rush. Running a large established Department, however, was a totally different matter.

Or maybe it was his Lack of Leadership Qualities. Despite flaunting a description obtained in some Davos gathering that he was among "future leaders," Tharoor has no clue about large team leadership. While he can be disarming in one-to-ones and charming to an appreciative audience, he does not seem to have the patience, span of attention or time to inspire or lead by example.

It could also have been due to his Personal, not Institutional Approach. The consensus amongst those in communications is that the main pre-occupation of Shashi Tharoor is precisely Shashi Tharoor. Most take it jovially in stride. Others refer to Shashi and Shashi, a take off on a British advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. Initially, he would hardly rush to the defence of the U.N. as an institution. In some cases, the token implicit message was to keep a distance from a disdained U.N. mechanism and berated U.N. staff. The explicit message was to pose as reformers, modernists, new breed of a new brand and the need for more power to them to save the U.N. from itself. The only swift response was when attacks began to become personal. By then it was too late. Lack of good judgment and absence of accountability was evident in the rushed decision to close offices in key European capitals without a back-up plan or a functional alternative.

Another reason could be Exaggerated Ambition. An obscure British reporter once started a joke which sent the U.N. laughing: Shashi for Secretary General. The joke was on all of us, as Shashi took it very seriously, with some opportunistic staff accommodating him. He accumulated frequent flier miles from one spot to another even as India indicated it was interested in a Security Council seat and had no interest whatsoever in supporting the man who Indian Times described as media manipulator. He may have needed to spend lots of time and energy Not Working But Networking. A constant self-promoter, moving from nowhere to nowhere at all, has little time to actually sit down and pursue a really complex issue to its definite or clear conclusion.

There must be wider factors. For example, the current U.N. leadership is more attuned to admiring press accolades in better times. It seems at a sea of ponderosity with wave after wave of critical comments and negative reports. "Leaving no stone unturned," "getting to the bottom of things," "unleashing a blizzard of initiatives," or exchanging congratulatory letters of how pleased they are with each other does not work. A more basic, courageous and honest review is required; and with a wider perspective. In the prevailing dysfunctional atmosphere, Shashi Tharoor does not hold a monopoly on failure.