15 October 2005

It sometimes looks like the myth of Sizyphus: condemned to push that rock to the top of the mountain, only to have the wind roll it back. But at least Mark Malloch-Brown is trying; with several others; very hard; and with visible impact. Consider that a year ago the U.N. was in deep trouble; its Secretary General surrounded by daily reported scandals. Sexual harassment by senior officials, oversight chief requiring oversight, Chef de Cabinet evading staff rules by appointing friends -- even his own son -- in senior posts, staff discontent, low morale, fiefdoms of personalized administrations were compounded by a Food-for-Oil story that won't go away. Even once docile reporters had to report or lose to the competition. The reputation of the U.N. had reached an unprecedented low and the Secretary General's aura was allowed to dissipate. It got to a point where a Congressman from Minnesota, Kofi Annan's first U.S. post of entry, requested his resignation.

When Mark Malloch-Brown took over in mid-January, there were many doubters. Some questioned giving so much power to a powerful man from one of the powerful Permanent Five. Some wondered why would he wish to leave a higher-paid job as U.N.D.P. chief to plunge into a sea of trouble, unless there was a hidden agenda. Most of the criticism came from an impression, circulated by The New York Times, that he was nominated by a private group of Annan's concerned personal friends.

Whatever the background, MMB took charge, trying to navigate a desperately disabled ship in order to bring it at least to floating level. He took decisions, like quick action on Dailip Neer and Ruud Lubbers. He started a transparent process despite some doubt about hidden influences. More important, he opened up to the media, taking on most difficult adversaries, as his appearance in Congress and recent interviews with Fox News displayed. He may not say much beyond what is known, but at least gives the impression of availability. An experienced communicator, he quickly figured out what to say, whom to contact, and what message to give. Obviously, he stage-managed key events, particularly on occasions like Volcker reports. But that was part of a perception strategy. He obviously has a solid mandate which he approaches with confidence. Otherwise, how could he withstand the sharpshooters within. He maintained the support (until now) of the Secretary General, who seemed to give him an almost free hand. The appointment of two new Under-Secretaries General for Administration and Management as well as Political Affairs, Christopher Burnham and Ibrahim Gambari, both strong in their own constituency helped give an impression of change and a perception of refreshed departmental leadership. While some other heads of departments remain lost in ponderosity or personalized agendas, these two newcomers have injected a participatory spirit. To be fair, the efforts of former USG Catherine Bertini who was undercut by the previous Chef de Cabinet, deserve mention. A new Spokesman with insider experience like Stephane Dujarric indicated a turning of a new page. Reopening channels with staff, appearing -- at least -- to listen to their concerns helped, despite ups and downs.

Clearly, political understandings and personal deals must have been made to absorb or avert adverse situations and new revelations. Is the worse over? Maybe. Many are trying -- hoping for the best. But at the end, the crucial revival, or lack of it, rests with the Secretary General himself. All of us could lend a hand. But it is Kofi Annan who will make or break Kofi Annan. And we have only one year to go, while, as the Chinese would say, we live in interesting times.