15 November 2005

Christopher Burnham, the refreshingly open new Under-Secretary General for Management was taken aback when a reporter questioned the appointment of someone like Rajat Kumar Gupta as the Secretary General Special Advisor on Reform. Indeed Mr. Gupta, a former managing director of McKinsey and Co., brings along a wealth of experience urgently and desperately needed at these difficult times. For one dollar a year, that's the best bargain the Organization could have. The problem is that such titles as advisor, special envoy or representative, have acquired a bad name over the last eight years. Clearly, there were outstanding ones who offered more than they received. Someone like Ambassador Joseph Vernon Reed, for example, gave, and continues to give to the U.N. from his health and wealth for one dollar a year. For one Joseph Reed or Rajat Kumar Gupta, there are many others who hardly do anything. We do not wish to prejudice a serious review by mentioning names of those who took refuge under such titles. Reporters express themselves. That's part of their business. They must have felt at ease to express themselves during that briefing on management reform, where Chris Burnham seemed open and engaging. Diplomats, on the other hand, would withhold their cynical view -- well, for diplomatic reasons. It is common knowledge that political expediency, personal relations, and other more intricate considerations have played a role in making appointments under different titles and varied tasks. Let's put aside those "advisors" on $1 a year. A review of their names alone will tell the story.

Let's take one, only one example: the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The drums of war are sounding in that poorest of regions. You have a Special Representative "to" Ethiopia and Eritrea, Joseph Lagwaila, who is actually stationed there and a Special Representative "over" Ethiopia and Eritrea, former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy who was imposed despite open refusal by Eritrea. There are two Assistant Secretaries General, one in Asmara and another in Addis Abeba, plus a Commanding Officer, General Singh at the rank of Under-Secretary General. Plus, an advisor for "African Questions" and another "for Africa" at headquarters. Africa alone has over 18 Special Representatives, Deputies, Advisors and envoys at the Under or Assistant Secretary General's level. Four in the Cote D'Ivoire alone, three in the Congo, one in the "Great Lakes region," etc. A list is available.

There are 92 of those "specials" in total. A general impression is to overturn Winston Churchill's remark: Never so many have accomplished so little.

Again, each case will have to be evaluated separately on its own merit. Many with specific assignments have done admirable jobs; they earned respect through uncontested performance. But many have only vague assignments and even more vague accomplishments. Doubtless, all of them, all are honorable persons with distinguished backgrounds. No reproach could take their record away -- except the vision of some of them parading as special envoys with little to show except their U.N. Laissez-Pessez.

At no time in U.N. history was there such a flood of personally designated envoys. And at no time was such an assignment a continued preoccupation equal to a career prospect with the U.N. Normally, a special envoy is expected to accomplish a specific assignment within a particular time frame. It is not only the embarrassment to the U.N. and erosion of its credibility that is irritating. It is also the cost involved at a time of financial crisis. The assumption that they are appointed "pro-bono," that is with no salaries, is nonsense. In addition to their travel expenses, most of them get paid for the days they are supposedly "on duty." That, they could easily arrange. Anyway, the bulk of them are not pro-bono; they are salaried at the highest levels.

Christopher Burnham rightly pointed out that the U.N. right now faced "a reputational crisis." He has every support in his effort "to help make the greatest body of its kind a more accountable, transparent and ethical place."

Clearly, that should start from the top echelons. His record at the U.S. Department of State showed that he took on a similar task and managed to cut down the number to a respectable limit.

Perhaps a working group by three Under-Secretaries General: Administration, Political Affairs, and Peacekeeping could seriously review that long and embarrassing list. They may wish to explore if certain tasks could actually be performed (possibly more effectively) by lower level professional staff under their supervision. That would raise staff morale, enhance program delivery, create reference points which could also be helpful to delegates dealing with these issues. It would also cut expenses and contribute, however slightly, to help overcome that "reputation crisis."