|NEVER SO MANY HAVE ACCOMPLISHED SO LITTLE
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."