15 February 2006

Consider an indicative comparison. A year ago whenever a press headline appeared on the Food-For-Oil scandal shivers went through the spines of all U.N. supporters. The story would have been about Secretary General Kofi Annan, his son Kojo or his designated Director of Iraq Programme. These days, headlines on Food-For-Oil are mainly dealing with sales of wheat from Australia.

Whether you like it or not, whether you like him or not, new Chef de Cabinet Mark Malloch-Brown has taken on an almost impossible challenge and made the difference. Clearly, he could not have done it without the full confidence of Secretary General Kofi Annan. And therein may be the first key to that positive change. Loyalty. The confident internationalist who gave up his UNDP post did not need to prove his loyalty to Kofi Annan. There was a longstanding relationship and straightforward understanding which did not require an hourly check-up. He was not one of those opportunists who bet on Mr. Annan to enhance their own Karma. He kept his focus on the target, his eyes on the ball. At times it seemed like the myth of Cyzefus: making every effort to push the ball upward towards the peak, only to risk having it roll downwards. There were some key bystanders who wanted him to fail. But others helped. Unexpectedly. They found in his earnest approach a silver lining for the U.N. and its Secretary General. As an experienced communicator, he needed no advice on the need to portray a participatory, transparent impression. Whether real or not, he at least gave the impression that whatever was under the rug was out for dry cleaning. A professional writer, he knew what words meant, what they revealed, what they left understood. As a proven manager at the World Bank and in the private sector, he recognized the importance of taking decisions, having them publicly announced and following up on their execution. Whenever it looked as if some would exploit his decisiveness he flexibly adapted his pace in full harmony with the unquestioned primacy of the Secretary General -- the person he is there to support.

Yes; the worse is over. But there are still ten more months. And there is that embarrassing peacekeeping procurement investigation with over $265 million questions. There is also the risk that some officials in senior positions do not help. They act as if the U.N., though without any contribution on their part, is now flying in the open skies of Cloud Nine. So they act irresponsibly with impunity. On the positive side, there are others who are making every effort to turn the corner. They also are making the difference -- from Under-Secretaries General like Christopher Burnham and Brahim Gambari to dedicated staff at all levels from all ranks. Those amongst them who stand up with courage and dignity to point out irregularities and perform their functions effectively in adverse conditions deserve special appreciation. After all, the Secretariat is the backbone of the United Nations. When it moves forward, however slowly, the whole galaxy advances.

There are hopeful signs, reflected by the growing confidence of the Secretary General in trying to regain his rightful role. Let us hope no one -- or nothing -- foolish pulls it back.