15 November 2006

As has been customary these days, old proposals are rehashed into "new bold" reports by one more "high-level" group. This time a "farewell" report is on "system-wide coherence." Three Prime Ministers, no less, were mobilized to launch "bold yet realistic" proposals. The outgoing Secretary General swiftly assured everyone that such a report "will make the U.N. stronger, more coherent and more responsive to the needs of people everywhere." If they were so crucial, why did Mr. Annan not invoke them ten years ago, at the beginning rather than at the end of his tenure? Only his P.R. man would know.

Except for suggesting two of three jobs (for the "boys," one for a woman), the contents resemble so many earlier and repeated reports during the last three decades. Like the other venture of "Peacebuilding," certain terms reproduced seem almost identical -- with some updated retouching and inevitable airbrushing.


In early April of this year, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz arrived in New York with a delegation of 35 assistants to attend "a U.N. High Level Panel." A Pakistani columnist based in Washington noted that the number of his country's delegation alone was bigger than the whole Panel. Recalling that the Indian counterpart had turned down a similar invitation, the writer wondered whether Mr. Aziz had nothing more urgent to do at home.

Two other Prime Ministers joined in co-chairing the group: Luisa Dias Diogo of Mozambique and Jens Stoltenberg of Norway. Their task was "to harmonize efforts in development, humanitarian assistance and environment across all units of the U.N. system." According to a press release, the Secretary General urged them to produce "a stronger, more effective organization." IN THREE DAYS!

High level normally means high maintenance. At whose cost? That is the first question before wondering what was the purpose of that new group. There seems to be an obsession these days with having "high level" advisers, consultants, panels and groups. We just finished with a "high level" panel or working group to ensure follow-up on the Secretary General's "reform" proposals for the September 2005 session to which "high level" attendance was required. It was preceded by an earlier "high level" of "highly experienced and distinguished" personalities who were to advise on the third wave of reform. The first wave -- high level too -- was launched in 1997 with "high level" leadership and "high powered" P.R. networking of the "Quiet Revolution."

But what is this April 2006 High Level Panel expected to do?

"I count on your personal and collective leadership and efforts, to help produce bold but implementable recommendations that will lead to a U.N. system that is greater than the sum of its parts," Mr. Annan admonished his distinguished group.
"A U.N.," he added, "that is better able to ensure that these areas are much more closely and effectively integrated and coordinated" with other key pillars.

As if that was not an adequate dose to doze by, the Secretary General announced:

"We are meeting at a time of great global challenges," citing "uneven progress in poverty reduction in many parts of the developing world, natural and manmade disasters that vastly outstrip our capacity to respond, and increasing environmental degradation that threatens the sustainability of our future well being." He voiced hope that the Panel "can help make a decisive breakthrough in realigning and revitalizing the United Nations."

As if to compound the puzzle about what precisely was that newest of "highs" going to do, the Prime Minister took over. "We need to retool and reorganize ourselves to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow," Prime Minister Aziz of Pakistan told reporters after the close of the first session.

"As you know, the U.N. has a broad mandate and there are many organizations and sometimes they do tend to work at cross purposes," Mr. Aziz said, citing the example of the social sector, where he said both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) work in similar areas.

"Coherence means bringing them all together so we get the maximum firepower, the maximum punch, and get results. And the results are improving the delivery mechanism in the country," he said.

In order to do that, Prime Minister Dias Diogo stressed that it was crucial to have coherence between the national programmes and the various programmes of the U.N. system in any particular country.

Prime Minister Stoltenberg said another important area was financial coherence, citing the new Central Emergency Relief Fund, or CERF, which gives the U.N. more ability to coordinate among agencies in an emergency, and the common vaccine fund that allows WHO and the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) to take on complementary roles in inoculation campaigns in various countries.

With all due respect to all concerned, this kind of stuff doesn't really justify such forceful attendance. More precise examples of duplication had just been issued in a report on conflicting mandates a week earlier. If anything, the "high level" panel seemed to be ONE MORE DUPLICATION.

Actually, Mr. Annan left the three Prime Ministers to their own devices, flying overnight to Madrid for an Abrazo with Spanish Premier Zapatero with whom he had just launched another vague grand alliance of Civilizations. A tentative foray into the delicate issue of a cease fire declaration by Basque separates looked too risky, so it was dropped immediately after a TV minute. So as to proceed with the actual order of business: a meeting of U.N. executives hosted by the appropriately named World Tourism Organization. That group -- under ever-changing nemesis -- is composed of all heads of U.N. agencies, funds, programmes and organizations with the main purpose of co-ordination and avoiding duplication. Its newest label under updated reform is Chief Executives Board. "Wider Coherence" at the highest level is one of its main reasons for existence.

Why then have an additional High Level Panel for Wider Coherence?

Politicians love to show their international credentials to their national audience. Former Presidents and Prime Ministers in particular would welcome to project at home the importance they acquired abroad, even if the facts needed some stretching. In the newest high level panel for example, the name of the former president of Chile was never mentioned during press briefings in New York. Yet some of his compatriots were led to believe that his inclusion in the group was an international recognition of a potential future role, like that of U.N. Secretary General.

As to the Secretary General, it feels good for example to have someone like Senator Hillary Clinton telling him publicly in front of a "high level" Berlin audience: "Thanks for giving my husband (the former U.S. President) a job." It is good for the U.N. to acquire distinguished signatures to its varied causes and good for Mr. Annan. Why not do something for these influential people, especially at a time when they could -- or would not do something to him.

All that is understood within a reasonable operational process. Only when done in moderation, within reason and with a clear purpose. That is, all those high level wide coherence panels require wider coherence.