15 September 2007

You say good-bye, I say hello; I say hello, you say good-bye.

Imagine fifty harried puzzled and curious senior officials -- Under-Secretary General to Assistant-Secretary General rank, no less -- dutifully plodding their way in and out of Turin, Italy, within the urgent confines of one weekend. Drop everything and come, was the order. "An unprecedented gathering," blew the horn.

Our diligent new Secretary General had discovered an U.N. Staff College. It was one of the best kept secrets over the last two decades, duplicating with ANOTHER U.N. "training college" ALSO IN TURIN. A nearby THIRD one, in Thessaloniki, Greece, is by now obsolete, having managed to embarrass the contributing Greek government, the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (particularly our Italian Colleague Guido Bertucci) and a slew of disappointed Balkan frequent flyers.

The senior officials' ponderosity was compounded by a last minute loss of their actual destination. The much touted Staff College was suddenly dumped as not sufficiently appropriate. The local Piedmontese authorities had to scramble for better accomodations for their similarly scrambling visitors. Otherwise,"les savants sans savon" would be inspired enough to rise to the level of the occasion.

Anyone preparing a brief for the Secretary General would have at least pointed out the obvious limitations -- assuming a brief was prepared or even requested. Anyone with even a limited memory would recall that the post at the Staff College was used to accommodate meticulously dressed Meeter Greeter Staffan Demistura. The former UNICEF Greeting Cards enthusiast had to be parked in a soft spot after things did not work out well in Iraq between the helpless Qazi and the pompous Italian Swede/Swedish Italian (as the circumstances may require), who was mainly operating from the safety of Amman and Nicosia. Having long passed retirement age, he was given an ASG assignment which unusually extended way beyond the mandate term of his former UNHCR colleague Kofi Atta Annan.

Let's consider that with Ban Ki-Moon we have a Tabula Rasa -- a blank erased board. Let's assume a serious determination at the highest level was made to seriously revive that old spot in the Italian mountains. Let us deny vehemently that Mr. Ban, at least partially, took into account an intervention by Ambassador Spatafora, a member of the Security Council. Let's just ask: WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF THAT EXPENSIVE WEEKEND? That is the question on the mind of experienced participants. Let's see the varied explanations:

  1. An official communique indicated that participants will discuss "U.N. Global issues and reformers (that's plural!) focusing on delivering results"! The meetings "will also consider the U.N.'s readiness and capacity to perform its duties, particularly in promoting peace and security." That is gibberish.
  2. The disarmingly charming yet rarely informative Spokeswoman Michele Montes later weighed in that "the retreat provides an opportunity for the U.N. Senior Managers to explore and propose ways of better managing the Organization and improving its effectiveness" (see a long forgotten note on UNITAR whose purpose was to "enhance" the effectiveness -- a slight linguistic shift!). Ms. Montes considered these as "concrete objectives," together with promoting "unity of purpose and common understanding of the U.N. and its priorities." (All in three days!)
  3. A most sensible take came from the gracious, patient and experienced Deputy Spokeswomen Marie Okabe. Put simply, the purpose was "to take stock of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's first 8 months at the helm of the Organization and look also at the U.N. system implementing the Secretary General's vision, focusing on delivering results."

That seemed clear, practical and to the point. It should have done it, except that after the meeting varied explanations continued to come for it. Even the Secretary General seemed ready to shift gears to changing issues. Coming back to Headquarters from his trip to Euro-Africa, and bearing in mind questions on Ethics and whistle-blowing, he shifted to Ethical Standards and Accountability. He said he had raised with colleagues and will raise with the Chief Executive Board (CEB, earlier known as ACC) in October the need to have one standard -- "we should stand at the highest level of ethical standards."

So here we are. A lost costly weekend with little to show for it except a more confused look on the face of our helpless Chef de Cabinet.