15 MAY 2008

Now you see him, now you don't. Staffan Demistura, the Swedish/Italian - Italian/Swede (as the case may require), is not merely a Greeter/Meeter. He is also a perpetual job Seeker. Since his UNICEF Greeting Cards days, he was always looking beyond his immediate colleagues' shoulders for another spot. And he could connect his way to do it.

No need to dwell on boring details. Just a few recent pointers. Immediately after profusely Meeting/Greeting/Seeking his way to head the U.N. Information Centre in Rome at an exceptional D-2 level (replacing our beloved Nadia Younnes upon her promotion back to New York), he angled towards the Assistant Secretary General post of Special Representative to South Lebanon. With that came widespread indignation at the appointment with him in Beirut at a Senior Officer level (P-5) of Imran Iqbal Riza, son of Mr. Annan's then Chef de Cabinet in an obvious evasion of staff rules. Let's quickly point out that the young man, who had a fixed-term contract with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome (a "window" entry), proved to be very hard-working though understandably arrogant. The scandalous atmosphere was because of the father's perceived understanding with Demistura to evade staff rules when they were entrusted to demonstrate exemplary adherence. It became known at the time that an added objective of the Italian/Swede was to maintain also his stature as head of the U.N. Rome Centre, in order to keep diplomatic privileges in his own country of regular residence, including swift VIP arrivals/departures (with luggage) at the airport. When the Department of Public Information refused to go along, internal talk had it that Demistura was hoping to get a temporarily vacated Assistant General post in the Department of Political Affairs in New York. Meanwhile in Beirut, his passion for photo opportunities was only matched by his political blunders, including a noted foray into diplomatic mediation about Israeli overflights which embarrassingly backfired. He was quickly given a non-job post in Turin to head a somewhat fictitious U.N. Staff College -- with a long-term contract way beyond Mr. Annan's term. His eventual appointment to Iraq -- and an untimely transfer there of the new Secretary General's son-in-law -- was adequately reported.

Now, we greatly appreciate recent claims that U.N. Secretariat is doing very well in Iraq. A realistic look, however, would demonstrate that a modest increase in staff to 140 (to deal with problems of 20 million Iraqis) is nothing to boast about. Indeed, such a public claim is counter-productive. The fact is that the current Special Representative, like his predecessor Qazi, has no real relevance on the ground and is hardly noticed. THREE U.N. officials receiving salaries of one Under-Secretary General and two Assistant Secretaries General -- plus their staff -- operate mostly from AROUND Iraq, like Jordan and Cyprus. There are however a number of staff working on the spot and we would like to pay special tribute to their courage and dedication to accomplish very difficult assignments in a very risky area. They include Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's son-in-law Mr. Chatterjee, whose appointment by itself DID NOT violate staff rules; to the contrary, it demonstrated his willingness to serve wherever required. It was the exploitation by someone with a history of using such connections that drew unwanted attention. Counting on Demistura to hang on and hang around long enough to do a serious job in Iraq would prove to be an illusion. His main purpose from hovering around Baghdad would be to strengthen his relations in angling for an opportune move elsewhere. A usually well-informed colleague mentioned the World Food Programme (WFP). What could be more attractive than a most prestigious job in the hometown Eternal City? It is generally recognized that Rome is also the "capital" of U.N. "Food" operations -- Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The established options are not certain, particularly that a national of a host country is not usually considered seriously to head an agency based in its capital. Perhaps the alternate Swedish passport would do it; but then that gimmick would be so obvious that it would backfire amongst member states, particularly developing countries. Besides, even if the current head of WFP, Josette Sheeran, whose appointment was considered political, is to be changed with a new American administration, the usual understanding is to reserve that post for a U.S. citizen -- with Congressional support.

However, it just happens that "Food" crisis is receiving increasing media attention with Secretary Ban highlighting the need for immediate preventive action. That may prompt some proposals coming out of the recently established Working Group or the forthcoming urgent meeting in Rome. And who would be more available than the meeter/greeter/seeker himself? If U.S. support was required, where better to enhance such links than through crucial Iraq? If strong support is needed in Rome, what about a Cardinal or two to vouch for satisfactory performance? As to the Secretary General who decides, there is enough ground work to allow for some "creative reform" -- along the lines of that revived yet futile staff college. A show of leadership may be required to confront that growing worldwide food shortage endangering world peace and security.

An idea of a "Food Crisis Czar" similar to an earlier one on Environment (Maurice Strong) would be perfectly suitable. Whatever the options, Demistura seems determined to move along, mostly by wiggling through connections with the father, the son (or the son-in-law!), and some unholy spirit.