15 APRIL 2009


After a five year failed experiment, it is time to objectively and independently review the dysfunctional U.N. public information operation in Europe.

Since the decision to close U.N. Information Centres in key European capitals had been taken before his tenure, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would not recognize the impact. He will certainly feel a vacuum as he stands, like a lonely figure at an edge of a photo opportunity for participants in London's G-20 Summit. London Centre, like those in Paris, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon and Athens, had been there throughout the years with dedicated capable professional staff ensuring a proper place for their leader and appropriate coverage in the media. Now the Secretary General will have to depend entirely on his overworked spokesperson and the voluntary kindness of his hosts. Former Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had approved the arbitrary decision taken by his former Special Assistant who headed DPI, aiming to please those who were dismissing "Old Europe," eventually recognized the blunder; only it was too late when he was being savaged by the media, particularly over Food for Oil with no loyal staff to fend for him on the ground. He described it as "a most ridiculous decision." Another former Secretary General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, broke his long silence to tell Le Figero how wrong and ignorant it was to assume that an office in Brussels could, from a distance, cover key cultural capitals like Paris (for the Francophone), Madrid (for Spanish speaking countries), and Rome, let alone Athens, Copenhagen, Bonn, and London.

Shashi Tharoor, who propelled that venture, and Kofi Annan, who covered it politically, are now gone. But the great damage remains; damage to U.N. standing, its role, its credibility, as well as to the Secretary General who had been able to count on substantive field support whenever he needed it. The U.N. Regional Office in Brussels is now less effective than when Brussels had only an Information Center that covered only Belgium and Luxembourg.

The claim that it would be less expensive proved to be false. With the exception of London, all other offices received free premises and operational costs from appreciative host countries. Now, the so-called Regional office is diminishing in space rather than expanding. Its initial two floors were cut to one and interns are joining regular staff who are expected to cover key countries. It was claimed that the Internet could do most of the research work; but even Bill Gates will tell you that neither Explorer nor Google aim to be an alternative to human initiatives (like approaching university professors or briefing editors) and institutional memory. Indeed, the Internet and Google are an outcome of human initiative!

For a while, when premises were not yet complete in Brussels, the U.N. was paying STAFF WITHOUT OFFICES, while at the same time -- due to administrative bungling -- it paid for OFFICES WITHOUT STAFF, like in London.

Brussels "regional" work has mainly turned ADMINISTRATIVE rather than SUBSTANTIVE. Specific country officers are not capable, nor are they given the resources to seriously provide professional coverage. For example, the officer dealing with France is asking NGO, who invite him (in order to ensure U.N. participation) to cover both his travel and per diem. The desk officer for Germany is paid per diem when he visits his own country, although he is the only staff member who actually resides there! He spends only one week a month in Brussels and gets his travel paid. The Centre in Bonn used to cost less as premises were offered by the government and the National Officer performed outstandingly with no per diem at all.

No one would argue against the importance of Europe to the U.N. In fact, FIVE of the fifteen members of the most influential body, the Security Council, are from Europe, including three permanent members. We are very much for the Security Council reform which is not particularly imminent. But with any kind of reform, European capitals like Paris, Madrid, Athens, London, Rome and yes, Brussels, will deserve as much attention as other regions.

If anyone believes that the Brussels regional bureau is a success, why not extend it to other continents like Asia and Africa? If not, then every effort should be made to correct, however partially, a damaging mistake. An independent professional review would help, particularly since current senior DPI officials were not part of that problem. They could certainly be instrumental in finding a solution.