15 JUNE 2009


Very few outsiders realize that for eight years between 1994 and 2002, the U.N. Secretariat was mainly run by its Under-Secretary General for Management, Joseph E. Connor, who passed away on 6 May. A former chairman of Price Waterhouse who looked impressively serious even when he laughed, he was a formidable infighter, although very often operating in unfamiliar territory. While correctly deferring to the Secretary General at the time, his focus was mainly on reducing the budget, particularly on cutting staff. He did not want to show the U.S. Congress figures only; he wanted bodies. Deleting one senior post even if it saved over $100,000 would not be as impressive as taking off 20 minimal posts, especially if it belonged to faraway spots unlikely to be visited by Senator Jesse Helms.

While obviously respectful of all cultures, he questioned, for example, the use of radio broadcasts in Urdu, Swahili or Sinhalese, wondering with a wry smile who would actually be listening to them. A thoughtful decent man who never raised his voice in argument, he always maintained his dignity and treated others with respect -- although he would not hide his determination to proceed with his agenda regardless of how many teeth he had to pull. He kept his witty sense of humour to a small circle of colleagues, except when he felt he had to win an argument. When one colleague suggested that he was taking from Peter to pay Paul, Joseph Connor shot back: "As long as I am not Peter."

One major frustration may have stemmed from an attempt to reform an inter-governmental organization like the U.N. through means applicable to private sector firms like Price Waterhouse. While he felt he was doing the Secretariat a favour by enlisting a very limited number of his former associates, some critics from within, particularly those targeted by his decisions, interpreted it as favouritism, even worse, as a sign of a wider plan. A case of contention revolved around updating the salaries of the U.N. system, a project entrusted to Price Waterhouse before its former Chairman joined. This escalated costs from $10 million to about $100 million within five years under his management without a perfect conclusion. The costs were mainly due to the expanding Internet bubble with its hardware and software experiments. No one would even think of any personal gain. The man's integrity was beyond and above any doubt. Yet that venture offered ammunition which he, in fact, readily confronted. He encouraged a regular venue for management issues through a monthly meeting with all senior colleagues.

Joe Connor was the first American to take full charge of U.N. Management Administration. Two preceding compatriots did not last or stay long enough to make a durable impact. Melissa Wells did not withstand a "60 Minutes" program showing her pondering through the printing basement and Richard Thorburgh, a formidable leader with proven experience as former Attorney General decided to return to his law practice. Both had been nominated by an outgoing Republican Administration. Connor, who came with the Clinton Administration, was a staunch, though subtle, Democrat -- a close friend to Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was highly regarded by the American business community, whom he knew how to address. One of the few times he displayed his American political preference was when Republican Senator Jesse Helms happened to take his grandchildren on a guided tour of the U.N. one Saturday in the summer of 1995. Someone felt it would be a good opportunity to have a friendly chat with the very U.N.-unfriendly yet influential senator. When Connor was called at home, he made a gracious effort to come although he did not seem enthused nor persuaded that the similarly courteous yet adamant Southern Senator would change his position.

Secretary General Boutros-Ghali gave his new Under-Secretary for Administration and Management unprecedented authority. He had persuaded the U.S. leaders to take over that post so as to tell skeptics of his reform credentials that they had a free hand to try whatever was practically feasible. They agreed to shift from Special Political Affairs, which they practically oversaw for the first fifty years. With the fall of the Soviet Union, there was no real contest anymore and they were more interested in recycling the U.N. mechanism to suit their newly-acquired hyper-power stature -- if they knew where precisely to look. Connor substantially initiated that decisive shift which he often described as "pulling teeth." He would sometimes welcome more pressure by Congress to continue withholding dues in order to obtain specific action from member states; other times he would utilize demands by member states to get results out of Congress.

His main frustration was that his habitually unquestioned authority in the private section was regularly restricted by the supervisory bodies of an inter-governmental organization. Perhaps Dr. Boutros-Ghali hoped that his influential Under-Secretary General would help overcome the reluctance of his former classmate to approve a second term. Joe Connor went through the motions, but remained professionally aloof from a heated campaign. Meanwhile, his greater challenge was to find needed funds which he juggled mostly from Peacekeeping allocations. In that, he needed the collaboration of Kofi Annan, who wisely went along.

As a new Secretary General, Mr. Annan continued to fully endorse Connor. However, coming from an Administrative background, growing through the system, knowing the staff and having excellent links with the Clinton (Democratic) Administration, he would subtly impose his own choices over those of his highly esteemed and strong-willed Under-Secretary General. Known examples included the designation of a special director for Ted Turner's One Billion dollar fund, and the initial role of Connor's Assistant Secretary General Benon Sevan in the newly established Iraq Programme, better known as Food-for-Oil project. In agreement or difference, both Annan and Connor were discreet, professional and politically correct.

Joseph E. Connor was always an honourable man and an outstanding executive. Above all, while trying his best to do his assigned task, he treated everyone with dignity and respect. God bless his soul.