15 OCTOBER 2014


It seems that those who call for more high-level meetings may not be aware of the wide-range, immense work involved by the staff. Despite official rhetoric, the most recent high-level ones have produced very little tangible results. This may be a question for discussion. But there is no doubt that the atmosphere gets more tense as the leadership demands more work while dedicated staff deal with frustrating limitations. Visiting officials are the first to notice although over-extended managers try to put on their best face.

Before the first high-level general debate started the third week of September, there was a climate change summit, a popular climate walk and an equally popular music jamboree in Central Park promising to cut poverty, or indeed overcome it, and a determined announcement by the new Indian leadership to provide full toilets in the subcontinent.

Even before that, in August, there were also high-level meetings: one for small, least developed States at a time when a number of them publicly declared that they may be submerged by water in the not-too-distant future, and another one on dialogue among cultures at the Indonesian resort of Bali where a distinguished Secretary-General proclaimed "accomplishments" in particular the Middle East, although his own office was at the same time introducing distressing facts about millions of victims and refugees, particularly in Syria and Iraq, let alone Sudan, Mali, Niger and Nigeria. And more farcical, a High Representative on culture and dialogue, an expediently appointed diplomat with very limited college education confirmed those tangible "accomplishments". Despite these mostly unreal statements, the fact is that hard working staff had to be there to prepare and separate documents, process passes, ensure security and generally make the events happen.

More visible events at UN Headquarters in New York require, of course, more thorough preparations and wider networks of sections to ensure the most orderly of meetings.

How could accomplishments be expected when the number of posturing "high level" officials increase where the number of related staff is cut? How could more be delivered with less people to accomplish it?

Fortunately, experienced staff continue to do their best, occasionally helped by a number of retired colleagues who are ready to lend a hand. But it is very difficult, for example, for security officers to maintain a cool, systematic and above all polite concerned attitude when they have to put in 18-hour shifts. Same with Protocol where an outstanding team like Deputy Director Nicole Bresson, accreditations officer Wai-Tak Chua and others manage to handle an increasing number of delegates and meetings effectively despite a wider number of participants at least some of whom did not speak any of the UN working languages, English or French.

Besides the human element there is a problem with scanning machines, answering machines, clearing machines. They take time. Delegates have to wait. Visitors have to wait. Staff have to wait. While high-levels are flown by, the rest will have to take time to plod their way into their designated conference room. Stressed and distressed individuals are even more so when having to deal with an unresponsive machine. A perplexed security officer is not likely to impress a hurried delegate. An unhappy delegate is not likely to produce a successful meeting. If there is absolute need to call for more meetings, which is very doubtful really, and more need even to indicate high expectations, then there will be an absolute need for adequate supportive staff, or at least stop cutting down the number of mid-level, experienced, knowledgeable dedicated staff while expediently designating new ones.