.
S

eventy-five years after the UN charter was signed in San Francisco, the world is facing a series of challenges—a pandemic, climate change, mass migration, to name a few—that should, ostensibly, make the global organization more relevant than ever. But a series of scandals, a reputation as a slow-moving, inefficient bureaucracy, and a lack of transparency about how and where its funds are spent, all challenge whether the United Nations is still relevant in the modern world.

Founded after World War II to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," the United Nations had a fourfold mission: safeguard peace and security; reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; uphold respect for international law; and, promote social progress and better standards of life. These were no small tasks—then or now—and the organization that began with 300 staff members in 1946, now has 44,000 staff, working with 40 programs and agencies, not including scores of contractors in varying roles.

With headquarters in New York, Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi; regional commissions in Beirut, Santiago, Bangkok, and Addis Ababa, as well as international criminal tribunals in The Hague for the former Yugoslavia and Arusha for Rwanda, the institution touches every part of the globe. The United Nations is so large that the organization frequently has to ward off accusations that it's attempting to become a global government.

The organization has become so large that many of its key administrative functions have become mired in bureaucracy and nepotism. While field staff are generally regarded as idealists with an eye on fulfilling its founders' vision of building a safer, more peaceful and equitable world for all, the officials in its global headquarters are seen in significantly lower regard.

Rut Gomez Sobrino, a PhD student in Spain, spent three years working for UNESCO, before working under UN Women, UNDP, UNCDF, and UNWTO as well as in other international organizations such as IUCN, as staff and a consultant in 35 countries. She told Diplomatic Courier that nepotism in the hiring process is a widescale issue within the UN.

"As result of what is called 'fake recruitment' processes, internal staff, and also people with no capacity but very good connections are appointed," Gomez Sobrino told Diplomatic Courier. "The existence, and increasing use, of waivers still shocks many of us."

It's a sentiment echoed by one former Latin American diplomat who requested anonymity for fear of political reprisals. “The institution lacks the values and idealism of its staff,” the former diplomat told Diplomatic Courier, “who are often shuffled around to positions not within their expertise area.”

Michael Soussan, whistleblower and author of Backstabbing for Beginners, a book about the corruption he witnessed in Iraq while working with a United Nations program there, told Diplomatic Courier that staff idealism should drive reforms within the UN.

"If the UN wants to renew itself it must empower its staff to select the leaders they want to see draft a package of true reforms," Soussan said. "Imagine that, giving the staff within the UN the same rights as democratic citizens. Now that's a cause I could get behind."

Despite its core mission of safeguarding peace and security, the United Nations has been repeatedly pilloried for failing to prevent genocides in Cambodia, Srebrenica, and Rwanda; conflict in Kashmir, Somalia, Sudan and Syria; the U.S. assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan; the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which a UN official called "the world's largest" in 2019; and despite first convening a UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People in 1975, doing little to stop what one United Nations official deemed "Israel's ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinian people. This, against a backdrop of widespread, ongoing sexual abuse and exploitations by UN peacekeepers against some of the world's most vulnerable people.

Developing nations, in particular, often criticize the United Nations for its lack of transparency, and the lavish lifestyles of its field staff, which I witnessed when on a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014, and again on a trip to the Syrian/Jordan border in 2016. In the DRC, locals wished that after 20 years of peacekeeping operations in the region, the aid workers would simply leave, but leave behind their trucks and their buildings and their helicopters for the people of Congo when they did, allowing the locals to begin building their own future. In Honduras, recent efforts to make the organization disclose how their funds were being used, and the status of those projects, were blocked by UN officials.

"I don't believe the UN is an element of change. They are just rhetoric," said the former Latin American diplomat who requested anonymity for fear of political reprisals. "It's a bureaucratic institution. Bad officials came to (my country.) They're well paid but more interested in living well than helping the people."

That perception, that the organization is inefficient, wasteful, and more concerned about doling out aid that looks good on paper, than meeting the needs of the communities it's ostensibly serving, extends to the governments with which it partners.

"In the last years, the number of politicians from Member States appointed at UN agencies as result of paybacks is also increasing," Gomez Sobrino said. "All these frustrate many committed and well-prepared staff working tirelessly at the UN, risking their lives in many contexts and with a genuine vocation of service in the field of international development."

Kickback and bribery schemes have also extended to members of local governments coordinating with UN agencies, or to contactors aiming to land lucrative supply deals.  

"If you know the local government is corrupt, and it's destroying the economy, why does the UN keep giving them money?," the former diplomat posited. "Don't you have any moral requirements to know the money is helping the people?"

*****

For all the criticism about the United Nations, justified or not, the global organization still has its legions of fans, those who believe the world, with all its flaws, is better off with the UN than without it.

"The role of the United Nations is more important than ever," Patrick Fine, the CEO of the international healthcare and education organization FHI360, told Diplomatic Courier.* "The type of challenges that nations and societies face are not confined within borders, like pandemics, migration, and access to water."

"Given the interconnectedness of human life on the planet today, if we didn’t have the UN we would need it," Fine said. "If the problems you have are global and regional in nature, solutions will require groups of nations to work together or each neighbor will suffer."

If the UN was based on lofty ideals, and staffed with lofty idealists, it is perhaps best judged on the only metric that matters—its results. While the world has not achieved peace, human rights for all, gender equality, or a healthy and sustainable planet, it is perhaps not worse off than it would be without the global institution, for all its flaws.

"If not for UN Women, certain topics such as gender budgeting would be absent from the political discourse and agendas of many countries. UNEP has highly contributed to leverage the debates on environmental protection and sustainable development," Gomez Sobrino said. "Imagine what would have happened without the support of UNRWA to the Palestinian people. UNDP has for instance worked on highly sensitive topics such as Anti-Corruption and Integrity, protection of indigenous communities, the impact of environmental degradation on human security,"

"At the same time there are few other agencies, that I will not mention, that just live out of having conferences here and there and some reports to show now and then," Gomez Sobrino said. "Nowadays with the level of information and digital communications, it is easy to understand which ones contribute."

*****

There is nothing like a milestone to take stock of where an organization has been, and where it's going, and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations is an ideal time to recalibrate all aspects of its business to ensure it's meeting the challenges of the modern age, and what's to come. Overhauling its recruiting and hiring practices, ensuring headquarters staff have field experience, providing greater transparency on how, where, and why funds are spent, and working to regain the trust that it's lost with its partners around the world, are all key to ensure the United Nations won't go the way of its predecessor, the League of Nations.

"The United Nations acts its age," said Soussan, "but it doesn't need to."

*the author has previously provided consulting services to FHI360.

About
Molly McCluskey
:
Molly McCluskey is an international investigative journalist and Editor-at-Large of Diplomatic Courier. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Criticism and Praise Mark UN's 75th Anniversary

Source: UN photo.

September 21, 2020

S

eventy-five years after the UN charter was signed in San Francisco, the world is facing a series of challenges—a pandemic, climate change, mass migration, to name a few—that should, ostensibly, make the global organization more relevant than ever. But a series of scandals, a reputation as a slow-moving, inefficient bureaucracy, and a lack of transparency about how and where its funds are spent, all challenge whether the United Nations is still relevant in the modern world.

Founded after World War II to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," the United Nations had a fourfold mission: safeguard peace and security; reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; uphold respect for international law; and, promote social progress and better standards of life. These were no small tasks—then or now—and the organization that began with 300 staff members in 1946, now has 44,000 staff, working with 40 programs and agencies, not including scores of contractors in varying roles.

With headquarters in New York, Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi; regional commissions in Beirut, Santiago, Bangkok, and Addis Ababa, as well as international criminal tribunals in The Hague for the former Yugoslavia and Arusha for Rwanda, the institution touches every part of the globe. The United Nations is so large that the organization frequently has to ward off accusations that it's attempting to become a global government.

The organization has become so large that many of its key administrative functions have become mired in bureaucracy and nepotism. While field staff are generally regarded as idealists with an eye on fulfilling its founders' vision of building a safer, more peaceful and equitable world for all, the officials in its global headquarters are seen in significantly lower regard.

Rut Gomez Sobrino, a PhD student in Spain, spent three years working for UNESCO, before working under UN Women, UNDP, UNCDF, and UNWTO as well as in other international organizations such as IUCN, as staff and a consultant in 35 countries. She told Diplomatic Courier that nepotism in the hiring process is a widescale issue within the UN.

"As result of what is called 'fake recruitment' processes, internal staff, and also people with no capacity but very good connections are appointed," Gomez Sobrino told Diplomatic Courier. "The existence, and increasing use, of waivers still shocks many of us."

It's a sentiment echoed by one former Latin American diplomat who requested anonymity for fear of political reprisals. “The institution lacks the values and idealism of its staff,” the former diplomat told Diplomatic Courier, “who are often shuffled around to positions not within their expertise area.”

Michael Soussan, whistleblower and author of Backstabbing for Beginners, a book about the corruption he witnessed in Iraq while working with a United Nations program there, told Diplomatic Courier that staff idealism should drive reforms within the UN.

"If the UN wants to renew itself it must empower its staff to select the leaders they want to see draft a package of true reforms," Soussan said. "Imagine that, giving the staff within the UN the same rights as democratic citizens. Now that's a cause I could get behind."

Despite its core mission of safeguarding peace and security, the United Nations has been repeatedly pilloried for failing to prevent genocides in Cambodia, Srebrenica, and Rwanda; conflict in Kashmir, Somalia, Sudan and Syria; the U.S. assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan; the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which a UN official called "the world's largest" in 2019; and despite first convening a UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People in 1975, doing little to stop what one United Nations official deemed "Israel's ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinian people. This, against a backdrop of widespread, ongoing sexual abuse and exploitations by UN peacekeepers against some of the world's most vulnerable people.

Developing nations, in particular, often criticize the United Nations for its lack of transparency, and the lavish lifestyles of its field staff, which I witnessed when on a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014, and again on a trip to the Syrian/Jordan border in 2016. In the DRC, locals wished that after 20 years of peacekeeping operations in the region, the aid workers would simply leave, but leave behind their trucks and their buildings and their helicopters for the people of Congo when they did, allowing the locals to begin building their own future. In Honduras, recent efforts to make the organization disclose how their funds were being used, and the status of those projects, were blocked by UN officials.

"I don't believe the UN is an element of change. They are just rhetoric," said the former Latin American diplomat who requested anonymity for fear of political reprisals. "It's a bureaucratic institution. Bad officials came to (my country.) They're well paid but more interested in living well than helping the people."

That perception, that the organization is inefficient, wasteful, and more concerned about doling out aid that looks good on paper, than meeting the needs of the communities it's ostensibly serving, extends to the governments with which it partners.

"In the last years, the number of politicians from Member States appointed at UN agencies as result of paybacks is also increasing," Gomez Sobrino said. "All these frustrate many committed and well-prepared staff working tirelessly at the UN, risking their lives in many contexts and with a genuine vocation of service in the field of international development."

Kickback and bribery schemes have also extended to members of local governments coordinating with UN agencies, or to contactors aiming to land lucrative supply deals.  

"If you know the local government is corrupt, and it's destroying the economy, why does the UN keep giving them money?," the former diplomat posited. "Don't you have any moral requirements to know the money is helping the people?"

*****

For all the criticism about the United Nations, justified or not, the global organization still has its legions of fans, those who believe the world, with all its flaws, is better off with the UN than without it.

"The role of the United Nations is more important than ever," Patrick Fine, the CEO of the international healthcare and education organization FHI360, told Diplomatic Courier.* "The type of challenges that nations and societies face are not confined within borders, like pandemics, migration, and access to water."

"Given the interconnectedness of human life on the planet today, if we didn’t have the UN we would need it," Fine said. "If the problems you have are global and regional in nature, solutions will require groups of nations to work together or each neighbor will suffer."

If the UN was based on lofty ideals, and staffed with lofty idealists, it is perhaps best judged on the only metric that matters—its results. While the world has not achieved peace, human rights for all, gender equality, or a healthy and sustainable planet, it is perhaps not worse off than it would be without the global institution, for all its flaws.

"If not for UN Women, certain topics such as gender budgeting would be absent from the political discourse and agendas of many countries. UNEP has highly contributed to leverage the debates on environmental protection and sustainable development," Gomez Sobrino said. "Imagine what would have happened without the support of UNRWA to the Palestinian people. UNDP has for instance worked on highly sensitive topics such as Anti-Corruption and Integrity, protection of indigenous communities, the impact of environmental degradation on human security,"

"At the same time there are few other agencies, that I will not mention, that just live out of having conferences here and there and some reports to show now and then," Gomez Sobrino said. "Nowadays with the level of information and digital communications, it is easy to understand which ones contribute."

*****

There is nothing like a milestone to take stock of where an organization has been, and where it's going, and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations is an ideal time to recalibrate all aspects of its business to ensure it's meeting the challenges of the modern age, and what's to come. Overhauling its recruiting and hiring practices, ensuring headquarters staff have field experience, providing greater transparency on how, where, and why funds are spent, and working to regain the trust that it's lost with its partners around the world, are all key to ensure the United Nations won't go the way of its predecessor, the League of Nations.

"The United Nations acts its age," said Soussan, "but it doesn't need to."

*the author has previously provided consulting services to FHI360.

About
Molly McCluskey
:
Molly McCluskey is an international investigative journalist and Editor-at-Large of Diplomatic Courier. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.