Reforming the U.N.
"Reform," in debates about the United Nations, is in the eye of the beholder. The United States has its eye on the bottom line: It sees the United Nations as a bloated, inefficient organization that must be streamlined. Most other member nations, especially from the South, see the American insistence on cost-cutting as an effort to minimize the role of the United Nations in world affairs. These nations believe U.N. reform should lead to a greater focus on the development needs of poor countries.Taking advantage of the honeymoon that followed his election as secretary-general in December 1996, Kofi Annan spent his first year in office devising a reform program that he hopes will please both sides.Annan, a career diplomat from Ghana, may be the right person for the challenge. He is the consummate U.N. insider, having worked his way up the ranks. Over the course of his career, he has earned a reputation as a genial, effective conciliator. By contrast, his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, antagonized everyone: He alienated the United States by criticizing U.S. policy in Bosnia and Israeli military actions in Lebanon; he alienated the South by being too beholden to the North; and he alienated U.N. staff by being autocratic and secretive.Annan has been implementing reform in small and large steps since taking office. In March, he reorganized the top management of the U.N. secretariat into a cabinet-style system to streamline decision-making and improve inter-departmental coordination. He divided the political work of the United Nations into five "core activities": peace and security, development, economic and social affairs, humanitarian affairs and human rights. All the departments within each core activity meet regularly, a big departure from the previous system, in which departments worked in isolation from one another.In July, Annan presented his complete reform program for the General Assembly's approval. Despite virtually every item in the program being criticized by someone, the General Assembly adopted Annan's reform plan as a single package in a series of votes beginning on November 12.Annan's primary aim is to make the United Nations' development assistance more effective by consolidating aid agencies and freeing up more money for development programs. In December, Annan described the type of organization he hopes to build: "A United Nations that has found its voice and can convince those countries with the greatest capacity to give to help the poorer nations; a United Nations that can incite governments to move towards development and social development; a United Nations that will maintain the pressure for sustainable development."Annan has come up with an innovative plan to reconcile the seemingly contradictory demands of cost-cutting and increasing development assistance. To appease U.S. critics, he plans to cut the administrative share of the U.N. budget from 38 percent to 25 percent by eliminating 1,000 posts through attrition by 1999, instituting hundreds of small efficiency measures, investigating fraud and cutting "information services" (the organization will publish fewer publications and restrict the distribution of its broadcast services). Annan intends to use the savings to create a "development dividend" of about $100 million in the $2.53 billion 1998-99 biennial budget. Annan projects thet the dividend will grow to at least $200 million by 2002.Annan also proposes to change peacekeeping, the United Nations' best-known facet. While the number of missions has only dropped from 17 two years ago to 15 today, all of the current operations have limited mandates. This is a far cry from the early '90s, when so-called "nation-building" operations received expansive mandates to help settle conflicts and steer countries toward elections. The United Nations realized, in Annan's words, that it was ill-equipped to be "the international community's emergency services, fire brigade, gendarmerie and military deterrent, even in instances where there was no peace to keep." In 1994, 78,000 peacekeepers were in the field at a cost of $3.3 billion; by the end of 1997, there were only 18,000 peacekeepers at a cost of $1.3 billion. The budget will undoubtedly drop below $1 billion this year.Annan's peacekeeping reforms largely reflect the new realities on the ground. Rather than "nation-building," Annan campaigns for preventive actions, including eazly and rapid deployment of limited forces to keep a problem from turning into a crisis (as in Macedonia, where 750 U.N. peacekeepers are strategically deployed to keep the Yugoslav conflict from spreading south). In a bow to a long-standing demand of the United States, Annan is insisting on explicit time frames for peacekeeping deployments to avoid "mission creep," such as what happened in Somalia, where an aid mission turned into a police manhunt. To appease developing countries, Annan will phase out the use of "gratis personnel" -- staff that governments donate to the U.N. peacekeeping department. While this practice keeps costs down, it means the department has a disproportionate number of staffers from the wealthier countries.Annan also plans to restructure the United Nations' development organizations. He wants to create a U.N. Development Group that will coordinate the activities of the Development Program, UNICEF and the Population Fund. This mone, which has generated major controversy, is intended to streamline decision-making and reduce bureaucratic duplication. However, the agencies involved worry about the loss of autonomy, and developing nations are afraid that consolidation will result in an overall reduction in services.In a related reform, Annan plans to consolidate all U.N. field offices in a country into a single "United Nations House," which will provide a kind of "one-stop-shopping" for governments and the public alike. While most industrialized nations already have only one U.N. office (an information center), developing countries have a full complement of aid agencies dealing with everything from loans to AIDS education and land-mine clearance. A UNICEF official in Mozambique recently complained that hours of her time were absorbed explaining to villagers that UNICEF does not provide money for community projects and directing them to the U.N. Development Program. A single U.N. House would eliminate (or at least reduce) duplication and confusion. So far, only South Africa has consolidated all of its U.N. offices.In an effort to ease his administrative burden so that he can focus more on international politics, Annan also created the post of deputy secretary-general. On January 12, he appointed Louise Frechette, Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations, as his deputy, making her the highest-ranking women ever in the U.N. system.Despite Annan's repeated assurances that reform is good for the developing world, the bulk of Southern countries have treated the plan warily. Remembering taat one of Boutros-Ghali's first "reforms" was to eliminate all U.N. programs that monitored the policies of transnational corporations, developing nations are instinctively suspicious of the word.The G-77, a coalition of developing nations, published a thorough critique of the reform plan in November. The document argued that Annan should do more to help the poorest countries. For example, it proposed that the new deputy secretary-general focus on development issues. The group also worried that the Development Group might try to interfere in the internal affairs of member states and that the "U.N. House" concept might reduce the overall assistance available to countries. Despite all of these reservations, however, even Cuba and Pakistan, which were harshly critical, voted for the plan because they didn't want to be seen as spoilers.The United States was also of two minds about the plan (only the European Union embraced the package wholeheartedly). But despite reservations about using the administrative savings for development instead of cutting the U.N. budget, the Clinton administration supported Annan's plan. A State Department official acknowledged that the United States decided not to pick the plan apart because that would have opened the door for everyone else to do the same.When Annan unveiled the reform package in July, some delegates predicted that it would take up to six years to implement the plan. That an organization famous for its snail's pace (the working group on expansion of the Security Council has been meeting for five years with no resolution in sight) could adopt a wide-ranging plan in just six months speaks volumes about Annan's skill and tenacity as a diplomat. Now he has four years to translate these victories into tangible improvements in the lives of people worldwide.Sidebar OneThe Debt Crisis The debate about U.N. reform takes place at a moment when the organization is en serious financial straits. The United Nations ended 1997 nearly $200 million in the red. By mid-January, the organization's debt totaled $3.1 billion. And the day after the United Nations passed a resolution endorsing Secretary-General Kofi Annan's reform plan, Congress reneged on a promise to pay part of the United States' long-overdue $1.2 billion in arrears. As part of a State Department appropriations bill, Sen. Jesse Helms (t-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, agreed to pay $819 million of the money that the United States owed if the United Nations agreed to a list of conditions. The more realistic demands, such as eliminating 1,000 staff positions by the end of 1998, are already part of Annan's reform program. Other conditions, such as forbidding the United Nations to levy taxes and organize a standing army, are merely right-wing paranoia about world government. But the bipartisan deal came unraveled in November when abortion opponents in the House demanded that funding for international family-planning programs be eliminated as well. One of the United States' long-running demands is that its share of the U.N. budget be reduced. Dues are currently assessed according to each nation's share of the global economy. As the world's richest nation, the U.S. share is 25 percent (which translates to $297.7 million for 1998). Both Clinton and Congress want U.S. dues to be cut to 20 percent, another condition of the Helms-Biden deal. Some richer nations have indicated privately that they would be willing to pick up the slack, since a reduction in the U.S. dues would diminish the country's ability to hold the U.N. hostage. Publicly, however, the same diplomats bridle at being ordered around by a deadbeat.Sidebar TwoTed Turner's Gift When a rehydration kit that can save an infant's life costs 14 cents and a low-tech water pump can be purchased for $20, $1 billion goes a long way. In September, media mogul Ted Turner made the dramatic announcement that he would donate $1 billion over the next 10 years to finance U.N. development programs involving health care, the environment, population control, land-mine clearance and food aid. In November, Turner appointed former Colorado senator Tim Wirth, undersecretary of state for global affairs in Clinton's first term, to run the foundation that will divy up the money. The newly-christened United Nations Foundation had its first board meeting on January 14 where, according to a foundation spokesman, board members "began to articulate priorities." No money will be disbursed until late spring at the earliest.