AN UNNAMED diplomat memorably described new Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as having hit the ground stumbling in January because so many senior appointments were either lightweight or ill-suited to their portfolio. Mr. Ban's initial statements gave the impression that any criticism of the U.N. was well-founded for the very fact of having been uttered. Hopefully, after becoming the target of adverse comments, he has learnt that much of the criticism is unfair, ill-founded, and sometimes even ill-intentioned.
He must also learn to be the champion, not critic-in-chief, of his staff. "Tough love" still requires love as the noun and tough as the adjective. To assert his authority and establish the leadership credentials of his senior staff, Mr. Ban should suspend scrutiny of staff finances until after a policy framework is crafted for identifying fraud without causing unnecessary irritation or disruption.
The United Nations can or should no more escape demands for accountability than any public body. But nor should it fall into the trap of over-reaction. U.N. entities are over-audited and over-controlled on trivia while big-ticket oversight is often missing. The accountability mechanisms should help to check, catch, and punish wrongdoers without harassing overworked and overstretched senior managers. Present procedures do the opposite. They are amateurish, reactive, and incoherent, possibly drafted by junior apparatchiks or bean counters. They also fall into the moral hazard trap of encouraging external auditors to fatten fees by prolonging and expanding their caseload.
U.N. watchers fall into three types. For the "blame everyone but the U.N." groupies, the world body's shortcomings and flaws are always someone else's fault. Such fervent support is never unwelcome.
The polar opposites blame the United Nations "first, last and always." Because their fervent antipathy is equally ideological, not evidence based, no response by word or deed will ever suffice. To the John Boltons and Richard Perles of the world, the only good that the U.N. can do is to die and disappear. It would be futile to respond to them; best not to rise to their bait. Mr. Ban must work to dispel suspicions that he was manoeuvred into office by Mr. Bolton.
The concerns of instinctive U.N. sympathisers about wasteful and corrupt behaviour must be assuaged. The problem is not huge, corruption is not out of control and much of the inefficiency results from micromanagement by member states. The former Deputy-Secretary-General, Louise Fréchette, got it right: "The ratio of highly talented, dedicated people to laggards is not worse than in any big bureaucracy I know and may even be a bit better."
In the routine audits of individual U.N. officials, the scope of investigations, the level to which they reach down, and the rigour of follow-up checks should be proportionate to the scale of the problem. A scheme appropriate to the Secretariat in New York cannot be imposed rigidly on the whole system around the world. I resented educating outside examiners on the nature and methods of operations of my institution, and then being charged for the privilege.
True, the oil-for-food scandal showed up lapses and weaknesses in U.N. management culture and practices. But, in the total sweep of the scandal, these were minor. The really important U.N. deficiencies were supervisory and operational, not corrupt behaviour; the latter was true of companies dealing with the Iraqi regime, often under the noses of governments that should have been more diligent.
The U.N.'s top leaders are persons of eminence and seniority. Some might be corrupt, but not many: not much point in putting sticky fingers in empty tills. Unless there are grounds for suspicion in individual cases, they deserve courtesy and respect.
The big exception is those officials responsible for procurement and purchasing decisions. It is especially unfortunate that some Indians have been caught up in this type of corruption.
The purpose and rationale of the financial disclosure exercise should be adequately explained. Whether we join the organisation as paupers or billionaires is of no concern to the U.N. Pressure for public disclosure of assets (salaries are public) would be folly, given the huge disparities in backgrounds, purchasing power parities, etc; promote financial envy and voyeurism; and lead to invidious comparisons.
My 2005 financial disclosures fell under the random check recently. I pointed out that I had already resigned from my U.N. post, and were my responses still necessary? Yes, was the curt answer. The management chief has since said publicly that non-cooperating staff will be "terminated." Big deal for someone who has already resigned. Why then waste their time and mine, and charge my institution to boot?
The invoice to us of external auditing of financial disclosures was $643 per capita for the 21 UNU officials who had to file financial disclosure. This amounts to 0.75 per cent of our annual operating grant from the Government of Japan — just for one act of compliance. We have better uses for my scarce and diminishing resources. Perhaps Japan's mission to the U.N. should lodge a protest about this waste of their taxpayer money.
In countries with best practices, Cabinet Ministers have to declare financial assets and put them in trusts. The requirement does not normally go down to mid-level civil servants. Financial disclosures should be required only from U.N. Assistant and Under Secretaries-General, plus others who handle procurement and other financial decisions. This would cut compliance costs dramatically.
The only relevant question is whether officials have abused office for personal gain. The broadband categories in which the financial information is presently required conceal more than they reveal, especially for the purposes of monitoring financial movements from one year to the next.
To disclose confidential financial information to an outside, non-U.N. body without advance written consent has a disturbing hint of a cavalier attitude towards what is normally considered to be among the most sensitive parts of the right to privacy. And the choice of Pricewaterhouse Coopers is intriguing. Who chose them, on what basis, and after considering which alternatives?
PwC's serial use of anonymous e-mail messages to randomly solicit further information betrays a sorry unfamiliarity with the public service ethos. While some of their technical terminology is incomprehensible to me, they seem unable to understand that I do not communicate with anonymous correspondents. Their use of the Internet to receive financially sensitive information, at the very time that we are repeatedly cautioned by banks and credit card companies about widely prevalent Internet fraud, also raises concerns about the soundness of their judgment. Besides, financial details on the Internet may be secure today yet vulnerable to hacking tomorrow or the next year. Their demand for officials' and spouses' pre-U.N. pension details is prurient and invasive.
The recent controversy involving the Hilton Hotel chain in Europe raises fresh concerns about the extra-territorial reach of U.S. laws. Given the mounting evidence of petty vindictiveness and abuse of executive authority by some in Washington, why risk any U.S.-based firm having access to the most sensitive financial data of all senior U.N. staff?
The United Nations does not need lessons in public ethics from the American corporate sector with its record of lax financial probity. Nor from the administration in Washington on due diligence in the expenditure of public money or ethical behaviour of public officials.
In sum, disclosures should be required from a narrower, focussed, and targeted group of senior officials. Everyone should answer a more customised template that seeks to establish the potential for corrupt financial dealings without asking irrelevant questions. The goal should be to probe and pursue wrongdoers without violating the privacy of most. And the U.N. must avoid falling into the moral hazard trap of a self-expanding power grab by external reviewers who justify their expense by overzealous meddling and enrich themselves by padding their workload.
When control mechanisms and audit modalities cost more than they save, the war has been lost no matter how many battlefield victories may be claimed in justification.