A BETTER WORLD, A BETTER LIFE

Are they noble, idealistic institutions - or spectacular global gravy-trains? Andy BeckettI; reflects on the proliferation of those curious creations, the international mega-agencies
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ON TUESDAY, the United Nations celebrates half a century of existence. For three days (starting today), New York will have hububbed with heads of state, from Bill Clinton to Franjo Tudjman to Jean-Bertrand Aristide. One hundred and eight of them, plus 44 prime ministers, are to attend a special session of the General Assembly; the New York Philharmonic will play at the Lincoln Center; there will be banquets courtesy of President Clinton and Mayor Giuliani, and a series of luncheons at the UN itself. So many security guards are required that headquarters staff have been told to vacate their offices.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the celebrations, however, is the relative lack of interest they will arouse from the public. Spectacles like this have become normal in the post-war world. We live in an era of international institutions, in which - more than ever before - our politics, our economies, our sports and our wars are influenced by free- spending, far-away agencies in tall glass towers. Part global governments, part international quangos, part multinational corporations, they have grown self-sustaining and self-willed, no longer the obedient tools of their founders. Their leaders are nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and treated as equals - or superiors - by heads of state. But although we have grown used to these institutions, we are also increasingly irritated by them. The internationalist idealism of 1945 - "The inexorable tides of history are carrying us toward a golden age," said one delegate to the UN's founding conference - has a foolish ring today. For all this week's banqueting, the UN is in financial crisis, owed $3.7bn by countries which don't think it worth paying for any more. (Many headquarters staff are planning to boycott this week's celebrations in protest against cuts resulting from the crisis.) Meanwhile, the European Union has become a national scapegoating staple; the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) is scorned by sports journalists, the World Bank derided by economists. This loss of faith is a double one: not just a sense that international institutions can't do their jobs - UN peacekeepers bring war, the World Bank brings poverty, the Olympic ideal brings head-to-toe sponsorship of athletes - but also a feeling that they can't be trusted to run themselves. Look up "gravy train" in a newspaper cuttings index, and you'll find articles about Members of the European Parliament.

Interestingly, the two countries where this dissatisfaction is strongest - Britain and America - were the most involved in all that institution-building in 1945. Today, their journalists write unthinkingly of, for example, UNESCO and the WHO as if they were sinister foreign conspiracies. In the beginning there were no such complaints. The Anglo-Saxons designed and ran everything. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) was typical. Its first Director-General was Sir John Boyd-Orr, a Scottish nutritionist who smoked a pipe and took tea with his staff every afternoon. Then came decolonisation and the emergence of a Third World, with its own opinions and demands for representation. A gradual redistribution of power took place: at the FAO a new American head was succeeded by an Indian and, ultimately, a Lebanese Director-General who courted Africa and ignored the West. The same pattern transformed world sport: FIFA's Sir Stanley Rous, a reserved former referee, gave way to a Brazilian mining magnate called Joao Havelange.

As these international institutions changed hands, so they changed character. Out went idealistic notions of institutional "neutrality" along British and American lines; in came the realpolitik of continental blocs and manoeuvrings at voting time. The shrewder members of the new generation of non-Western directors and their subordinates used the institutions' charters - rarely particularly democratic - to entrench themselves, and the global resources at their disposal to ensure electoral support from national delegates. Thus Havelange has ruled FIFA for a quarter of a century, spreading football tournaments and sponsorship income to Africa and Asia - receiving votes in return.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with this process: the benefits of international bodies were merely being distributed, for the first time, on a truly international basis. But this new, more complicated division of the spoils made for larger, more complicated, more introverted institutions. And, if nothing else, the combination of complexity and autonomy has been good for perks: more turns to be taken, more backs to be scratched, more patronage to be dispensed to more people. A sense of entitlement to comfort had been there in these bodies from the start - a just reward, staff thought, for changing the world. Since the Sixties and Seventies, it has become an operating principle.

The seven institutions selected here have all followed this path. They are far from homogeneous. Some are more or less private fiefdoms, like FIFA, with secret budgets and budding family dynasties; others, like the FAO, have pretensions to being states; and some, like the World Bank, tell states what to do. But all carry plenty of gravy.

UNITED NATIONS EDUCATIONAL, SCIENTIFIC AND CULTURAL ORGANISATION (UNESCO)

Where is it? In a vast Y-shaped block near the Eiffel Tower, with a Henry Moore Reclining Figure in front of it.

What is it supposed to do? Established in 1946, as a largely British idea, "for the purpose of advancing, through the educational, scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of international peace and the common welfare of mankind."

What does it actually do? Not always entirely clear. Spends $220m a year on offering fellowships, holding conferences, protecting World Heritage sites, promoting organisations like the International Copyright Convention, and coordinating and informing smaller cultural federations in its 183 member countries. Eighty per cent of the money, however, never leaves headquarters in Paris.

Boss: Since 1987, Federico Mayor, a Spanish reformer; for 13 years before him a former schoolteacher from Senegal called Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow. M'Bow was the more colourful figure. Spotted as a promising goverment minister by the French in the early Seventies, he became the first Third World head of a UN agency when he was made Director-General of Unesco in 1974. Patronage and job duplication grew, and extravagance was soon alleged by the USA and the UK, who eventually gave this as a reason for withdrawing their membership in 1984 and 1985 respectively. But their hostility to the agency was also ideological: after arguing for the right to work and eat as human rights - a New International Economic Order - M'Bow had set up "peace programmes" that spread literature critical of the West. "The Emperor" was re-elected in 1980 with a solid bloc of Third World and Eastern European votes, assiduously lobbied for on a series of world trips with his retinue; but was finally ousted in 1987 when Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew his support. Mayor faces an uphill struggle to restore Unesco's reputation: Britain and the US are still only thinking about rejoining.

Agency high: Being cleared of internal corruption by the US General Accounting Office and the British Audit Office, who monitored Unesco's finances until their governments withdrew from the organisation.

Agency low: In 1987, when M'Bow reacted to Western press attacks by paying a special fee of $24,999 to subordinates to defend him by compiling a report on media coverage of UNESCO (a dollar more and the project would have required member governments' permission).

Best job to do: A headquarters supernumary. As Richard Hoggart, who used to work there, puts it in his book on Unesco, An Idea and Its Servants: "In some people at Unesco idleness can reach such heights that one needs a more poetic word to describe it, such as 'sloth'."

How do you get it? Work in the arts for a few years, then apply - or, under M'Bow, be a friend or relation of an agency official.

Reasons for doing it: Salaries in US dollars; $100,000 not uncommon. Diplomatic plates if you "make P5" (the highest grade).

Reasons for not doing it: Mayor is cutting back the sinecures, albeit slowly (employees are usually on long-term contracts, with expensive pay- off clauses).

FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANISATION (FAO)

Where is it? Originally in the former headquarters of Mussolini's African "empire" in Rome, with a granite pillar looted from Ethiopia by the entrance. Has now absorbed five other buildings near the Circus Maximus.

What is it supposed to do? Founded as the largest UN agency in 1945 to help reduce world hunger by collecting and distributing data on nutrition and advising governments on food production.

What does it actually do? A lot of the above, but also spends roughly half of its $700m budget on providing Third World governments with "technical help". These activities exceed its original brief, and the Ecologist magazine has accused it of "promoting world hunger" by encouraging Western agricultural methods in poor countries. But they do at least secure the gratitude of the leaders of those governments - whose votes are crucial when the Director-General comes up for reelection (every six years).

Boss: Since 1993, Jacques Diouf, a Senegalese agronomist of careful, conciliatory manner. For the previous 18 years, however, the Director- General was Edouard Saouma, a Lebanese autocrat who required staff to address him as "Your Excellency" and refused to visit Japan until greeted by Emperor Hirohito like a head of state.

Agency high: Seeing the average world calorie intake rise by a sixth since the 1960s, despite a 2.4bn increase in the global population.

Agency low: building a demonstration fish farm right next door to Malawi's national bird sanctuary. The birds ate the fish, the fish-farmers shot at the birds, the bird wardens shot at the fish-farmers, and the experiment was abandoned.

Best job to do: Being one of the 2,500 headquarters staff is good; setting up a technical assistance project is better: plenty of friends to be made and trips to be taken to the country involved.

How do you get it? Have good languages and a background in food science, apply, and ask for an interview, says ex-FAO staffer John Abbott, who wrote a book about the agency in 1992. If you're rejected, don't worry: Abbott found "ample scope for absorbing [into jobs] relatives and persons who had acted favourably or whose governments promised to do so."

Reasons for doing it: It's in Rome (official reason for location: convenient for flights to Third World; unofficial reasons: an hour to the beach and two hours to the mountains). There's plenty of salary money to go round (the wage bill just for the Italian staff at headquarters is 16 times Italy's FAO contribution). You'll pay no income tax, receive an education allowance and a home travel allowance, and have the use of headquarters' open-air conference facility, a long, sunny terrace with views of the city (although its furniture was removed after a group of visiting American senators were scandalised by a vista of bronzing flesh).

Reasons for not doing it: Diouf is keen on "lean". Shrinking staff numbers and salaries are now the order of the day - so much so that America is offering extra pensions to encourage its citizens to apply.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION (WHO)

Where is it? In an enormous concrete-and-glass box above Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

What is it supposed to do? Promote "the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health", according to its 1948 UN constitution, by using its 189 member countries' subscriptions to conduct vaccination campaigns and distribute medical information.

What does it actually do? Spend $900m a year on monitoring diseases and new drugs, providing emergency aid during natural disasters, coordinating national health authorities - and producing fat shiny investigative reports. This year's on the overall state of global health spent half of its 100 pages concluding that "poverty is bad for health", the other half justifying and describing the history of the WHO.

Boss: Director-General Dr Hiroshi Nakajima, a Japanese health administrator and protege of the late war criminal Ryoichi Sasakawa, now thinking about standing for an unprecedented third term. Far from popular (see "Agency Low", below). Alleged iniquities include replacing the personnel director with a friend who was five years over the retirement age, and saying that Africans were too inarticulate to take WHO posts. Also spent nine of the 10 months before his 1993 re-election on trips to countries that subsequently voted for him. A covert campaign against him has seen "Death To Nakajima" graffiti sprayed on lifts in the WHO building, and strange goings-on in the headquarters' ornamental pond (see below).

Agency high: Eradicating smallpox between 1958 and 1977.

Agency low: The discovery in 1993 of Nakajima's prized white Koi carp, nicknamed "the Director-General", expertly boned and filleted by the side of the WHO pond. The ornamental goldfish were sushi, too.

Best job: Be one of the 31 health experts on the WHO board - but make sure that your three-year tenure coincides with the chance to appoint a new Director-General (every five years).

How do you get it? Become a doctor, then get yourself sufficiently noticed to be elected to the board by the World Health Assembly, the WHO's biannual parliament.

Reasons for doing it: Improving world health; improving your status by renting a subsidised villa and flying business class; and improving your bank balance. In 1993, the Philippines' board member, a Nakajima supporter, was awarded a contract for pounds 91,000 to write a history of Filipino healthcare since the mid-Eighties.

Reasons for not doing it: You'd be working for what is currently the most notorious of all international mega-agencies. And there's increasing investigation by outside auditors of alleged WHO abuses such as irregular staff appointments and unrepaid cash loans to officials. This needn't be too much of a worry yet, though: Sir John Bourn, the WHO's auditor since 1978, resigned in disgust this year when Nakajima and his managers refused to cooperate with his most recent fraud inquiry, which discovered fraud and malpractice at the agency's African regional office in the Congo.

INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE (IOC)

Where is it? In a marbled, manicured lakeside complex around the Chateau de Vidy in Lausanne, Switzerland. Before Juan Samaranch took over as President (see "Boss", below), the IOC occupied three rooms of an ordinary house.

What is it supposed to do? Make final decisions on issues concerning the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement, or "Olympism", founded in 1894 "to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles".

What does it actually do? Decide which city hosts the games - and sell the television rights.

Boss: Juan Antonio Samaranch, 75, President since 1980. Considers the Olympics "the most important contemporary social movement in the world" - it has more members than the UN - and acts as though it were. He has awarded the Olympic Gold Order to heads of state such as the late Nicolae Ceausescu, and expanded the IOC's assets from $241,000 to over $100m in 15 years by auctioning broadcasting rights and inviting corporate sponsors. Before taking over the IOC, Samaranch was Spanish ambassador to Moscow; before that, a fascist sports minister and friend of the dictator in Franco's Spain. Owed his original Olympic power-base to the mass Eastern bloc and Third World votes "delivered" to him by his friends Joao Havelange (FIFA president and IOC committee member) and Horst Dassler, the late boss of adidas and Olympic sponsor.

Agency high: Converting Montreal's $1bn loss on hosting the 1976 Olympics into Los Angeles's $250m profit on hosting the 1984 Games.

Agency low: The discovery in 1991 that Robert Helmick, a member of Samaranch's inner cabinet, had accepted $275,000 from companies wanting to strike deals with the IOC. Also the revelation that the cities competing to stage the 1992 Games spent $33m on buttering up the IOC delegates.

Best job: Be one of the 100 IOC delegates (like Princess Anne), who choose the Olympic city by secret ballot. No salary, but rather better rewarded (see below) than the 90 headquarters staff.

How do you get it? Become a sports administrator, get on to your National Olympic Committee, and somehow catch the eye of Samaranch or one of his senior officials on their travels to international sporting events. An invitation may then follow.

Reasons for doing it: The "gifts". As well as flying first-class for free to all the cities competing to hold the Games, IOC delegates are deluged with hospitality and presents to win their favour, while Germany allegedly drew up a dossier of every delegate's favourite things for Berlin's bid. Favours vary: Manchester's unsuccessful 1996 pitch included letting the Ecuadorian delegate, a dog fancier, judge the Bolton Bull Mastiff Society show; successful Sydney ordered the city's opera to delay a performance until a delegate's wife returned from the ladies.

Reasons for not doing it: Hard to think of any. Regulations governing gifts do exist - in 1991 they were restricted to $200 per delegate and receptions were banned. The IOC promptly received an invitation to a reception in Berlin. Japan spent $10m to secure the next Winter Olympics for Nagano in 1998.

WORLD BANK

Where is it? In six tall white buildings in Washington DC, currently enjoying a $200m renovation that has gone $80m over budget.

What is it supposed to do? Lend money to poor countries. Immediately after its establishment at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, this meant war-ruined Europe; then its ambitions expanded to investing in any of its 178 members where private capital wouldn't go.

What does it actually do? Tell poor countries how to run their economies. Keynes warned at Bretton Woods that "You two brats [the World Bank and its sister institution the International Monetary Fund] will grow up as politicians," and since 1980 the World Bank has tied its loans to structural adjustment programmes, and forced its clients to adopt free-market economic policies (eg, sacking people and cutting welfare benefits). In 1992 it also started a development fund to provide quick loans of up to $3m for specific projects.

Boss: Nearly always American. The latest is Jim Wolfensohn, an Olympic fencer and cello player and Wall Street adviser who wants the World Bank to be judged "by the smile on a child's face when a project is successful". At the World Bank's annual meeting last year, his predecessor, Lewis Preston, was attacked as a "murderer" by a protester from the "Fifty Years Is Enough" group, which accuses the Bank of enslaving and impoverishing the Third World.

Agency high: Helping to rebuild Europe in the Forties and Fifties.

Agency low: Lending Argentina and Paraguay $580m in 1973 to thwart the energy crisis with a hydroelectric dam across the Parana River. The Argentinian junta took 10 years to award construction contracts. By 1993 the dam was still seven years behind schedule and had sucked up twice the original budget. The energy crisis, meanwhile, was ancient history.

Best job: Get on headquarters staff as an economist or researcher. There are 10,000 staff in Washington, plus 2,000 consultants. Preston's predecessor, Barber Conable, lik-ened running the World Bank to being caretaker of a cemetery: "I have lots of people underneath me, but I don't know how to motivate them."

How do you get it? Be a clever graduate student, a Bank of England functionary, or a Wall Street high-flier.

Reasons for doing it: Many perks. World Bank personnel absorb $232,547 each in staff costs each year, according to Central Banking Publishing's Directory of Supranationals. At least some of this goes towards a free basement health club, free flights home for holidays, payment of three- quarters of school fees, settling in and leaving costs, and annual grants for spouses and children. And the end-of-fiscal-year parties are very good: every Friday from now to New Year, to make sure that this year's budget is used up. According to Michael Irwin, a former personnel chief, staff "live in semi-luxury... travel in luxury, stay at first-class hotels, and have little contact with the people they are supposed to be helping".

Reasons for not doing it: Wolfensohn is under pressure to trim the fat: costs are being cut by six per cent next year and the year after that.

FIFA (FEDERATION INTERNATIONAL DE FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION)

Where is it? In a lavish, split- level modern slab, built into a hillside overlooking Lake Zurich in Switzerland (surprise). Like the IOC, it has come a long way: it was run from a few rooms in a private house, with a staff of two, before its current president, Joao Havelange (see "Boss", below), took over.

What is it supposed to do? Founded in 1904 by seven European football federations to promote the game of Association Football and foster friendly relations among national football organisations.

What does it actually do? Run the World Cup every four years with spectacular commercial success (it gets the profits); control the rules of football; take a levy from the takings of every international match.

Boss: Dr Joao Havelange, 79, a former Olympic swimmer and water polo player for Brazil, head of the national bus company, friend of Juan Samaranch (see IOC), member of the IOC and the French Legion of Honour, and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988. Currently in his sixth term as FIFA president, after getting the heads of all the international football confederations to sign an agreement not to oppose him last year. Elected in 1974, ousting Sir Stanley Rous thanks to a four-year lobbying campaign in Asia and Africa which promised to open the World Cup to the Third World. In the vanguard of the shift in global sporting ideals from Corinthianism to heavy marketing: is extremely close to sponsors Coca-Cola and adidas, whose products monopolise the World Cup. Autocratic: FIFA watchers still talk of "the iron fist in the iron glove". Veteran football journalist Brian Glanville is less flattering: "Havelange lives in a distorted world of his own, surr-ounded by grovellers and sycophants who will always back down when he turns his baleful gaze upon them."

Agency high: Expanding the World Cup finals from 16 to 24 countries in 1982, letting in Africa and Asia.

Agency lows: Banning the great Pele from the World Cup draw in 1993 because he had accused Havelange's brother-in-law and possible successor of fraud. Also: canvassing for the game to be played over four quarters instead of two halves in order to increase revenue from television advertising.

Best job: Havelange's. According to FIFA statute, he has only a casting vote; in reality, he has rather more. The other 50 headquarters staff do what he says; the national delegates to FIFA are unpaid, but keen to climb onboard.

How do you get it? Havelange's - you can't. The others - ingratiate yourself with Havelange.

Reasons for doing it: Good expenses: FIFA officials got through pounds 2m at the 1982 World Cup.

Reasons for not doing it: No salary. Quaking before Havelange.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

Where is it? In three places at once: in Strasbourg for votes and debates, in Brussels for committee sessions, and in Luxembourg for parliamentary administration.

What is it supposed to do? Set up in 1965 to scrutinise the EU budget, advise on legislation, and exercise "a measure of democratic control over the executive organs".

What does it actually do? Conduct slow, badly-attended debates in many languages at once. Starting to intervene more in the running of the EU: since the Maastricht Treaty has been able to throw out details of EU budgets, approve European Commission Members (see "Agency High"), and amend legislation. But remains a largely symbolic international talking shop - hence its inclusion (rather than the European Commission) in this selection. Costs pounds 462m a year.

Boss: Klaus Haensch, a largely symbolic (German) president. Real power resides elsewhere, with Jacques Santer, the president of the European Commission. But Haensch does have notional authority over the Parliament's expenses.

Agency high: Threatening to veto Santer's appointment last year because he had been chosen by the member countries' governments without consulting them.

Agency low: The election of Nana Mouskouri as a Greek MEP last year. Standing "as a favour to a friend", she admitted, "There is no question of me taking part in day-to-day politics... I know nothing about it." Also: the revelation in 1991 that, although the European Parliament has no power to prosecute its members, neither can MEPs be prosecuted by outside courts (a British judge ruled that he could not try Leslie Huckfield MEP, accused of obtaining pounds 2,524 by deception, without infringing "the sovereignty of the European Parliament").

Best job: Be one of 567 MEPs, said to stand for More Expenses Please.

How do you get it? Election rules vary by country; in Britain you need a deposit of pounds 1,000 and a way of convincing a majority of the third of people who vote in each 500,000-strong constituency.

Reasons for doing it: According to the British press, almost too many to mention. Most attractive is the system of fixed expenses, which, in order to avoid constant claims as MEPs move between the three parliamentary sites and their constit-uencies, simply hands over the money in advance. Every MEP gets pounds 2,340 a month for office management (not including phone, fax, and rent), over pounds 50,000 a year for secretaries (the use of spouses is not uncommon); around double the going rate for flights to and from Brussels; and pounds 150, in addition to salary, for every day on parliamentary business. The practice known as SISO - "Sign In, Sod Off" - is common. And the actual business of attending parliamentary sessions is far from onerous: the parliament only meets five days a month (and not at all in August). None the less, a recent Sunday Mirror survey found the average British MEP skipping one session in five.

Reasons for not doing it: The actual salaries aren't that great, just the same as MPs' salaries in member countries. Britons get pounds 32,000, considerably less than the leader writers who criticise them. Contrary to myth, they pay taxes at the same rate as their constituents. And the reputation for perks can be a mixed blessing: Haensch and the dominant left-wing group are beginning to squeeze them, making all the committees meet in Brussels rather than in warmer places, while this spring a European Union official charged a pounds 600-a-day limousine to Green MEPs during a conference on poverty. !

Comments