$1 a year for the UN's number two

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Making your way through the tight security at the gates of the United Nations building and going all the way up to the prestigious 38th floor, is to follow the path of an extraordinary career. For the man charged with determining the future of the United Nations - with an office along the corridor from the Secretary General and a panoramic view of Manhattan - started out at the organisation as a security guard.

Maurice Strong joined the infant international body exactly 50 years ago as an assistant security pass officer. "I am most impressed with the United Nations," he wrote in his diary at the time. "And I'm convinced that therein lies the key to my future."

He was more right than he knew: as arguably the second-most important man in the now middle-aged organisation, he heads a team dedicated to transforming it.

I may be biased, as he's an old friend, but in my book he is one of the two best secretary generals that the UN never had (the other being Sir Shridath Ramphal, the former Commonwealth chief, whom Lord Carrington is said to have sworn to "swim the Atlantic" to stop getting the UN job).

But, at the right hand of Kofi Annan - who is himself looking the most promising Secretary General since Dag Hammarskjold - Mr Strong may well have a bigger impact than the last four men (and they have, alas, all been men) in the top job.

If he and his team succeed, the UN could be in for much more radical and far-reaching changes than its staff or the outside world yet suspect.

Born into poverty 68 years ago, the son of an unemployed railwayman in the tiny whistle-stop community of Oak Lake, Manitoba, Mr Strong often had to eat wild berries to survive. He became a fur trader with the legendary Hudson Bay Company (he still speaks fluent Inuit). After his spell at the UN gates he made a fortune in business by his early thirties, and then decided to do "something more satisfying" by entering public service.

He ran both the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which put the environment on the international agenda, and the Rio Earth Summit five years ago, which brought together the largest assembly of world leaders on any subject. Though seriously rich, he lives modestly. His salary for the largely full-time job of heading the reform of the United Nations - British fat cats please note - is $1 a year.

Mr Strong has recruited a team of 10 free spirits at the United Nations, regardless of rank - a revolutionary strategy in an organisation so obsessed with seniority.

The team - many continuing with their normal jobs - meet at least daily to think the hitherto unthinkable and question the previously unquestioned (neither thinking nor questioning being particularly strong points in the bureaucracy to date).

As a result, Mr Annan has already announced that administrative costs are to be slashed by at least a third, the number of UN documents by a quarter, and that 1,000 posts are to be abolished.

And there is more to come; whole departments and top officials, both previously untouchable, are in jeopardy: the aim is to create a "nimble" organisation out of the present lumbering giant.

But, as Mr Strong points out, cuts - though vigorously pushed by the United States and other governments - are not the point: the UN would still need to modernise to be effective even if there were no such pressures.

The idea, says Mr Strong, is to restore it to something like its original mission. "The changes are needed so as to make the UN an agent of change," he says.

Will he succeed? Who knows. But Mr Strong and Mr Annan make a powerful combination. Lelei Lelaulu, a genial Samoan on the team, says: "We may not get everything, but we will get a hell of a lot of it."