A world order of scandal and graft

What is it about international agencies that invites corruption, ask Perri 6 and Michael Sheridan
Another week, another United Nations scandal. This time it is the embattled World Health Organisation and its controversial Japanese director-general, Hiroshi Nakajima. Not so long ago it was the shambles of the UN operation in Somalia. Many dedicated professionals in the UN still shake their heads over the disgrace of the former High Commissioner for Refugees, forced to step down after a row over expenses. They recall the autocratic reign of the Lebanese Edouard Saouma over his sprawling fiefdom at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. Meanwhile, at NATO, members are wondering why they failed to inquire into Willy Claes's debatable past before naming him secretary-general. The bemused taxpayers and parliamentarians of countries that fund global and regional organisations must wonder if all international bureaucracy - not just the UN - is out of control.

Why are scandals so frequent in the institutions that govern the international order? What is it about such bodies that makes them so vulnerable to corruption, inefficiency, and to becoming vehicles of personal aggrandisement? In many cases, their performance is arguably worse than that of comparable national agencies, at least in the developed world.

The first problem is leadership. Leaders are selected by an inefficient and labyrinthine process from a pool of poor quality talent. They inherit insufficiently robust traditions. Too often, selection is done by bargaining between nations. Sometimes the great powers squabble among themselves about which nominee should be preferred - as they did over the recent appointment of the director-general of the World Trade Organisation.

There is an informal system of "Buggins Turn" which provides that if a European is in charge of NATO, then a non-European ought to run, say, the World Bank or the OECD. In other cases, chief officer posts are thrown to particular countries, sometimes in the developing world, as political bargaining chips, without any real consideration for the calibre of the available talent. Such systems neither properly vet the track records of candidates nor measure their abilities. When excellence is selected - as in the case of Peter Sutherland, who steered the GATT to such success in its last year - it is in part accidental.

The candidates available are too often inconvenient has-beens of national politics not yet old enough to retire, or else people whose abilities have left them distrusted at home. Kicking people upstairs is no way to staff the upper echelons of global government. The system lacks any rigorous way of creaming off talent at younger ages or organising comprehensive management training for international public service.

Second, waste and inefficiency can only be reduced if they are visible to public opinion. The problem with international institutions is their lack of accountability to a public opinion. This is the weakness of the European Union as compared with the national governments of member-states: it is even more true of the UN and its agencies. Global bodies, in an ideal world, would be subject to a global public opinion. That hardly exists. The emergence of global broadcasting and the Internet are only small and tentative steps in that direction.

The third problem is the weakness of a law-governed culture. The EU is not completely clean, as everyone who follows the CAP knows. But its legalistic culture based on strict adherence to treaty law, the powers of the Court of Auditors, the oversight of the European Court upon the activities of the Council and the Commission, have created a political culture that is cleaner than many UN agencies.

The blueprint for almost every international bureaucracy dates back to discussions 51 years ago at Dumbarton Oaks, when the Allied powers met to discuss the framework of the future United Nations. The UN charter provides in article 100 the clearest encapsulation of what was considered desirable in global leadership.

It said: "In the performance of their duties, the Secretary General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any authority external to the Organisation. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials accountable only to the Organisation."

Here, rooted in idealism, lie the clues to what can go wrong. All too often the heads of UN agencies signalled their autonomy through grandeur - the late Rene Maheu at UNESCO embodied the principle - making a fetish of protocol and abrogating to themselves the prerogatives of a head of government.

The British academic Richard Hoggart described the unhappy results in his 1978 book on UNESCO, An Idea and its Servants. The head of an agency became a virtual monarch, surrounded by courtiers, playing off the big barons of the world against each other. The agency's task, in short, became subordinate to old bureaucratic instincts of self-perpetuation and resistance to outside scrutiny.

Eventually UNESCO degenerated so far under its later director-general Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow that in 1984 Britain and the US withdrew. The UNESCO affair proved that in the end there are only two effective weapons for reform: the threat of withdrawal and the reduction of funding.

Sir Brian Urquhart, the most distinguished Briton of his generation in the international civil service, believes the post of UN Secretary General is the most obvious example of a flawed system - "an international civil servant with 185 masters, appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council".

"Miraculously," observed Sir Brian in a recent article, "the process thus far has produced no outright disasters, but it would be rejected as a bad joke by any serious institution in the private sector." Sir Brian has a series of ideas for improving the procedure. But his most effective suggestion is a simple one: no secretary-general should serve more than one term in office.

Extended through the system, such a restriction would limit the damage caused by a Saouma, a M'Bow or a Nakajima. It would remove electioneering and diminish the incentive to patronage. It may not be much, but it would be a start.

How to win global war against corruption

What should be done to prevent corruption in international agencies? Here's a list of key measures:

l Impose a limit of one term on chief executives of all international agencies.

l Give auditors powers to requisition any information they believe they need.

l Require the public registration of all the private interests of international diplomats, UN agency chief executives and senior managers.

l Hand over the appointment of agency chief executives to an independent multinational commission of supreme court judges from leading nations.

l Introduce automatic budget cuts for agencies in which corruption is discovered.

l Require all agencies to publish breakdowns of their expenditure in several different ways at once - showing not just budget line items but attaching expenditures across all departments to particular outcomes, and showing all spending made under each of their constitutional powers to act

l Make agency chief executives personally liable for overspending that is poorly accounted for

The most important problem is the lack of a global public opinion before which international agencies may stand accountable. Part of the way forward may be for the national parliaments of the world's leading nations to set up scrutiny committees to review the work of all the international institutions of governance. Just as the EU has been kept, in some measure, on its toes by the European legislation committees of the national parliaments, so global bodies could be made subject to some measure of national political discipline.

Until the international "great and the good" feel that they are being closely watched by a lively political community, they will be tempted to take advantage of our lack of vigilance.

Perri 6