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Biggest ever reform of UN bureaucracy

`Quiet revolution' aims at return to basics: peace and help for poor
  • @dusborne
Unveiling the most ambitious package of internal reforms ever attempted by the United Nations, the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, pledged yesterday to unshackle the organisation from its worst bureaucratic excesses and to help it to rediscover its fundamental goals of lifting up the poor and fostering peace.

In a long-awaited presentation to the UN member states in New York, the Secretary General offered multiple measures and proposals - some that can be enacted at once by his own authority and others that will require governmental approval - that will touch almost every corner of the sprawling organisation. "Starting today," he declared, "we begin a quiet revolution in the United Nations".

Included are radical steps to redesign the leadership structure at the head of the UN Secretariat itself, with for instance, the creation of a new post of Deputy Secretary General, and measures forcibly to yoke together the numerous, often competing, UN agencies that work in the field in developing countries. Mr Annan is also upgrading activities on disarmament and on combating terrorism and the drugs trade.

The package represents an acknowledgement by the UN of its own shortcomings in efficiency and effectiveness that have increasingly been criticised by an often disappointed and frustrated membership. It is also an attempt to reverse a slide in popular support for the UN's work. It was largely on that platform that Mr Annan, a Ghanaian, was elected to replace Boutros Boutros Ghali at the start of the year.

But anyone looking for Mr Annan to transform the UN overnight will be disappointed. His proposals bear the hallmarks of composition by a committee pulled in several directions.

Looming over the entire process is the continuing financial crisis at the organisation and the battle to persuade the United States to pay arrears amounting to some $1.5bn (pounds 1bn). Tucked into Mr Annan's is a proposal certain to be rejected by Britain and other countries to create a $1bn revolving credit fund on which the UN could draw while the absence of proper payment from Washington endures.

As delegations began digesting the 95-page report, some offered early support. "It takes us several steps forward," said Britain's deputy ambassador, Stephen Gommersall. "We welcome in particular the clear focus on the objectives of the organisation and a more effective and integrated management."

Changes in management structure include the establishment of executive committees for four central areas of the organisation's work: peace and security, economic and social affairs, development operations and humanitarian affairs. Ensuring co-ordination between these groups will be a new Senior Management Group that will act as a government-style cabinet for the Secretary General. The Deputy Secretary General would be in charge at headquarters during the frequent trips abroad of Mr Annan.

UN officials emphasised in particular the steps being taken in the field to oblige all UN-affiliated bodies working in a country to operate under a single UN flag, under one UN country representative and out of one "UN House". The new arrangements are to be pioneered with immediate effect in South Africa.

The reforms will trigger a protracted game of musical chairs. Three economic and social departments in New York are to be merged into one, for example. In Geneva, the Centre for Human Rights will be folded into the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The post of Commissioner, recently assigned to Irish President Mary Robinson, will be strengthened. New offices and senior posts will also be created for the anti-crime and the disarmament operations.

In his recommendations for additional action by governments, Mr Annan also urged the creation of a commission to study the usefulness of the some specialised UN agencies, ranging, for example, from the World Health Organisation to the three UN agricultural agencies all based in Rome. Some diplomats murmured disappointment, however, that he was not more forthright in identifying candidates for extinction.

Anticipating some criticism that he may have been over- cautious, the Secretary General told reporters: "I think my proposals are bold, but they are not suicidal. I consider them bold, although others may not". Among those hoping for more will be some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

He also moved swiftly to staunch controversy certain to be stirred by his proposals for the revolving credit fund, insisting that something - anything - had to be done to end the UN's permanent state of near-bankruptcy.