Bureaucrats to take brunt of global UN cuts

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The Independent Online
Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and under intense pressure to reinvent itself, the United Nations yesterday took the wraps off plans to trim its staff levels by as much as 10 per cent and to curtail its worldwide programmes.

The job-cutting campaign will come as a hammer-blow to a UN workforce that is already afflicted by bitterness and rock-bottom morale. But it is likely to be welcomed by many member states, including Britain, as an overdue attempt at pruning a bureaucracy often labelled as hopelessly bloated and inefficient.

The redundancies will not directly affect the various semi- independent UN agencies, such as the World Health Organisation, but is focused on the roughly 10,000 employees of the UN's core secretariat, primarily in New York, but also in Geneva and Vienna and field offices around the world.

Briefing national ambassadors yesterday, Joseph Connor, the Under Secretary- General in charge of finances, detailed a three-pronged plan to trim staffing that would result in a vacancy rate inside the UN of 6.4 per cent, much higher than ever before. At least 800 posts will be emptied while retirement age rules will be strictly enforced and recruitment will be frozen.

Affected employees will face one of three possible fates: a transfer to another post inside the UN; an offer of a buy-out equal to a year or more of their regular salary, depending on their length of service; or compulsory redundancy. The measures are to be completed over the next four months.

Mr Connor, who used to be a director of the accounting firm Price Waterhouse, conceded that life for UN employees was already hard. "This isn't a particularly good place to work any more," he commented. "Compensation for civil servants is falling behind, pressures are on and people work 70 hours a week here at the upper levels."

The last phase of the plan to be enacted will be the involuntary firings, when the opportunities for buy-outs and transfers have been exhausted. Officials said these were not likely before July and the final number involved was still uncertain, though it may be no more than one or two hundred.

The staffing reductions have been forced on the UN by a $154m shortfall in the 1996-97 biennial budget recently approved by the General Assembly, compared with the draft proposed by the Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In addition to shedding people, the UN will cut back what it offers in almost every sphere of its activities.

Details of those cuts are contained in documents that began circulating in New York yesterday. Departments slated for large cuts in operating resources include public information (by as much as $8m), human rights ($2.9m), Economic Commission for Africa ($4.7m), peace- keeping ($6.4m) and political affairs ($3.5m). The administration and management divisions of the UN will see their budget cut by as much as $48m.

The impact of the cuts will be widespread and will be felt by almost anyone, including charities and governments, that overlaps with UN activities. There will be fewer UN conferences, fewer publications, fewer reports and fewer UN personnel around the world.

The atmosphere in the corridors of the UN's headquarters in New York, meanwhile, is morose at best, even among those whose jobs may be secure. "There is despondency, because everyone is aware that everything that they are working on is going to be less effective," one senior official noted. "And everyone notices all the UN-bashing that goes on and that affects morale".

Many inside the bureaucracy also have little confidence that the opportunity will be taken to ensure that it is the deadwood that is jettisoned and not those who are genuinely talented and energetic. "That is an understatement," one source said. "I am sure they will get it wrong".

Politically speaking, however, some pruning of the UN staff is unavoidable. The US has made it plain that it will not come forward with the roughly $1.5bn that it owes the organisation unless it proves its willingness to begin serious internal reforms, including some reduction in its size.