UN fights over plans to slash back bureaucracy

On United Nations Day, David Usborne reports that a radical overhaul is being considered
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Efforts to kick-start a radical overhaul of the sprawling web of bureaucracies that make up the United Nations have triggered a firestorm of controversy within the organisation as agency heads scramble to defend their fiefs.

One dramatic proposal, informally circulated by the head of the United Nations Development Programme, Gustave Speth, has caused widespread fury in UN corridors in New York headquarters and in field offices around the world. Stunning in its reach, it would entail recasting the upper reaches of the UN Secretariat and exponentially expanding the role of the UNDP itself.

"All hell has broken loose," one senior UN source in New York noted yesterday. "And Speth is probably on his way out as a result of it."

The drama was sparked initially by the Secretary General, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, who earlier this year sought advice from a wide array of sources on how to set about untangling the widely criticised mess of often overlapping UN agencies, departments, committees and commissions. All told, these employ almost 60,000 UN-employed bureaucrats around the globe.

Mr Boutros-Ghali is expected to offer some initial conclusions on tackling reform in the next few weeks, sources said. He will do so against the background of the pledge made by the United States to veto his reappointment to a second term as Secretary-General at the end of the year on the grounds that he has been insufficiently committed to institutional reform.

The Speth plan, excerpts of which have been leaked, is most notable for calling for a grouping of all the UN's development and humanitarian activities under a single body. That body would essentially be a vastly enhanced UNDP, but would bear a new and more populist name, the UN Alliance for People.

At the Alliance's pinnacle would be one of five newly created senior UN administrators with the title of Deputy Secretary General or Director General. Mr Speth envisages five such Deputies in a newly forged UN Secretariat, each leading a single department. Thus the 10 main departments now contained in the Secretariat would be cut by half. One of the five deputies would act as Secretary General whenever the Secretary General proper is away.

Under the Alliance umbrella would be not only the functions of the UNDP but also those of the UN Children's Fund (Unicef), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Department of Humanitarian Affairs. None of these agencies are thrilled by the idea.

While most observers believe the Speth plan goes beyond anything Mr Boutros- Ghali is likely to propose, it has been welcomed as a breakthrough by some member states.

The US is at the forefront of those demanding mould-breaking reform. Washington has circulated a plan of its own that is somewhat milder. It suggests, for instance, the creation of a single Deputy Secretary General who would be in charge of day-to-day running of the UN.

Britain has meanwhile voiced cautious support for the Speth document. "The Speth ideas are among several proposals that are being launched," the British Ambassador to the UN, Sir John Weston, said yesterday. "He knows that we welcome the effort and imagination he has put into that even if that doesn't mean that we will necessarily support all of what he has to say."

Both the US document and another plan to be submitted next week by the European Union focus not just on changes in the Secretariat, but also on significantly revamping the UN's Economic and Social Committee (Ecosoc), the main policy-setting body for all the UN's economic, development and humanitarian activities. Ecosoc, which is served by a swathe of agencies and commissions, is widely regarded to be drowning in verbiage, duplication and waste.

Common threads in the reports include steps to eliminate some departments and agencies no longer deemed useful. Candidates for termination range from the Vienna-based UN Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) to such zany entities as the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. There is also agreement on the need to strengthen the governing body of Ecosoc itself. In countries benefitting from UN programmes, all UN agencies would be located in one premise and a single UN representative would be appointed to take charge.

The EU document, obtained by The Independent, states: "We believe that it remains regrettably the case that the impact of many UN programmes and operations in the field is too often under- mined by the lack of adquate coordination, overlapping responsibilities and fragmentation of activities".

Mr Boutros-Ghali is empowered to make some of the changes unilaterally, particularly as regards streamlining and staff structures within the Secretariat. The more far-reaching ideas, including most of Mr Speth's, would have to be sold to the wide membership, however, which would be a tough task. The debate would be complicated by widespread suspicion that the principle motive of the US is to cut the UN's budget rather than strengthen its role.

In this regard, Mr Speth takes direct aim at the US. "Some of the reformers most vocal about the need for a rationally organized, better managed and more cost-effective organisation have confronted the organization with severe financial pressures, thus creating the impression that their real agenda may be to diminish the United Nations vis a vis other centres of international leadership or, at best, to reduce the United Nations to a "boutique".