UN strives to cope with mid-life crisis as it marks 50th year Anxious UN in no mood to celebrate as it marks 50th birthday

This is a birthday party that the United Nations is not sure it really wants. As it officially turns 50 and ministers and heads of government from around the world prepare to descend upon New York for this year's General Assembly, the organisation that was built from the ashes of the Second World War is gripped with anxiety and self-doubt.

It is a mid-life crisis that has multiple aspects. The UN's finances are in a mess, its bureaucracy is stumbling and obese and the recent history of Bosnia has weakened its sinews like some wasting disease. Added to all that is the recent evaporation of support - moral, political and financial - from the one country it depends on the most, the United States.

Even the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who in a fit of pique last week wrote a letter to the Security Council saying the UN had had enough of peace-keeping in Bosnia, seems afflicted with depression.

The General Assembly, which will start in earnest with the arrival this week of foreign ministers from all the member states, will have to do more than just note the 50th birthday. With the heads of government themselves due to address delegates at the end of next month, it is being billed by some as a giant self-therapy session. If all goes to plan, the institution just may emerge feeling a little bit better about itself.

The centrepiece of the assembly will be a final declaration that the heads of government will be asked jointly to endorse. The document, which is now in the final stages of drafting, is likely to set the end of September 1996, when the UN's 50th year closes, as the deadline for completing its various reforms.

"This place has already started to work on making itself relevant," Richard Butler, the Australian ambassador and chairman of the committee that has prepared the anniversary session, said last week. "We will insist the moment of celebration should not be lost, but that it should be an occasion when we will demand that we will change."

But even Mr Butler, one of the more forceful figures in New York, must know that completing the reform by next September will not be easy.

Most urgent of all is finding some way through the UN's financial crisis, which in recent weeks has become more critical than ever before. With more than $3.7bn (pounds 2.3bn) owed to it by member states, some are pressing Mr Boutros-Ghali to take drastic action simply to drive home the seriousness of the situation, especially to the US, which is responsible for almost half the budget gap. "He should turn out the lights," one official said, "while President Clinton is speaking."

Efforts have been under way for months inside a special committee to change the UN's system of funding, notably by redistributing the load among the member states, lessening the amount the US should have to pay, for instance, and demanding a little more from others like China. Unsurprisingly, however, the process is politically fraught and is getting nowhere slowly. Almost immediately, however, diplomats will have to respond to a new US law, which comes into effect on 1 October, unilaterally decreeing that Washington's contribution to the peace-keeping budget be cut from 32 per cent to 25 per cent.

Among all the options for paring down the UN bureaucracy, one project will continue to attract more political attention than any other, and therefore be the most difficult to untangle: the expansion of the Security Council. Discussions on this have also been continuing for over a year, and are equally mired down.

Mr Butler tentatively suggests, however, that agreement might be within reach on expanding the council, on which Britain has one of the existing five permanent seats, from the current 15 members - 10 rotate every two years - to a total of between 23 and 25. Of those, at least Japan and Germany would have permanent seats, together with about three countries from the South. It is in selecting those states - India or Pakistan? Nigeria or South Africa? - that the main difficulty lies. But Mr Butler said: "I detect a will in this house to do this within the year."