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LETTER: How to control UN agencies

From Mr John Gordon

Sir: You perceptively analyse what is wrong with international agencies ("A world order of scandal and graft", 11 May), but you are wrong in the conclusions you draw from the one instance in recent years when Western countries have withdrawn from a UN agency (the US from Unesco in 1984, the UK in 1985).

These moves were far more closely linked to the domestic agendas of the Reagan and Thatcher governments, and in particular to the influence in both capitals of the bitterly anti-UN, right-wing US Heritage Foundation, than to what was actually happening in Paris. Unesco had many faults, but they were not those of financial corruption (both the US General Accounting Office and the British Audit Office gave it a clean bill of health), nor of the director-general, Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, riding roughshod over the wishes of member states.

Unesco's weaknesses, in fact, largely stemmed from decades of Western neglect and indifference and could not possibly have been completely remedied in the short 20-month period we arbitrarily gave to the organisation to pull its socks up (the Americans gave even less). We left despite progress towards reform, which officials in Whitehall privately recognised was the most that could be achieved in the time available, and despite the pleas of our EC and Commonwealth partners to stay on and help them complete the process. To our shame, we are still out.

In suggesting that UN bodies are basically uncontrollable, except by an as yet hardly existent international public opinion, you are falling into the same trap as the British anti-Europeans in attacking the European Commission. As intergovernmental organisations, UN bodies are legally, financially and politically responsible to their member states. If those states fail to exercise their powers of control, it is they, rather than secretariats, who should be pilloried.

The key issue of UN reform is that of political leadership by member states. More particularly, it is a question of whether Western countries have the determination, skill and vision to build a consensus among the broader membership of where the UN system is going and of what changes in it are necessary.

Yours faithfully,


London, N6

11 May

The writer was British Permanent Delegate to Unesco (1984-5.)