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The U.N. at 70: Risk Averse, Unsafe and Too Old

Ian Richards is President of the Coordination Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations, representing 60,000 UN staff in headquarters and the field.

GENEVA, May 12 2015 (IPS) - On Apr. 20, this year, four of my colleagues tragically lost their lives in Northern Somalia, when an explosive device ripped through their minibus as they travelled back to their guesthouse.

Ian Richards. Credit: George Younes

Ian Richards. Credit: George Younes

It wasn’t the first, nor unfortunately will it be the last time that U.N. staff are killed in the line of duty.

But for an organisation turning 70 this October, it is an uncomfortable wakeup call, and a reminder to the world, that behind the walls of its gleaming, newly refurbished headquarters in New York, its modern conference rooms and news-grabbing resolutions, are a staff of 75,000 drawn from all quarters of the globe, many working in difficult and dangerous locations, some paying with their lives.

Much will be written about the U.N.’s 70th anniversary (even though the bulk of it was created more recently). But for staff, the focus isn’t so much on the past as on the way forward.

For the culmination of this year’s anniversary is a summit of world leaders in New York to agree targets that will guide our work for the next decade and a half.

Called the sustainable development goals, they promise, among other things to eradicate extreme poverty, fight climate change, prevent conflicts and protect those caught in the crossfire.

No sooner than the ink is dry, governments will turn their attention to how the U.N. can best achieve those goals.

As a representative of U.N. staff, I believe that most of my colleagues are capable, suitably qualified and up to the task.

For many reasons, and despite its successes, it has become an organisation too scared of failure, overly centralised, ageing and unsuited to operating in conflicts where our blue flag is seen as a target rather than a shield.

However, I do have doubts as to whether the U.N., on its 70th anniversary, is the best place for it.

For many reasons, and despite its successes, it has become an organisation too scared of failure, overly centralised, ageing and unsuited to operating in conflicts where our blue flag is seen as a target rather than a shield.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shortly enters his final 18 months in the job. I know he’s a keen reformer.

Under his leadership departments have been restructured, pay and benefits are being reviewed, a new policy will require staff to rotate more between headquarters and the field, and a new IT system promises to eliminate duplication in administrative support.

But I’m not convinced that these reforms will make it any easier for staff to help the organization achieve the sustainable development goals.

Here though are three simple ideas that will. And I believe that Ban Ki-moon can easily put them in place.

First, he should encourage his staff to take greater risks and become more entrepreneurial.

The innovations and ideas that will help reduce extreme poverty by 2030 may not yet have been invented. But as things stand, with an increasingly centralised and bureaucratic organisation, it’s probably no longer at the U.N. that they’ll see the light of day.

Let me tell you then about a former colleague called Jean Gurunlian. He joined the U.N. as a junior clerk and retired as a director. In that time he built a team that created an electronics customs system, now used at ports and border posts in almost half the countries of the world.

By using IT instead of paper forms, Asycuda, as the system is called, reduced corruption, got goods through customs faster and in doing so, contributed to the creation of tens if not hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in developing countries. It is also one of the U.N.’s biggest self-funded programmes.

That was in the 1980s and 1990s. No doubt Gurunlian faced his share of detractors back then when he presented the idea.

But I doubt today’s more centralised, rigidly budgeted and risk-averse U.N. could provide the right environment for the next generation of innovators – staff who are brimming with ideas, need space to try them out and forgiveness when ideas fail.

In any case, one thing is for sure: the staff rules now make it extremely difficult for junior clerks to rise through the ranks as Gurunlian did.

Second, if the U.N. is to support its staff in doing their work, it must provide a safer environment for those it deploys to the world’s most dangerous locations. Places such as Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Mali, Syria, South Sudan and Yemen.

As the U.N.’s outgoing emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, recently noted, “attacks on humanitarian workers have increased every year for more than a decade.” According to the U.N.’s own statistics, 100 staff and peacekeepers were killed in 2014.

Yet despite this and despite, for example, that Al Qaeda-linked al Shaabab has repeatedly attacked U.N. staff in Somalia and carried out attacks in Northern Somalia, our four colleagues died there last April.

The U.N. says it will “stay and deliver,” even in the most challenging environments when foreign embassies have evacuated their own staff.

But important as their work is, our colleagues can only assist those in the crossfire of conflict if they themselves get the protection they need.

We’ve been told that there is a tradeoff to be made between improving security for U.N. staff and being cost effective. Surely, cost should not be a factor when lives are at stake.

Third, the U.N. needs younger staff.

Only three percent of U.N. positions are at the entry-level grade called P-2. Worse, only 0.3 percent of staff are aged between 18 and 24. In contrast, the average age for joining the UN is 41.

Far from being structured like a pyramid, the U.N. looks more like a football. And as things stand, those graduating from university this year won’t even have joined the U.N. by 2030, the target date for the goals.

We will therefore miss out on the ideas and freshness that those straight out of university can bring to our organization.

This includes new methods of working, better use of technology, more effective ways to analyse and present information – everything to galvanise countries and other interests around the goals. That would be a shame.

So these then, in short, are three simple ideas that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could put in place this year and that will enable the UN’s staff to help it meet the ambitious targets set by the sustainable development goals.

By any measure, they are a fitting and worthy 70th birthday present.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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  • ricepudding

    i left the UN after working with three different agencies nationally and regionally – and ten years of dealing with bullshit. It is run by old men and some women (with no life outside work) with inflated egos. get rid of it.

  • Peschken

    From seeing the work of the U.N. Geneva first hand now, I believe they are very necessary, and they cause positive impact in the world. However their communication to the ‘outside’ world about them and their work needs to be dramatically improved. What people think the U.N. are, is not always what they truly are.

  • Sahar

    Seconding the article, I Add:
    The United Nations was created after World War II, with the hope that there should never be another war. I worked in the Secretariat, New York, for more than thirty years of my life. I believe in everything the United Nations stands for. It’s a miracle to run it from day to day with a staff consisting of 200+ nationalities without disruptions. I personally, am convinced that the mere presence of the United Nations is still very necessary in today’s world. Yes, in fact, mistakes can happen, as is the case of every category of our daily lives. But remember that the eyes of victims of war, the refugees, the disadvantaged, the hungry and the needy are all focused at the UN for relief and assistance. The United Nations, if anything, represents hope. No one can survive without hope

  • MightyDutchman

    The subheading in this article is somewhat misleading. As the head of CCISUA, Mr. Richards does NOT actually represent all those 60.000 staff he claims to represent. CCISUA, has and continues to be a fairly useless body of a few heads of Staff Associations and Unions. The International staff that work in the peacekeeping operations for instance are represented by the United Nations Field Staff Union and not CCISUA.

    While I echo some of the contents of this article, I would dare say that United Nations staff are collectively suffering from “reform fatigue”, for the last decade they have been subjected to one reform after another reform which was then followed up by yet another brilliant idea packaged as a “support strategy” which after five years has done little to actually improve efficiencies and effectiveness of the UN, other than laying off large amounts of international civil servants under the guise of “national capacity building”.

    Meanwhile UN staffers privileges and benefits are continuously under attack and the Staff Unions, Associations, Federations and what not have largely been incapable of doing anything about it. Most likely because it seems that the only thing that staff representatives are good at is stand on the sidelines and yell onto the pitch, without actually meaningfully contributing to the development of policies and securing agreements with UN management and governing bodies related to the well being and adequate compensation of UN staffers.

    Instead United Nations Unions and staff associations leaderships’ are more concerned about securing their own interests, following their own private agenda’s, undermine legitimately held elections and launch malicious campaigns against institutions that are trying to implement change that would actually benefit its staff.

    It’s high time that integrity is restored in the Staff Representative bodies, and its high time that staff associations, unions etc. actually start representing staff interests and abide by a higher code of ethics in order to actually practice what they are supposed to preach.


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