Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Meeting the UN's Deputy SG Mark Malloch Brown

The Chef de Cabinet to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mark Malloch Brown delivered the Third British Council lecture in London on 9 March 2006, which I was invited to attend. The lecture was on the theme: The United Nations in the 21st century 2006.

Mr. Brown said to understand the challenges that the UN faces this century, we need to go back to the end of the Cold War and to the extraordinary period of globalisation that followed it. He stated that during the 1990s we saw a dramatic integration of world economies, not just around trade, but around information flows and capital flows and even cultural flows. He said that in some ways it seemed we had reached a moment where international organisations had their epiphany: that they had found their moment in the sun and the world order they had been calling for, often as lonely voices during those cold war years, had finally come about.

Hence, he suspect for all of us, who believe in these organisations, there has been a real sense of surprise and dismay at the fact that, 15 years later, nearly all of these organisations are in a profound crisis of legitimacy, mandate and purpose. Not just the United Nations, but he thought it would be fair to say at the European Commission as well, NATO even, the IMF and the World Bank. Mr. Brown said if all of these organisations are struggling to recover lost ground with public opinion in member countries, to reconnect with those they're seeking to help, reconnect with the governments that must support them, one must seek some common roots, some common explanations for why we see this crisis in the very international organizations.

Mr. Brown mentioned three new pillars that the UN needs to focus are development, security and human rights, and that the new UN needs major management reform. He said that nothing symbolises this issue of an institution still too closely held down by its 1945 roots, than the management and institutional arrangements of today’s United Nations. He stated that the UN spends some $2 billion a year and there’s something $18 billion a year devoted to development, humanitarian and peacekeeping work around the world, all of it done in hugely difficult circumstances.

He said that for the UN Secretariat proper, with an assessed contribution funding scheme and huge intergovernmental involvement in the management, it has not changed with the times. Mr. Brown said that today in the peacekeeping operations alone the US has more than twice as many civilian staff, UN staff, as they have in the Secretariat in New York. He argues that whereas the Secretariat in New York is in some ways more often like a kind of comfortable, tenured university world with 3% vacancy rates and some people sitting in the same jobs for years and even decades at a time, out in the field it’s a very different story. He said that the people in the field are not able to have their families with them, and are disadvantaged in terms of the financial package they're offered and as a consequence the UN has 30% vacancy rates in the field and in critical functions such as procurement, 50% vacancy rates.

Mr. Brown wants to change the whole structure of the organisation, its management systems, its investment in people, the way they develop their leadership, the way they run things in terms of their global IT system – in short the way the whole operation works -- to one which reflects this new global operational reality.

After his lecture I asked him a question about the possibility of the UN having a rapid action force or a standing army of blue helmets under the direct command of the Secretary General in the future to prevent conflicts around the world. Mr. Brown answered saying that the UN depends on developing countries to provide the troops needed for peacekeeping operations that are paid by developed countries. But it would take a while for the members states to agree on contributing enough troops to serve under the UN flag and to be ready for deployment within short notice. Later I continued the discussion with him in depth. I also reminded him about the story he stayed at Columbia University on a panel with Jeffery Sachs about the development hawks in New York with sharper beaks. He remembered the event and laugh at the reminder. Before he was taken away by the people from the BBC, he gave me his business card and asked me to keep him posted on the finding from my own research work at the London School of Economics.

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