Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Ageing UN

If the age and seniority structure of United Nations professional staff were depicted as a human body, it would have tiny feet, a very large middle, and a swollen head. Only 58 of the organization's 6280 professional staff are at the entry P-1 level, barely one per cent. The middle P-3 and P-4 ranks account for 62 per cent, and the top (Director-1 to Under-Secretary-General), has 9 per cent of the total. The average age is 46.2, with entry on duty averaging 35. In the entire UN System of 28 Specialized Agencies and Programs, only 680 Professional staff out of a total of 23,006 are below 30; those over 50 account for 41 per cent.

The agency with the youngest average age of professional staff is the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 42.6. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), also in Geneva, and the International Civil Aviation Organization in Toronto are the oldest, with an average of 48.9. WMO has the oldest average age of EOD: 43.6.

In a report on the age structure of UN staff two inspectors appointed by the General Assembly say that the "recruitment and retention of young professionals continues to be a challenge across the system." They note that there is increasing competition for young talent from other international and regional organizations. Officials in charge of personnel are said to be concerned about the inadequacy of career development and "long-term prospects" for the young.

The inspectors do not mention it, but one serious implication of these figures is that the concept of an independent international civil service has gone out the window. Most UN staff come from government bureaucracies, and for many the UN is a second career. Staff from a few affluent countries have for decades been subsidized by their own governments in violation of UN rules. While this is mostly done because UN salaries are too low to attract recruits from countries where better paid jobs are on offer, it has an inevitably corrupting effect.

Another entire category of staff, and one which has ballooned in the post 9/11 period, is that of paid informer; fleering telltales are everywhere. Professional spooks, of course, form yet another category, one with an older lineage. Not surprisingly, paranoia is rampant; one staff member told me he photocopies nothing at the UN, not even official papers; he believes all the machines collect information for the CIA.

The cynicism engendered by all this must be a major factor driving the idealistic young away from UN employment, and there is very little to be done about it. One can only weep for a lost ideal.

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