Friday, April 25, 2008

UN Posts for Sale?

In the infamous days when Kurt Waldheim was Secretary-General of the United Nations I was a staff member there, still very much an innocent in the ways of the world. So when an Arab colleague came into my office one morning and, after a few preliminaries, asked if I would co-sign a loan from the UN Credit Union, I assumed he faced some family emergency, and agreed without thought or question.

It was a small sum he wanted, $15,000 if I remember right. After the formalities we went down to the cafeteria for coffee. I thought he might unburden himself of whatever problems faced him, but the conversation was all about in-house politics. Then, as we prepared to leave, he said casually: "You know, I needed the loan to get a promotion." My blank stare prompted an explanation. The Assistant-Secretary-General for Personnel would arrange for a promotion if he was paid; there was a set scale, depending on the level of the job. His promotion would take $14,000. (What the extra $1,000 was for, I never found out.)

The confession left me speechless and wondering about the United Nations, which till then I had considered in the fuzzy light of its own propaganda and my idealism. My colleague got his promotion within a few months, and we never talked about the matter again, not even when the Assistant-Secretary-General in question became the subject of a very hush-hush official investigation and was quietly allowed to resign.

I bring all this up because of what has happened with the the appointment of the Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Last year, after UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer (Singapore) was appointed to head the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok, her old post in New York was advertised. Some 150 applications were received. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), the parent organization of UNIFEM, convened a panel to go through the applications, and after much labor it short-listed six. The six were interviewed, and the panel agreed unanimously to recommend Gita Sen of India, who has a sterling background in public policy (she teaches at the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore and at Harvard), and as an activist on women's issues.

The panel made its recommendation in November 2007, but nothing happened. Then after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had attended the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile (where Spanish Prime Minister Rodríguez Zapatero got into his famous exchange with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez), it was given out that he would initiate a fresh review of the short-listed candidates. After interviewing four of the candidates himself in February, Ban did not act on the appointment till after Prime Minister Zapatero was re-elected in March. Then he announced on April 8 that the UNIFEM job would go to Inés Alberdi of Spain.

Non-governmental activists who had been looking forward to having a live wire at UNIFEM were bitterly disappointed, and have issued a stream of statements complaining about the manner in which the formal and rigorous appointments process had been nullified. High-level UNDP staff are also reported to be not too happy with the outcome. "There's no doubt about it" one NGO representative told me. "The Spaniards have just bought themselves a UN job. It's clear what happened. Even the timing; Ban just waited to see if Zapatero would be re-elected and would pay up."

No one is saying that Ban was personally paid off; the presumption is that additional Spanish funds will go to UNIFEM. But it still leaves the impression of corruption. UN jobs should go to the best qualified, not to those whose governments offer money.

1 comment:

Bhaskar Menon said...

Readers are sending comments to me directly rather than leaving them here.
"Anonymous" is shocked by the story on UN posts for sale, but says it should not be really surprising, considering how Ban Ki-moon got his own job.
That is a reference to published reports that Ban had won the support of elected members of the Security Council with offers of aid and trade deals.