Tough Medicine from a UN Insider

Anthony Banbury, a longtime international civil servant, wrote a scathing op-ed in the New York Times this week in which he describes some harsh truth’s about the UN’s personnel management system.

The first major problem is a sclerotic personnel system. The United Nations needs to be able to attract and quickly deploy the world’s best talent. And yet, it takes on average 213 days to recruit someone. In January, to the horror of many, the Department of Management imposed a new recruitment system that is likely to increase the delay to over a year…

Too often, the only way to speed things up is to break the rules. That’s what I did in Accra when I hired an anthropologist as an independent contractor. She turned out to be worth her weight in gold. Unsafe burial practices were responsible for about half of new Ebola cases in some areas. We had to understand these traditions before we could persuade people to change them. As far as I know, no United Nations mission had ever had an anthropologist on staff before; shortly after I left the mission, she was let go…

In the run-up to the election of a new secretary general this year, it is essential that governments, and especially the permanent members of the Security Council, think carefully about what they want out of the United Nations. The organization is a Remington typewriter in a smartphone world. If it is going to advance the causes of peace, human rights, development and the climate, it needs a leader genuinely committed to reform.

First a bit about the author: Banbury is a well known, well respected diplomat in the UN System. He served in the UN system for decades, in a number of senior posts Most recently, he headed up the UN’s Ebola response mission in West Africa, which launched several months after the outbreak and is part of the reason ebola is all but eliminated today. That mission, by all measures, was a success in part because of Banbury’s leadership.


So, when he writes a piece for the Sunday New York Times title “I Love the UN, but it is Failing,”  he is not someone who’s criticisms can be dismissed out of hand. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s lived it. He’s experienced it. But the key question now, is can his scathing op-ed sufficiently move diplomacy to enact the kinds of reforms that enable the UN to live up to the expectations people have of it?

And that’s the thing: what’s needed here is diplomacy.

The Secretary General cannot streamline management and personnel policy by fiat. By design, many of the kinds of management, hiring and firing decisions that one might assume is the role of a CEO of a large corporation, or the head of a large government agency, is in fact outside the remit of the Secretary General. Rather, member states play a disproportionate role in setting hiring practices. For example, the General Assembly established an exceedingly complex quota system intended to encourage the hiring of candidates from under-represented countries (read: the developing world.) The General Assembly ultimately controls the purse strings of the Secretariat, so these directions from member states can’t just be ignored.

The last big push for UN management reform was in 2005. That year, to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN, there was a big world summit to reform various parts of the UN system. A great deal of progress was made in many parts of the UN system. The new Human Rights Council was created and the old, discredited Commission on Human Rights was abolished. Also, the principle of the Responsibility to Protect was enshrined in a UN reform document.

Despite these accomplishments, negotiations at the time over personnel reform fell apart. In general, wealthier member states in Europe, Japan and the USA wanted to empower the Secretariat and the Office of the Secretary General with greater flexibility in personnel decisions. These countries pay most of the bills of the UN system, so they wanted to institute some more efficiencies into that system, including vesting more authority in the Secretary General. The developing world put the breaks on this effort, fearing that these reforms would result in fewer hires from the developing world. Member states could not agree on any meaningful personnel reform, so the quota system lumbers on.

Enter this op-ed.

Banbury is living proof that, despite the UN’s complex hiring policies, talented individuals can still excel in the system. And, of course, despite the political constraints in which the UN operates it is still able to deliver results —  from vaccinating 58% of the world’s children to passing sanctions that lead Iran to the nuclear negotiating table — that make the UN essential as ever to global security.

But his op-ed should also be viewed as a warning to member states that an inefficient personnel management system threatens to undermine the success of the UN around the world. The kind of political expediency that impedes the firing of underperforming staff; or, in some cases, enables the hiring of poorly equipped, poorly trained peacekeepers erodes the credibility of the entire United Nations.

This year though, the stars may be aligning for another serious round of management reform talks between member states.  For one, there was a renewed push by the Security Council earlier this month to punish and deter sex abuse by UN peacekeepers. For the first time, the Security Council has established clear policies to punish misbehaving and under-performing peacekeeping units. Also, a new Secretary General will start her or his job on January 1 next year, which provides a useful inflection point for management reform talks.

To the extent that this op-ed from a well respected former international civil servant inspires member states to come together for a new round of management reform negotiations, it may ultimately be viewed as a kind of tough medicine the UN needs.