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.

By Ian Richards
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

A Nightmare Comes to a Close in Liberia as MDs Declare It ‘Ebola-Free’

By Lisa Vives
New York, May 12 2015 (IPS)

With no new infections in 42 days, Liberia has been declared free and clear of Ebola by the World Health Organization.

The announcement was made in the emergency command center in Monrovia, a room packed with reporters, aid agencies and dignitaries, including the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Deborah R. Malac. Responses ranged from applause to tears followed by a moment of silence called by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

“At this symbolic juncture, I ask the whole world to remember the 4,608 Liberians who lost their lives, and the many thousands more who endured the horror of fighting the disease,” Johnson-Sirleaf said.

“Let us celebrate, but stay mindful and vigilant,” she said. “Clearly, the events of the last year must never be forgotten.

Then, in an action of physical closeness not seen in many months, she went around the room shaking hands.

It was just over a year – in March 2014 – that the outbreak was confirmed in Liberia. It had traveled swiftly south, from Guinea to Sierra Leone and then Liberia, frightening health officials and world health agencies with its deadly ferocity. In Liberia more than 3,000 Ebola cases were confirmed and more than 4,700 cases were fatal.

But alarm bells had hardly been sounded before the virus reached foreign shores. In July 2014, a Liberian-American, Patrick Sawyer, collapsed and died in Nigeria, leaving 19 people infected and eight dead. Four months later, Thomas Eric Duncan flew into Texas where his symptoms exploded. Sent home with antibiotics, he survived only a short time after re-entering Texas Presbyterian Hospital, where he passed away on Oct. 8.

Less than a year has passed and Liberians have successfully prevented any new infections since the last case was reported on March 20th.

Still, outbreaks persist in neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone, creating a risk that infected people may cross into Liberia over the region’s exceptionally porous borders.

Meanwhile, writing in FrontpageAfricaonline, Liberians gave thanks to God, the Liberian President, U.S. President Obama and the American people, the European Union, Cuba, China, support from Nigeria and Ghana, the United Nations and other NGOs.

“Liberian people at home and abroad, thanks,” wrote Boima Gbelly, described as self-employed. “If we fought this unknown enemy, certainly we can fight other challenges. Let’s unite and help build a prosperous Liberia in a civil manner.”

“Lord, with you, all things are possible,” wrote Daa Onenokay, of the Liberian diaspora. “We want to extend thanks and sincere appreciation to our international partners for all the help and support which brought relief to Liberia… We hope that the entire Mano River Basin will be Ebola-free soon.”

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin