Lake Wobegon on the East River

June 30, 1995|By RUTH WEDGWOOD

New York -- What the United Nations needs is some good managers. It's made a start in hiring Joe Connor, the former CEO of Price Waterhouse, who has set about trying to fix the U.N. personnel system and budget process.

Mr. Connor is faced with a Lake Wobegon organization in which 9 out of 10 U.N. employees are rated ''outstanding'' by their risk-averse bosses, who want to avoid the three layers of appeals that follow an adverse rating.

Political appointments at the Turtle Bay Secretariat have been determined by a rather vulgar rotation by region. Capitals can unload rivals and diplomatic gentlemen of a certain age.

Appointments to routine posts pass through review boards on which member countries also throw around their weight. Department heads string temporary appointments end-to-end to avoid this gantlet.

A quick exposure to the political operations of the U.N. does reveal a host of extraordinarily talented people, such as Rolf Ekeus who heads the special commission dismantling Iraqi weapons, Alvaro de Soto who negotiated the peace agreement in El Salvador, Aldo Ajello who guided the peace process in Mozambique, and Sadako Ogata who improvises resources and people to respond to refugee emergencies. The middle ranks of the departments of peacekeeping, political affairs and humanitarian affairs have many talented and educated people.

But the U.N. is a system that does not reward innovation. It lacks an effective inter-agency process to forge working groups among its scattered organizations. It also substitutes cheap compliments for real responsibility.

Peacekeeping operations are a good example. The General Assembly budget committee sets minute categories limiting what each peacekeeping commander can order for his troops. For the Haiti operation, the New York committee did not realize that there is no potable water in the country, that Haiti's roads are so badly torn up that only four-wheel-drive vehicles can travel into the countryside, and that a great many Creole interpreters, rather than French speakers, are needed to allow patrols to work effectively.

A well-run business sets a budget, and allows a manager considerable flexibility in deciding how to spend it. This allows a manager to react to information and use local knowledge. But at the U.N., everything must run back to New York.

An ordinary military commander has a quartermaster working under him. At the U.N. there is a chief administrative officer of co-equal rank. Even this officer lacks authority to approve a contract over $70,000, and must refer it back to New York. A purchase over $200,000 must queue up on the docket of the General Assembly contracts committee, which meets once a week, and does not always complete the docket. For a battalion commander in the back country -- who may have difficulty even getting through by telephone from Cape Haitien to Port-au-Prince -- this routine is absurd.

To survive these procedures, the U.S. Army component of the Haiti peacekeeping operation has been forced to charge on an army credit card, with the hope of after-the-fact U.N. reimbursement. This keeps the vehicles on the road, rather than waiting for U.N. approval of a carburetor purchase order.

For Third World troops that arrive ''lightly loaded'' for missions with quick start-up, and short time horizons, these delays are debilitating. The ability of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese peacekeep- ers to provide security in the countryside in Haiti has been limited by a shortage of vehicles, interpreters and communications equipment.

Inventory control is also a foreign concept. The U.N. announced with some fanfare last year that it was establishing a stockpile of equipment for peacekeeping in Brindisi, Italy. This would allow recycling between missions and short-cutting procurement procedures.

But it turns out that the U.N. never computerized the inventory for Brindisi, so a mission planner can't tell what's there. Even paper records are lacking for half of the 1,400 containers dispatched from around the world.

Ultimately, creation of a good management system in the U.N. requires two hard steps. The member countries must be willing to allow the Secretariat to operate on a meritocracy, without patronage appointments. In addition, the secretary general must be willing to allow strong managers to grow up in his shade, rather than keeping top U.N. officials on short strings and afraid of overstepping their bounds.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali's term is up next year. He is eligible for a second term, and most close observers expect he will seek it. But the U.S. and other member states should make clear that they expect any secretary general to spend time on management problems, and to back up senior operating officers who handle the implementation.

Ruth Wedgwood is a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of law at Yale Law School.

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