October 24, 1996 | Commentary on International Organizations

ED102496a: United Nations Day: No Cause for Celebration

On Oct. 24, we all were expected to bear witness to the great achievements of the United Nations. The organization and its supporters scrambled to hide its misdeeds and dust off its few accomplishments. But they failed to conceal the truth.

The United Nations, despite the claims of reform by Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali and the Clinton administration, remains rife with abuse, waste, fraud and ineffectiveness. Topping the list is wasteful spending on both materials and personnel. In a 1995 article, Money magazine revealed that U.N. employees commonly earn more than twice the pay of comparable positions in New York-based private-sector jobs. In addition to their salaries, the roughly 10,000 U.N. bureaucrats in New York receive an array of special perks including rent allowances and education grants for their children. To top it off, it's all tax free.

These lucrative positions are, for the most part, not even being filled with competent individuals. Vested interests regard U.N. jobs as opportunities for nepotism and high pay for little work. U.N. employees are not held to any realistic standards of employee evaluation. The U.N. bureaucracy is populated by individuals who fail to meet the basic requirements of an effective civil service. The evaluation system is so abysmal that the U.N. leadership has tried to reform it at least five times. Yet the current system, under which 90 percent of U.N. employees received "excellent" ratings in the recent past, continues with only cosmetic changes.

Of course, such employees aren't anxious to have their work habits exposed. In 1995 the United Nations bought a $1 million turnstile security system for its New York headquarters, but never used it. The reason: The turnstile clocks would have recorded the arrival and departure times of U.N. employees. Heaven forbid: They would have had to work an entire day.

Unfortunately, the full range of problems remains hidden because, until 1995, the world body refused to establish an inspector general's office to root out waste, corruption and inefficiency. When it finally did appoint an inspector general, it did so reluctantly, under threat from the U.S. Congress to withhold funding. Moreover, U.N. officials weakened the office by having the inspector general serve under the authority of the secretary general and by failing to grant the office an independent budget.

This incredible commitment to waste and inefficiency has spurred the United States -- which provides 25 percent of U.N. funding -- to periodically withhold some of its dues. This has resulted in arrears of approximately $1.2 billion. Congress has refused to pay these arrears until the United Nations pledges to undertake reform.

The United States has chosen the proper course. The world body is in a perpetual state of financial crisis and is cash strapped. Withholding funding is the most effective way to get the U.N. bureaucracy's attention and encourage reform.

The first step toward reform must be an independent audit. The problems can't be fixed until we know in detail what they are. This can best be accomplished by an independent inspector general with a competent staff and budget immune to U.N. pressure. The U.N. system has resisted past reform efforts and will not refrain from using budget blackmail to manipulate the inspector general's office.

It is also imperative that the inspector general have complete access to all U.N. and related agency records. A primary goal of this audit should be not only to identify corruption, waste, fraud and abuse, but also to identify which of the United Nation's 70-plus programs are worth continuing, which should be eliminated, and which should be transferred to other organizations that can perform them better.

Only when such an audit is completed and management and organizational reforms have been implemented should U.S. back dues be paid. For the United States to pay in full before reform is implemented would be like giving a child his allowance before he completes his chores.

Only after an independent audit has been performed and U.N. operations reformed can Americans sincerely say "Happy United Nations Day."

Note: Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham fellow in International regulatory affairs at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations