Modernists Must Take Over the United Nations

January 24, 2005
John Ruggie

Financial Times
Two very different scenes have been unfolding dramatically on separate floors at the United Nations headquarters in New York in the past week. In one suite, officials are digging out from under a mountain of critical internal audits of the Dollars 64bn (Pounds 34bn) Iraqi oil-for-food programme released by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, who is heading an independent inquiry into charges of mismanagement and possible corruption. This humanitarian relief effort, as a matter of policy, resisted public disclosure of critical contractual and other information. The UN paid a heavy price as a result: the "annus horribilis" as Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, described 2004 at an end-of-year press conference.
Elsewhere in the building, the team co-ordinating the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami catastrophe is establishing a web-based financial tracking system that will enable anyone, including the public, to trace where relief dollars are coming from and how they are being spent. It is also setting up a squad to investigate credible allegations of fraud and waste. PricewaterhouseCoopers is helping to build the system, which will be overseen by an external advisory board.
While the contrast could not be starker, its source is not new. I witnessed it throughout my own tenure at the UN: an ongoing tension between traditionalist and modernist corporate cultures with one or the other prevailing on different occasions.
In the traditionalist view, the accountability of the UN begins and ends with member states, represented on UN bodies such as the Security Council. The modernist culture, in contrast, appreciates that accountability is also owed to a variety of other internal and external stakeholders: UN staff, national legislatures, civic groups and the general public. Whereas traditionalists treat opaqueness as a strategic asset, for modernists transparency is the key to institutional success.
If any good can come out of the "horrible year" just passed, it will be the permanent victory of the modernists.
Running the oil-for-food programme was never going to be easy. The only conditions on which Saddam Hussein allowed it in the first place were for him to pick his own contractors and, except in the Kurdish-controlled region, for his own agencies to deliver the goods to Iraqi citizens. Attempting to compensate for that fundamental weakness, the Security Council took it upon itself to decide on every one of the programme's 36,000 contracts.
But the ascendancy of the traditionalist culture in the oil-for-food case worsened an already convoluted situation. For example, early on, the question of whether to post on the UN website the list of contracts awarded for dealing with Mr Hussein was settled by an opinion from UN legal counsel that this information was proprietary. Consequently, the world learnt too late that shell companies had moved into the Iraq oil export business, fronting for others. Among those now accused by the media of benefiting are politicians in several key countries represented on the Security Council and the UN official who ran the programme. Moreover, the oil-for-food staff's sense of accountability never extended beyond the council. They reportedly drew attention on at least 70 occasions to irregularities in the pricing of humanitarian imports into Iraq, which provided the margin for Mr Hussein's kickbacks and bribes. But when the council did nothing, for reasons its members will at some point have to explain to their own publics, the secretariat did not blow the whistle.
Such decisions may have been legally correct but they were institutionally unwise, allowing illicit behaviour further down. Equally damaging, they short-circuited transparency's contribution to ensuring corrective action. In contrast, broader standards of disclosure and accountability are the hallmarks of the modernist culture, as reflected in the tsunami relief operation.
Mr Annan is by instinct a modernist who won the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for "bringing new life" to the UN. At his news conference last December he not only rued the awful year that had just passed but he also acknowledged the need to learn from the oil-for-food debacle and signalled his renewed commitment to institutional reform. As Mr Annan goes about rebuilding his senior management team, he would be well advised to add to each job description: only modernists need apply.
John Ruggie, a former UN assistant secretary-general (1997-2001), is Kirkpatrick professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page