U.N. Undersecretary-General for Management Addresses Challenges and Opportunities Facing Reform Efforts

May 11, 2006
Sharon Alexandra

Calling the United Nations oil-for-food scandal a “reputational crisis that could morph into a fiscal crisis” if unaddressed, Christopher Burnham MPA 1990 confronted the issue head-on during a talk on Wednesday at the Kennedy School. Burnham, who has served as undersecretary-general for management at the U.N. since June 2005, acknowledged the management problems that made the scandal possible.
“We saw what happens when you combine human nature, someone else’s money, and no controls,” said Burnham. “It equals corruption.”
But Burnham insisted that the U.N.’s role is too crucial to allow the scandal to interrupt its mission. “We cannot back away from the important products this organization is producing for America and every other person and country around the world,” he said. Burnham then laid out U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s proposal for bringing the United Nations into the 21st century.
The U.N. reforms, Burnham pointed out, are designed to create a more controlled environment – with additional internal and external audits, training, and better systems.
Referring to his responsibility to the global taxpayer, he said, “I think I have an even higher fiduciary responsibility than if I was a CEO or CFO of a private organization” because an investor has the choice to withdraw funds if displeased while the global taxpayer is bound by his or her country’s commitment to the U.N.
The initial reform steps have been all about ethics, he said. An Ethics Office established in January, annual ethics training, a strong whistleblower protection policy, and a new financial disclosure policy are among the changes that have been implemented.
Not everything has gone smoothly, however, Burnham admitted. Results-based budgeting, for instance, cannot be implemented without an expensive new I.T. system. Other problems are also complicating reform efforts, but Burnham is not discouraged. “I’m a glass half-full kind of guy,” he said. “Much is already done and we will work through the rest as we build a more transparent and ethical United Nations.”
The challenge is significant, he said, but at stake is an organization founded on the mission to save future generations from the scourge of war.
Luise Druke MPA 1987, recently retired from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and currently a visiting scholar in the MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice, was primarily responsible for bringing the lecture to the Kennedy School; and Kennedy School Executive Dean John Haigh MPP 1982, served as moderator. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the United Nations Association of Greater Boston and the Kennedy School sponsored the talk.

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