- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

NEW YORK — The United Nations, which for years has been seen as a “slumped punch bag,” is about to begin fighting back against its critics, according to Mark Malloch Brown, who this week takes on one of the trickiest jobs in international affairs.

Mr. Malloch Brown, a Briton, is to take over as chief of staff to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with responsibility for overseeing reforms to the world body at a time of unprecedented crisis.

While he concedes the severity of the challenge and the need to “freshen up” the leadership team and change the culture of the United Nations, he said in an interview that there would not be a wholesale purging of senior U.N. leaders.

“The secretary-general chose his people and has had some of them with him for eight years. A wholesale removal would just not be the right signal,” Mr. Malloch Brown said.

But with the United Nations reeling from the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal and other disputes with the United States, its biggest funder, he readily acknowledged the need for a “freshening up” of the team.

“After eight years, any team is tired,” Mr. Malloch Brown said, promising a “whole package” of reforms to change the organization’s famously bureaucratic culture.

“It’s not that [Mr. Annan] is not a reformer. But in these conservative gridlocked organizations, you need crisis to drive change,” he said.

A former journalist for the Economist and current head of the U.N. Development Program, Mr. Malloch Brown faces a huge challenge. His appointment came out of the blue, infuriating many U.N. old-timers who regard him as an interloper.

The incoming chief of staff, who has known Mr. Annan since 1983, expressed confidence that the United Nations and aid donors had learned from the mistakes of the 1980s, notorious for “white elephant” projects and corrupt Third World officials lining their pockets.

Just back from touring the countries worst-hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami, he expressed satisfaction that the massive private response in the West indicated that aid was back in favor.

“The tsunami is the latest and most dramatic expression … of a fundamental shift in public opinion in Europe and the U.S.,” he said. “Aid is winning a constituency. Oxfam has more members than the [British Conservative] Party.”

He added that he was now “nicer” about the U.S. Republican Party, a prudent precaution when conservatives in Washington are bubbling with outrage over the oil-for-food scandal.

With a long-awaited interim report by Paul Volcker into the scandal due in two weeks, Mr. Malloch Brown, 51, faces a ferocious initiation.

The commission has already released internal audit reports accusing the United Nations of systematic incompetence in its running of the $56 billion program.

More damaging still, at least $1.65 billion was skimmed off U.N.-managed sales of oil from 1996 to 2003 by ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. Among the foreigners accused of benefiting from bribes was Benon Sevan, the U.N. head of the program. Mr. Sevan denies the charge.

Mr. Malloch Brown is cautiously optimistic that the “stickiest period” is behind the world body and that both the United Nations and the United States are eager to move beyond arguments over the invasion of Iraq. But, he conceded, a deep rift remains.

“You can see the diplomatic ship turn, but public opinion takes a long time to follow and may not ever complete the U-turn successfully,” he said.

“While there may be calmer waters ahead of us, whether we can navigate into them given all the battle scars of the last year or so is not yet clear.”

If the Volcker report levels serious corruption charges against top-ranking U.N. officials, Mr. Annan “will want to consider the consequences,” Mr. Malloch Brown said.

“He is very much in the mood that he has two years to go. It has been a terrible year, but let’s seize the opportunity [for reform] that has eluded us so far.”

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