- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

Annan’s promises

When U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan took office in January 1997, he promised at his first press conference to make the United Nations a more accountable, more transparent organization. He urged reporters covering “the house” — as the United Nations is affectionately known among employees — to phone senior U.N. officials to discuss their fields. He directed senior staff to call those reporters back.

After the somewhat more insular days of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, veteran correspondents said it would be a revolution if it happened — “a sea change.” But they were dubious that Mr. Annan’s memos really would alter an unresponsive culture.

Six years on, it has.

The United Nations is, they say, a far more open and accessible subculture to cover. These days, U.N. officials with substantive portfolios routinely speak to reporters, to business or regional associations and even to gatherings of retirees to discuss public-private initiatives or to gather ideas.

The “fertilization process” has made the United Nations a more inclusive, less mysterious organization with a broader base of support among those who are, admittedly, likely to be pro-United Nations anyway.

But not everyone jumped on board. And it didn’t matter much, insiders said, until the oil-for-food scandal threatened to eclipse the accomplishments of Mr. Annan’s six years in office and unravel his last two.

“Kofi Annan woke up one morning and realized he had to act fast to save his legacy,” said one insider. “I think he was shocked by the savagery of the oil-for-food criticism.”

Officials loyal to Mr. Annan, and advisers who have his ear, say management changes are coming.

The shifts are likely to be in the second and third tiers of the organization rather than at “the marquee level” of undersecretary-general.

Proof of the awakening, one U.N. official suggested last week, is the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown as Mr. Annan’s “chef de cabinet” — a low-profile job that can be anything from paper-pusher to the secretary-general’s right hand and second mouth. And Mr. Malloch Brown, a charismatic Briton known for persuasive word and prompt action, is not likely to let someone else open the mail.

John Ruggie, a former Columbia University dean who spent four years as an adviser to Mr. Annan, describes a division in U.N. senior ranks between “traditionalists,” who see information as power and carefully hoard their stash, and “modernists” who think the Secretariat is as accountable to a variety of constituencies — ranging from the U.N. staff to governments to the public.

Mr. Ruggie, a modernist who in 2001 left the United Nations for Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said last week that he expects a swirl of changes in U.N. personnel and policy after the panel led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker issues its interim findings on the oil-for-food scandal next week.

“The [secretary-general] will introduce reforms that will make it less likely for a repeat” of the oil-for-food scandal, he said. “You’ll see it in the area of accountability, transparency, protecting whistleblowers. The changes will be throughout the house.”

In an organization convinced of its own righteousness, one of the critical areas of reform, according to insiders, is public information. There is widespread criticism of the U.N. public-information department, which painted itself into a corner by refusing to discuss the oil-for-food accusations until after the Volcker panel goes public at the end of this month.

“The entire organization became a big, soft target that nobly refused to stoop to … defend ourselves against the most outrageous lies,” said one U.N. official, who blames everyone from the U.N. Information Center in Washington to Mr. Annan himself.

The month-old Internet site “www.oilforfood.org” claims to present “the facts” about the six-year humanitarian program that appears to have benefited Iraqi ex-dictator Saddam Hussein at least as much as it did the Iraqi populace, which relied on it for daily rations.

“Outsiders can say things that we can’t,” one U.N. official said.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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