- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

Cutting the overlaps

A blue-ribbon panel issued suggestions last week to consolidate U.N. field operations. If undertaken successfully, participants say, the organization would be far more efficient and effective. The savings could, in theory, be considerable and would be plowed into more programs and better services rather than refunded to donors.

The fat wouldn’t be hard to cut: In some program countries, there are scores of U.N. agencies, funds and programs, not to mention foreign advisers and nongovernmental organizations, all doing similar work on development and relief.

Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister of Norway, told reporters the effort could eventually carve 20 percent from overhead.

Well, yes, but …

This is not the first time that someone has looked at the competing agencies and overlapping bureaucracies that define U.N. field operations and insisted that something better could replace them. But try convincing department heads and program managers that they must cede control, share information and pare staff for the public good. That goes against the natural order of any organization, and it won’t go down any more easily now than it has in the past.

G-77 scuttled reform

A few months ago, the Group of 77 — actually 133 developing nations and those who claim to represent them — scuttled reform efforts that would have allowed the U.N. Secretariat to more freely move staffers around, trim or reallocate budgets, and hold agencies more accountable for results rather than for their good intentions.

Without necessary changes, the current drive toward the “One U.N.” program will be no more effective than the vaunted 1997 consolidation of all U.N. field activities into a single “U.N. House” that would save space and money, improve communications and cooperation, and avoid exactly the situation that has driven a dozen leaders, ministers and development specialists to undertake the latest effort.

There is a small ray of hope. One of the chairman of the Panel on Systemwide Coherence is Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, whose nation will take over the G-77 in January from South Africa. Although he didn’t make promises in public remarks or interviews, perhaps his diplomats will fight for flexibility and accountability in U.N. management instead of giving up on it.

Departing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan deserves credit for making another attempt to reform the organization’s swampiest bureaucracy, but it be to his successor, Ban Ki-moon to make it work.

The new WHO chief

Dr. Margaret Chan was elected last week to lead the World Health Organization (WHO), a job that carries possibly the broadest portfolio after the U.N. secretary-general. As executive director of the Geneva-based WHO, Dr. Chan, an epidemiologist with dual Chinese and Canadian citizenship, will help develop international policy and multinational coordination of a full spectrum of public-health threats, commission research and advocate best practices.

Dr. Chan, who was nominated by Beijing in a crowded field of applicants, will be under scrutiny to keep pressure on China, which has been reluctant to share potentially vital information and data about pandemics such as the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian influenza, the bird-flu outbreak of the winter of 2003-04 caused by the H5N1 virus. During the WHO campaign, she sought to allay such concerns by stressing that she will serve 193 member states rather than a single country.

“SARS was a very important lesson for many countries, including China. China has moved on, the world has moved on, but … in the realm of disease surveillance, there are still weak spots,” she told reporters on Friday.

Dr. Chan, 59, a former health minister of Hong Kong, tackled SARS when it migrated from mainland China and developed the policy that helped contain its outbreak. She joined the WHO in 2003 and rose to representative of its director-general for pandemic influenza and assistant director-general for communicable diseases.

• Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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