- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007


It’s easy enough for new U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to say that he wants to rebuild relations between the United Nations and its staff of 55,000, but it’s up to Alicia Barcena Ibarra to figure out how.

Ms. Barcena, a former Mexican biologist and deputy ecology minister, was chosen by Mr. Ban to head the U.N. Department of Administration and Management, the first non-U.S. official to do so in nearly a generation.

She said that running the U.N. bureaucracy is a thankless job, which oversees everything from repairing elevators to managing procurement and overseeing compliance by a dozen departments with management recommendations.

“It is sometimes frustrating, because the perception of management is that … we don’t work, we are not efficient, or even corrupt,” she said. “We need to change that.”

Her assessment is shared by a significant percentage of frustrated staff members, as well as by some members of the U.S. Congress.

The way Ms. Barcena sees it, the most important step is a complete overhaul of the U.N. internal justice system, a hopelessly slow-moving process that delays the airing of staff complaints by three years or more, plus the inevitable appeals.

Improving staff-management relations also will require better “talent management,” as she calls the process of hiring, firing and promoting. Ms. Barcena also wants to harmonize the pay offered by different U.N. agencies for similar jobs, a necessary step to coax employees out of headquarters and into more difficult foreign missions.

To expedite the yearlong process of hiring a new staff member, Ms. Barcena said, it will be necessary to scrap the much-reviled Galaxy computer system adopted in 2002 to solicit job applications and automatically sort responses. Other steps to integrate procurement management, financial tracking, personnel information and other tasks are planned but likely won’t be ready until 2009.

Slow legal system

It is the legal system that is most ripe for rebuilding, she said. The current system, highly centralized and glacially slow, costs the U.N. a fortune in fines and judgments, back pay and legal fees. Perhaps most important, the system results in frustration on all sides.

Typical grievances such as sexual harassment, nonrenewal of employment contracts and denial of promotion can take five years to resolve, although many staffers think the system is too politicized to give a fair hearing. The General Assembly agreed on Wednesday to overhaul the internal justice system, taking steps that exceed even what Mr. Ban had endorsed.

Ms. Barcena, 55, has served in various U.N. posts for eight years, working in the U.N. Environment Program, then as director of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Last year, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan chose her to be his chief of staff.

Because many considered Ms. Barcena part of the “ancien regime,” her appointment by Mr. Ban to run management was met initially with exasperation and frustration.

Ethics ex-aide critical

One of the most vicious critiques came from Tunku Abdul Aziz, the Malaysian anti-corruption advocate who spent a year as adviser to the newly created U.N. ethics office. He warned in an op-ed piece in a British newspaper that with Ms. Barcena’s appointment and that of Asha-Rose Migiro as deputy secretary-general, “any hopes of reform being aggressively prosecuted by these two lightweights are gone forever. Ban has lost a great opportunity to hit the ground running.” Ms. Barcena read his critique with dismay and has sought to put some distance between herself and Maurice Strong, her former mentor, a longtime U.N. insider with ties to the South Korean government who was disgraced by the oil-for-food scandal.

Instead, the undersecretary-general for management is working to learn a job that insiders say she didn’t want, and to persuade member states to actively support changes that will help the United Nations run more smoothly.

In this, she may start with an advantage over her half-dozen predecessors: She is not a U.S. citizen.

The management office has, naturally enough, generated most of the blueprints for change in the large and complex U.N. organization, often warning against spending excesses and trimming frills, cutting mandates and improving oversight and accountability.

Vetted by U.S.

Almost by definition, the chief of administration is a scold and a penny pincher. The unpopularity is aggravated when the person is widely suspected of representing the interests of the United States — the global superpower, host country and largest U.N. contributor.

In the late 1990s, Joseph Connor, an American, had to help broker painful changes in the scale of assessments that reduced Washington’s share of U.N. expenses.

More recently, former State Department official Christopher Burnham — who was quoted within a month of joining the staff of the world body as saying he represented the American taxpayer — commissioned unpopular investigations into U.N. procurement, requested dozens of internal audits and created a whistleblower policy to root out corruption.

Many diplomats here viewed these Americans as autocratic accountants, slicing away at the United Nations and disrespecting smaller, poorer member states.

Ms. Barcena is careful to praise her predecessors but said she would like a closer working relationship with the 192-member General Assembly than Mr. Burnham had.

She also assumes that Washington vetted her candidacy for the job, “which is right, because they are the host country and the largest contributor.”

“I am also in a way representing a very forceful determination for change,” she added. “I’m very good reader of what is happening in the house.”

In that regard, she will be working with Mr. Ban’s team to demonstrate where its power begins and ends, and how to exercise that power wisely.

“It is sometimes hard for newcomers to understand that we cannot spend resources unless we have a mandate from the members,” Ms. Barcena said when asked about the Ban administration’s early days. “That the Secretariat, in general, has very little flexibility.

“This can be frustrating sometimes, especially for people that come from outside. They think we can do a lot of things on our own in the Secretariat, but we cannot.”

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