The international civil service
We have reached a crisis point, wherein the status quo is unsustainable. Member states who make budgetary contributions to the United Nations disproportionate to their sizes have no incentive to contribute funding towards a massive multilateral scheme of international corruption. The game is up. Reforms will take place.
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By Matthew Parish
What is the international civil service, and how should we recruit members of it? Once they are recruited, how should we ensure that hey do their jobs properly? Although the profession of so-called UN officials has existed in abundance at least since the formation of the League of Nations at the end of World War One, these questions turn out to be phenomenally difficult to answer. That is because the ostensible administrative regime by which UN staff are recruited and employed is politically-driven almost entirely legally fictitious. The result Is that most UN employees consider patronage and connections far more important than the merit of their work; many of them do not really understand what they are supposed to be doing; they suffer from heinously divided loyalties; the politics of the workplace are toxic; employees thoroughly unhappy despite being brilliantly clever.Nevertheless they do not feel they can leave. How did things ever get like this?
Let us start our enquiry with the principle contained in the UN Staff Rules, that a UN employee must remain strictly neutral and not owe allegiance to his or her country of origin. An international civil servant is an UN employee who does not work for his nation. Instead (s)he works for the United Nations, as though that were a separate state (or at least an analogue of one). The problem with this is that the UN is not a separate country and as an organisation it does not have a series of distinctive national interests that can be pursued independently, as though it were a separate state. The UN is an amalgam of states with very different interests, that agreed to create a common bureaucracy to cooperate in certain areas. But often states cannot even agree what they have agreed to cooperate about, still less what goals they have agreed they must achieve. Any international agreement is just diplomatic wordplay, that states will later seek to subvert and re-interpret in the pursuit of their own interests. How can an international civil servant pursue a UN-neutral agenda, not biased in any state`s favour, out of such a mess?
The consequence of this might be thought that the neutrality obligation amongst UN officials is a pure legally fiction. International civil servants obviously do what their governments of origin, who sent them, want them to do. This would follow from the patronage component in UN recruitment: UN jobs are divided up amongst nationalities and regions. Therefore to get the job, you need the support of your own government. The conclusion is that once you get the job it is in the direction of supporting your nominating government(s) that your loyalties will lie. There is no such thing as neutrality for International civil servants; the very notion is inherently a lie.
The problem with this, more cynical of views, is that if it is correct then there is no obvious reason why any state would want to be a member of the United Nations. All membership produces is a collection of nationally loyal UN staff for that reason at loggerheads as much as nations generally are at loggerheads. What is the point of it all? If what you want is a lot of nationally biased diplomats arguing with one-another, then jut them in a room and leave them to agree or fail to. There is no use for the United Nations as a separate entity, and certainly no reason to pay for it. UN staff are mostly better paid than domestic civil servants.The whole thing starts to look like a colossal waste of money.
The premise of any theory that international organisations have some purpose must be that the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts, and the United Nations not just an amalgam of well-paid domestic civil servants on secondment. But herein lies the paradox of the United Nations: the the UN is not a state, and relies upon its members for funding (whereas a state does not rely upon its citizens for funding – it can force them to pay, by imposing taxes and then enforcing them. Therefore the UN must please its members – or, at least, those bureaucratic agents of its member states who write memoranda recommending that its proposed funding increases be approved. That is why the United Nations staff ranks are replete with the sons and daughters of Ambassadors and former government ministers. The system of patronage Is inevitable. In exchange for their patronage in obtaining UN jobs for them, member states governments expect loyalty on the part of their nationals. Hence the legal principle of UN staff independence is necessarily theoretical only.
We have reached a paradox. The UN is useless if patronage infects the international civil service. But patronage is inevitable by the logic of the UN`s system of funding. It follows that the UN is useless and I ought to put down my pen forthwith. But I don`t. Why not? It is because I think we may be trapping ourselves within the confines of this paradox too quickly. To conclude that the UN can serve no useful purpose because its funding structure entails that its staff are necessarily incorrectly motivated occurs to me as profoundly non-empirical, committing precisely the converse error to that perpetuated by UN staff themselves when they assert that what they do must be useful because the United Nations administration is governed by the legal and diplomatic principle of good faith. The United Nations system Is replete with wise men (and they are mostly men) making broad assertions about its efficacy or otherwise without reference to evidence.
Patronage may be inevitable ,but it can be measured. For this we need access to the right data. The UN recruitment system is notoriously opaque, and hence obtuse. Because the organisation necessarily seeks the moral high ground (the premise of Wilsonian liberal institutionalism is that international institutional cooperation enables states to achieve higher goals than they would be individually inclined to pursue), the United Nations must purport to operate a fair and impartial recruitment system.Indeed the obligation of staff neutrality contained in the UN Staff rules is part of precisely this fiction. Hence we find public competition notices and detailed recruitment procedures, requiring panel interviews, prohibitions upon discrimination and the like.
But genuine application of the principles of open competition would be inconsistent with the principle of patronage, that as we have discussed is necessarily inherent to the UN stating system. If you have to give a job to the Ambassador`s son, then transparent recruitment must be precluded because the Ambassador`s son may well not be the best candidate for the position. Moreover there may not even be a position for a candidate subject to patronage. A position may need to be created that is not truly necessary. Hence we have another paradox: the UN recruitment procedure must be transparent, but it must also be bent. How is this paradox resolved?
The answer is that it is resolved through the tools of nonsense, absurdity, misfeasance and self-delusion. Consider the following aspects of the UN`s recruitment procedures. Job titles are largely meaningless. There are few transparent management structures or lines of accountability. Job descriptions are incomprehensible. Post eligibility requirements appear mostly arbitrary: strange language requirements, education profiles and the like. There is no entrance examination per se, unlike for many or even even most domestic civil service recruitment procedures. A lot of UN staff do not know what they are supposed to be doing at work. Many UN posts have overlapping powers and responsibilities. Interview panels are routinely “nobbled”. Interview minutes are replete with meaningless comments designed to create the appearance of distinctions between candidates based upon merit when in fact the intention is favouritism for a specific individual. There is absolutely nothing fair, objective or open about the UN staff recruitment process. It is nonsense on stilts, manipulated by those who administer it amidst the fog of incomprehensible complexity. It is one of the UN`s many ironies that having bound Itself publicity to the administration of its bureaucracy good faith, in order to give effect to the cruel political realities of its system of funding the organisation has to conduct its human resources policies amidst the most deplorable depths of bad faith.
What do we do about this: the perpetuation of an administration of unmeritorious staff performing unmeritorious jobs because that is what its funders require? The answer is that to effect change that we work with the ostensibly virtuous aspects of the organisation`s recruitment procedures, and press upon them so as to drown out the pressure towards patronage. HR vacancy notices must be advertised. Let us push upon the publicity aspects of the procedure. Reform-minded member states may insist upon flushing greater transparency through a system that pretends to be transparent but is not actually so. The general public, and member states, should have access to UN recruitment files so they can follow the procedures by which personnel decisions are made. The UN should publish statistics upon human resources issues, and these statistics should be both comprehensive and audited externally. The appointment of external auditors to supervise personnel procedures should be ring-fenced: there can be no permissible incentive for an eternal auditor to give the UN a clean bill of personnel health in order to secure other lines of work or repetition of appointment as auditor. External human resource consultants must be introduced to the UN upon a transparency agenda, instructed explicitly to take the most critical of eyes to the existing system and holding a mandate with sufficient political and institutional support dramatically to shake it up from top to bottom.To prevent creeping re-absurdification of the UN`s human resources system, simplicity must be the key and extreme publicity Is the means to prevent backsliding. None of this entails mass redundancies. The process is more important than the individuals.A better procedure must replace the current abomination, and the staff will then shake themselves out over time with voluntary retirement – as long as radical transparency presents backsliding.
There is one final question we must address. Why would any member state wish to proceed in this way, to seek to eliminate the patronage from which it is benefitting? The answers are severalfold. A UN member state may be contributing resources to the organisation disproportionate to the benefits of the patronage it is receiving in return. The four biggest UN donors (USA, UK, Japan and Germany) contribute almost 50% of the organisation`s budget globally, out of over 190 member states. They may well feel they are getting insufficient shares in the distribution of patronage. More fundamentally, those member states – who are the only member states in a position to push a reform agenda through threats of drastic budgetary cuts- may consider that the system of patronage denudes the organisation of any valuable purpose for which they might have joined it in the first place. To return to a point with which we opened this essay, a UN system dominated by patronage is nothing better than a regime of bilateral diplomats each employed at lesser expense by their own countries. The system of UN patronage actually benefits only countries that contribute disproportionally little: the patronage is subsidised by the budgetary contributions of these who contribute disproportionately much.
We have reached a crisis point, wherein the status quo is unsustainable. Member states who make budgetary contributions to the United Nations disproportionate to their sizes have no incentive to contribute funding towards a massive multilateral scheme of international corruption. The game is up. Reforms will take place. There is not enough money in the system to perpetuate it for any length of time if the large donors pull out. The small donors have nothing to gain from the UN`s collapse, because what would be left is an international system in which they ave no voice because they are too small. Hence reform will take place.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a preferred candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.