The sociology of the United Nations

The sociology of the United Nations

To change the dysfunctional sociology of the United Nations, a freedom of information statute is required. There is seldom good reason to keep the operations of the United Nations a secret. The only hope for a tolerantly efficient public bureaucracy is that the administration complies in good faith with transparent rules. This is a principal tool in improving the dysfunctional operation of the United Nations.

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By Matthew Parish

All organisations have their own bureaucratic culture. Ludwig von Miss wrote a famous short book about bureaucracy, in which he characterised the malfunctions inherent in any large public administration. What he neglected to note was that his observations apply to private sector organisations as well. And, in turn, they apply to international (that is to say, intergovernmental) organisations. This is a subject about which I have written at greater length, in my “Essay on the Accountability of International Organisations”. My goal here is more modest: to draw out the distinctive features of intergovernmental organisations that render their bureaucracies even more pathological than standard government and private sector organisations.

The essential problem of any bureaucracy is one of a complex and interlocking set of agency problems. The goal of the organisation is unlikely to be the same as that of any of the people who work within its administrative structure. For all the skills employees may have, the larger the bureaucracy the greater the amount of time must be spent by staff on reconciling the agency problems and perverse, conflictual incentives upon the bureaucrats; and the ever smaller proportion of any individual’s time that an be spent upon using his or her skills to pursue the goals of the organisation.

Consider the following. I am a sole trader. I have an organisation of one. I sell widgets in town. My incentive is to sell as many widgets as possible. Suppose how I hire two salesmen, to cover the town: east and west. They may have incentives that are inefficient: each to beat the other in a competition to impress me. They may fight over the extent of their mandates (what territory is covered by “east” and what by “west”), to try to show that the other is not getting their figures right, or to try to hide or exaggerate the fact that east and west may not naturally be the most lucrative market for widgets. To manage these problems, the business-owner may hire a line manager to whom the two salesmen report. Then everyone starts undertaking analyses, writing reports and the like. There is ever less selling of widgets (proportionate to the size of the workforce) and ever more bureaucracy, as we expand the workforce. And on it goes.

The problem is more acute for a public sector bureaucracy, because the goals are contested and more difficult to measure. Private sector bureaucracies can be self-disciplining, because the owners of the business want maximum returns and will remove the director of the business if they do not maximise revenues and minimise expenditures. Public sector bureaucracies do not work in this way. In democracies, the politically elected (or appointed) minister in charge of a department may be replaced if the department is not perceived as working correctly. But for the most part, politicians are hostage to unexpected events that are far more determinative of their career prospects. Instead the prevailing rationale for a bureaucracy in the public sector is budgetary augmentation. The starting assumption is that a public administration has an annual budget that it wants to increase (or it wants to increase its share of a broader public budget). The reason public bureaucracies think like this is because the source of their funding is compulsory taxation rather than voluntary sales.

Taxpayers cannot elect to opt out of being taxed. (At least, the vast majority of taxpayers cannot. There is an international elite that can change their jurisdiction of residence for the purposes of minimising their tax liabilities, but this group is sufficiently small that their effect upon a government’s net tax revenue is nominal.) Therefore, all things being equal, the tax revenues available to fund a bureaucracy will be the same as they were last year. Or at least that will be the starting assumption. If there are lower tax revenues in general for government, for example because the economy has dipped over the last twelve months or political considerations have mandated reductions in tax rates, then government will typically borrow to cover the gap. Western democracies seldom balance their budgets.

On the other hand, if tax revenues have gone up then there is an increased pie for any government department to take a share of. The bureaucratic incentive for a public sector organisation is to increase its budget share. It does this by creating additional functions, needs and problems that the bureaucracy is required to resolve. The incentives of civil servants at all levels in a bureaucracy are to increase the prestige, importance of perceived need for what they are doing; to increase the number of people who work for them; and to spend the budget allocation they receive because otherwise it might be taken away.

Hence bureaucracies want to establish new departments and new functions, and identify new public needs that they can meet. Public bureaucracies proliferate new projects, preferably ones that involve procedures rather than outcomes because outcomes might be capable of measurement and therefore criticism. Their only restraint – aside from legal review (and that is usually confined to cases where bureaucracies do things that affect individuals in substantial ways – only a proportion of public sector bureaucrats do that) – is the risk of a diminution in budget when, once every few years, an “austerity” government is elected that cuts back on bureaucratic activities; or criticism of them that causes the bureaucracy to be reorganised (i.e. people being demoted to irrelevance or fired).

This is why abdication of responsibility is so important in a bureaucratic context: if these decimatory events come to pass, then the individuals who took responsibility will be the first to be sacrificed by their colleagues in the bureaucracy. Those colleagues would rather others suffer than that they do, and bureaucratic downsizing is a zero-sum game.

Now let us transfer this conceptual framework to the politics of an international organisation. For international organisations, there are no taxpayers. There are only voluntary contributors, at least as a practical matter. The people who fund international organisations are states, not citizens, and irrespective of what a treaty may say, no international organisation can force any member state to pay what they owe. Member states of international organisations might therefore be considered as more akin to customers of private corporations, particularly as regards their so-called “voluntary contributions”, being funds contributed by states to specific UN agencies and projects and subject to conditions.

However the consumers are not typical, because member states are not spending their own money. In turns they are spending their own taxpayers’ money. Why do they do this? Part of the reason is path-dependance: they always have done. This is the same explanation as to why the starting point for a government department’s budget for the year is the figure it was for the prior year. But another reason is that the United Nations allows its member states to internationalise problems. “This matter is being dealt with by the United Nations.” Therefore if and when it goes wrong, it is the fault of the United Nations, that is corrupt, wasteful and inefficient. It is not the fact of the nations who mandated the United Nations to get involved in the problem at stake, and who paid the UN to do it. Everyone that is a member of the United Nations loves to moan about its poor performance, because then the UN is under scrutiny and not them.

In this regard, the sociology of the UN’s interactions with its shareholders are somewhat akin to a private banker investing his or her client’s funds in a highly risky hedge fund. Safe, well-performing hedge funds have been closed to new entrants for years. If and when the risk goes south, the private banker can blame someone other than himself or herself.

As with a regular government bureaucracy, the United Nations can suffer short- to medium-term adjustment to its liquidity or revenues, because it can borrow and expect to make up the shortfall later. It is only when the flame of criticism is alight that the sudden panic amongst UN bureaucrats to avoid responsibility comes to the fore. Because there are no freedom of information rules inherent to the United Nations – in fact quite the opposite (most UN treaties provide that the archives of the UN ad its specialist agencies are “inviolable”, mean confidential and secret from absolutely all outside prying, including that of citizens, member states, police, prosecutorial and judicial authorities worldwide), public criticism is rare. Diplomats know what is happening inside the UN, but diplomats are not usually publicity-focused people. Hence they just attack the UN in private, and they risk becoming entwined within its web of gossip and scandal.

Journalists cannot get access. National politicians do not usually much care. Where activities of the United Nations are particularly precarious – for example, dangerous peacekeeping missions that may well end up in public failure – it is typical to appoint retired or failed politicians to the heads of such missions, so that they can be blamed when things go wrong rather than the long-term UN functionaries themselves being blamed.

Aside from this, the power relations within international organisations are much the same as within public sector bureaucracies. The two features of public international bureaucracies that render them distinctly dysfunctional are the following. (a) The fact that the quantity of money sent to the United Nations, and other agencies, per head of population consisting of final taxpaying voters from each member state (at least for the taxpayers who live in democracies and hence can vote) is insufficiently significant for the activities of the United Nations to make any difference to their voting intentions. (b) The United Nations has the power, which it exercises effectively, to control the information flow out of it as to what it is doing. Its media divisions release whatever information they want, leaving the greater remainder of the information about the UN’s activities unexposed to the media.

For these reasons, the propensity for hydra-headed bureaucratic growth in the United Nations, with ever-greater layers of management, incomprehensible procedures, new departments and divisions, programmes, agendas, goals, publications, consultation papers, partnerships, agencies, directors, officers and the like – quite ad nauseam. The United Nations is awn unleashed public sector bureaucracy on steroids.

The absence of legal accountability (the United Nations and its employees are generally immune from suit in domestic courts) compounds the problem But the UN seldom does things that might give aggrieved external individuals legal rights to sue the organisation, even if it did not have immunity. The one exception is where UN peacekeepers commit abuses over their charges, a phenomenon that has unfortunately emerged recently as far more prevalent than is excusable. In such circumstances the UN seeks to uphold immunity because UN peacekeepers are not, of course, actually UN troops operating under genuine multilateral command structures (however much things might be set up to give that appearance). UN peacekeepers are national soldiers loaned by their governments in exchange for money.

By far the majority of UN peacekeepers are deployed in the Great Lakes region at the current time. The three biggest state contributors to UN peacekeeping are India, Pakistan and Rwanda. They operate de facto within their national command structures. The United Nations does not want to find itself assaulted with lawsuits in New York courts (the UN headquarters being situated in New York) in respect of human rights abuses committed in a remote region of central Africa by troops from these three nations. This is comprehensible to a degree. Indeed it is inconceivable that DPKO (the UN’s “Department of Peacekeeping Operations”) would authorise any troop deployment in respect of which it could be held vicariously liable for the actions of troops, from these nations and others, operating under de facto national command structures. The United Nations would never be able to recoup the moneys it paid out to successful plaintiffs as a practical matters, so it would just cancel all UN peacekeeping missions: something it is hard to see as an unqualifiedly good thing.

The prohibition upon UN employees beginning lawsuits before domestic employment tribunals is substantially more controversial. The internal court system the UN has established to hear such claims is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons: there are caps on the size of damages; discovery (compulsory document disclosure, a standard feature of civil litigation in domestic courts) is limited; witnesses may not appear; the appeals process appears rigged in favour of UN management. Moreover the internalised employment tribunal existing for employees of most UN specialised agencies – the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation – is vastly more dysfunctional, not even holding any hearings although its Statute requires it to do so. Exposing the UN to national employment courts could help a lot in shining a light of publicity upon the operations of the UN system, particularly if the media were able to attend and report upon those court hearings.

To change the dysfunctional sociology of the United Nations, a freedom of information statute is required. There is seldom good reason to keep the operations of the United Nations a secret. The procedure for obtaining access to documentation would need to be quick, unbureaucratic, a refusal would need to be signed by a manager with actual day-to-day access to the documentation, and there would need to be an impartial tribunal procedure to adjudicate a refusal or ignorance of a request. As with all freedom of information regimes, this would need to be very strict. It would not serve as a universal panacea to the problems of the United Nations. No public sector bureaucracy is perfect. But it could only improve things, that currently are bad. The notion that freedom of information legislation just makes bureaucrats prepare compliant documents is misplaced. Bureaucrats should prepare compliant documents. The only hope for a tolerantly efficient public bureaucracy is that the administration complies in good faith with transparent rules. This is a principal tool in improving the dysfunctional operation of the United Nations.

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 candidate 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.


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