The U.N. Investigates Itself...Again

Former Adjunct Fellow

In a stunning development that even the United Nations' fiercest critics will surely hail as a turn for the better, Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced yesterday that he is "entirely disgusted" with the way the U.N. investigates itself. "It's a way of deflecting criticism, not solving problems," said Mr. Annan, adding that "The U.N. Secretariat has become a secret society, swathed in privilege and shielded by immunities. As secretary-general, tasked with upholding the integrity, values and moral authority of the United Nations, I am authorizing a new policy of complete transparency, financial and otherwise, in the workings of the Secretariat, starting with full disclosure of all internal debates, correspondence, memos, audits, expense accounts and cafeteria subsidies. Oh, and by the way, I apologize for presiding over the biggest swindle in the history of humanitarian relief, the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq."

Just kidding. This is raw fantasy; Mr. Annan never said any such thing. In the real world, in the best tradition of setting bureaucratic backfires, the U.N. has now labored mightily, in collaboration with Deloitte Consulting LLP, to add one more item to the recent series of U.N. self-investigations--this one an inquiry into the U.N. Secretariat's perception of its own integrity. The resulting public document, which runs to 90 pages but somehow omits what were reportedly some lurid individual responses, was posted recently on Mr. Annan's U.N. web page under the title "United Nations Organizational Integrity Survey 2004."

Though readers must slog through such U.N.-speak as "The U.N. wanted to operationalize integrity," this report has its intriguing moments. Somewhere under it simmers a certain candor. The findings are based on responses from 6,086 of the 18,035 U.N. Secretariat employees to whom the survey questionnaire on U.N. integrity was sent--meaning about one-third of the staff weighed in, which is enough to be significant. The results, summed up in a cover letter by Mr. Annan, suggest that the Secretariat's own employees believe they inhabit a snake pit. Highlights, as Mr. Annan cites them, include such failings as: "integrity and ethical behavior are not taken sufficiently into account in selection, promotion and assessment processes" and "staff believe that not enough action is taken to investigate and address instances of unethical behavior, and that those who expose such breaches may put themselves at risk of reprisal."

More directly to the point, the report itself, on page 11, notes that "staff members feel unprotected from reprisals for reporting violations of the codes of conduct. This is not a perception confined to a few staff in remote locales and/or dangerous circumstances. Forty-six percent (46%) gave unfavourable response to this item, while only 12% gave favourable responses."

As Mr. Annan recounts, there is considerable focus on "tone at the top" (while most staffers trust their immediate bosses, their opinion of U.N. senior leaders is "less positive"). And as the report politely explains, there are concerns about accountability ("Most of the infrastructure to support ethics and integrity is in place; accountability is not").

There is also a lot of discussion about such details as the differences between answers in English and French, including the whimsically delightful detail that "unfortunately and unbeknownst to Deloitte Consulting, the French language questionnaire file was corrupted." A portion of the data was thus irretrievably lost--a footnote that might be of some interest to those concerned about U.N. handling of data vis-à-vis Oil-for-Food.

But all this is really just prelude to the true import of this U.N. investigation, which lies in Mr. Annan's proposal for the next step. And therein resides the art of the U.N. investigation.

Does Mr. Annan recommend throwing open the Secretariat's operations to daylight? No, that belongs to the realms of the fantasy above.

Does Mr. Annan propose that as boss of the entire shop, he himself should be held accountable for the failures, mistrust and fear of reprisals? Dream on.

Instead, as is customary, Mr. Annan says that most of the problems are now (and forever?) being fixed: "Many of the actions proposed can be linked to actions or processes already under way." He goes on to propose another action or process, this plan being to convene yet another group "to guide the process of follow-up to the survey." This bunch--let's skip the full names of the U.N. agencies and just zip through the acronyms--will include the Deputy Secretary-General and senior U.N. officials from the DPKO, DGACM, DESA, DM, OHRM, UNODC, UNEP and ECLAC, all to be supported by "a consultative group consisting of a wide cross-section of staff at different levels both from New York and from offices away from headquarters."

In other words, having gone so far as to discover that Secretariat staff don't trust the top management and are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals, Mr. Annan's response will be to convene a group of top managers and invite staff members to speak out. At some point they'll probably issue another report, and then everyone can do it all again.

This is of course just one of the U.N.'s various investigations into itself. Right now there is a set of them so convoluted they ought to be appended to the Kama Sutra (including, of course, the investigations into sexual harassment). Best known this season is the investigation into Oil for Food, led by former Fed chairman Paul Volcker--lacking power of subpoena, and, according to a recent column by William Safire, lacking the necessary budget and roster of professional staff. Mr. Volcker's team, facing the job of tracing the U.N.'s role in Saddam's global web of U.N.-authorized front companies, terrorist-linked deals, bribes, kickbacks and overall network of sinister finance, is now seeking student interns for what is in fact the important and complicated job of indexing relevant press clips. Beyond that, there is an entire division of the U.N., called the Office of Internal Oversight Services, which produces in-house investigations, and has now, among other things, become the object of its own attentions. An April 14 U.N. Staff Union resolution expresses concern "over recent events regarding an OIOS investigation into its own investigators."

Does anyone see a problem here?

What's missing at the U.N. is not another survey by another consulting firm, or another 90-page report, or another investigation which serves chiefly to pre-empt criticism while fixing not much. The basic flaws are simple: Anytime you create a large institution, accord it great privileges of secrecy, give it a big budget, and have it run by someone immune from any sane standard of accountability, you are likely to get a corrupt organization. And unless the ground rules change, Mr. Annan's tactic of exhorting senior staff to be more accountable has about as much chance of success as Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts in the 1980s to fix the U.S.S.R. by telling Soviet citizens to stop drinking.

The problem with the Secretariat isn't "tone" at the top. It's accountability at the top, and secrecy throughout. Perhaps a leader with the character of a Churchill or a Reagan would be willing to address that failing directly--and put his job on the line to push for change. Mr. Annan prefers to issue reports.

Someone needs to help this institution, and it's not a consulting team hired by the same institution, nor is it a batch of investigators operating under terms defined by the U.N., nor is it a grand gathering of staff members being urged to risk reprisals by telling tales of earlier reprisals. A better place to start is the proposal by Sen. John Ensign that the U.S. withhold part of the U.N.'s budget until the institution comes clean on Oil for Food. Better yet would be to tackle the system that engendered Oil for Food. To do that would probably require setting up a competing international institution, based on openness and accountability--and give the U.N. a run for its money. For now, I'm working around to the belief that in the matter of reforming the U.N., the only thing worse than having the U.N. ignore a problem is to have the U.N. investigate it.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal Europe on June 16, 2004.