At the UN in New York, I once had a boss who, whenever she had to take a personal trip back to Africa, found a conference to attend. The UN then paid for her business class flights between New York and Dakar, for instance, and gave her a travel allowance. She kept the mileage.
One Saturday, she called me on her way to the airport. She said I needed to find her another flight because she was running late. When I called her back with new flight details — 40 minutes and a thousand dollars later — she told me she managed to check in and hung up.
Knowing the pompous squandering of public resources that go on inside the UN, I cannot entirely refute the cynical comment that the UN takes money from poor people in rich countries and gives it to rich people in poor countries.
What I can say is that there are insiders dedicated to promoting the universal values of the United Nations. I can also say that the UN should do housecleaning of its own, as it urges others to up the ante in their fight against corruption.
My boss, an associate director, earned about $143,000 annually. She received an additional $65,000 cost-of-living pay, which ensures the same purchasing power worldwide. The UN paid for up to 40% of her $4,000 rent, 75% of her son’s tuition and her trips to home country every two years.
Between 2002 and 2011, the UN’s core budget grew from $2.89 billion to $5.37 billion (the United States pays 22% of this). The largest share was personnel costs.
The UN pay dates back to 1921 when the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor, decided its staff should be paid the same as the highest paid national civil servants. They believed this would attract the best and the brightest. Since then, an independent commission tasked with setting salaries of international civil servants has used the U.S. federal pay as a keystone.
Last year, as pay freezes continued for U.S. federal employees, some 4,800 New York-based UN staff received a three-percent pay raise. When Joseph Torsella, Washington’s envoy for UN reform, called for the “inappropriate” salary hike to be rescinded, the independent commission responded by ratcheting up salaries in Geneva, Rome, Paris, London, Tokyo and a score of other cities.
An acquaintance of mine at the UN maritime agency in London told me her salary went up twice in less than a year. Yet she does not have the funds to fill the vacancies in her department.
Presently at 130% of U.S. civil service salary, the UN wage is seriously inflated. This is out of touch with reality, and it has not proved successful in recruiting or retaining talent. On the contrary, it has become a magnet for those who want a UN job only because it pays well.
The UN salaries should be reset to reflect staff members’ performance, rather than nationality or sex, even if that means less than perfect representation.
One problem of performance is directly related to the organization’s ominous one-year contracts, renewed yearly “subject to funding availability.” In the absence of job security, employees are naturally more focused on keeping their job, rather than producing results. The duration of contracts must be extended to at least two years. And meaningful performance-evaluation tools need to be put in place.
The cost-of-living pay has to be slashed. Instead, resources should be redirected to improving training and prospects for career development.
Additionally, the UN agencies should decide for themselves whether a pay raise is appropriate given their financial situation. A 15-person commission sitting in New York should not be determining salaries for UN agencies in other continents.
Given the dismal success rates (and emotional baggage) of past attempts, introducing any change at the UN seems impossible. Conflicting national interests and grotesque administrative procedures have time and again thwarted such initiatives.
Root-and-branch reformers insist only a fundamental change can save the UN. The ongoing conservative politicians’ threat to withhold all American contributions until they could be made voluntarily is an ultimatum along the same line that does not address the deep-seated institutional problems.
The UN will not collapse, nor are radical reforms possible. The solution is a modest but gradual change that can enable the organization to do more with less.
Such incremental improvements are not impossible. The UN has agreed to cut its biennial core budget from $5.37 billion to $5.15 billion. This 5%, only the second spending cut in 50 years, translates into $100 million of taxpayers’ budget, according to Torsella. The UN’s embattled office of oversight has begun to post audit findings on the web. Several other UN agencies are following suit.
I left the UN a year ago and now work for an intergovernmental organization in London. While it is not part of the UN system, it is on the same pay scale — and it is in a desperate need for some serious housecleaning just like the UN. For starters, it will separate the hard-working professionals from those who work the system to serve their own interests.
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