28/09/2017 08:00 BST | Updated 28/09/2017 08:00 BST

If Trump Wants To Reform The United Nations For The Better, Here's What He Could Do

Joshua Roberts / Reuters


"The United Nations has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement," said Donald Trump last week in New York, flanked by 120 world leaders at the organization's annual get-together.

He proceeded to call on the U.N. to "hold every level of management accountable, protect whistle-blowers and focus on results rather than on process."

The remarks were made at a special meeting on U.N. reform, convened by him the day before he spoke at the General Assembly. That a U.S. president should take an interest in the subject is unprecedented but should also not be a lost opportunity. My colleagues at the U.N. are watching this closely.

These colleagues, who join from around the world, are talented, determined and diverse. But years of management reforms, seemingly well-intentioned at the time, have only succeeded in making it harder for staff and their managers to do their job. Further, a series of cost-cutting measures, pushed by major contributing countries, have now discouraged many staff from deploying to frontline crises.

Why does this matter? Because last week we heard presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens calling for the U.N. to get more involved in resolving conflicts, protect human rights, and deal with climate change. Getting the best staff to the right place on time is clearly important.

Trump could therefore start by getting to grips with the U.N.'s staff rules, which even its Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has criticized, saying at the same event: "someone out to undermine the U.N. could not have come up with a better way to do it than by imposing some of the rules we have created ourselves." He added that the organization's "endless red tape" and "byzantine procedures" kept him up at night.

Currently, managers wanting to appoint a staff member within the same rank to another peacekeeping mission or human rights commission of inquiry, cannot just move them. They must take the process through a job board in New York that meets once to twice a year. The last time it met, in July 2016, it was only able to move 22 of the 241 staff that wanted a new assignment.

Managers are also threatened with sanctions if they don't increase female representation in their departments by five percentage points a year. But with the U.N. forecasting retirements at a rate of 0.5 percent a year, there simply aren't enough positions freeing up in the medium term for this well-meant target to be met. As an unforeseen side-effect, it would also prevent the promotion and recruitment of men to many parts of the U.N. for up to ten years.

Last week at the General Assembly I heard the U.N.'s leaders talk about how the organization needed to better understand and exploit the potential of blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies to transform development country economies. Excluding half the world's population from this task might not be the wisest course of action.

If the U.N. wants to make a meaningful difference to gender representation within its ranks it could also commit much-needed resources to understanding and tackling problems such as a third of the workforce being on contracts with no maternity leave (a proportion that is on the increase), no paid childcare, biased attitudes among some managers, inadequate work-life balance and poorly trained job interview panels. The list is long.

With 90 percent of staff now working in field locations, many of them quite dangerous, getting the best person to the right place also means looking after staff welfare. In Yemen, staff bringing much-needed humanitarian aid have reported being regularly and illegally detained by the provisional government authorities. In Mali, U.N. facilities been attacked on an almost monthly basis.

Following a decision by the U.N.'s salary-setting body, described by the U.N.'s own statisticians in an official report as "statistically biased", frontline colleagues are likely to receive significant pay cuts as well. This comes on top of attempts to put more field staff on temporary contracts with lower compensation and job security, and a decision to slash an allowance that allowed staff working in locations where they couldn't bring their families to pay to house their families somewhere safe.

The U.N.'s business model largely driven by providing peacekeeping and humanitarian crisis coordination in places that many governments fear to tread. Such austerity-inspired cuts, along with under-funded staff safety and security, are at best short-sighted, and at worst damaging to the sustainability of the U.N.'s field operations.

Success in peacekeeping also means winning the confidence of those populations it is paid to help; a job not made easy by recently reported scandals involving the rape of women and children by peacekeeping troops from national governments.

The U.N. has put together a plan to tackle this problem. But it is unlikely to work if staff who witness sexual exploitation by troops are unwilling to report it for fear of retaliation. The organization's whistleblower policy has been much-criticized, most famously regarding an attempted cover-up of sexually-abused children in the Central African Republic.

In 2014 the U.S. Congress passed an appropriations act that requires the U.N. to provide access to an external body to enforce whistleblower protection. While the policy on whistleblower protection has improved, this key provision is still not in place, providing precious little reassurance to staff that they can safely report acts of sexual exploitation.

Trump's call to "hold every level of management accountable" is also important. The U.N. has over a hundred senior managers at cabinet secretary and assistant-secretary rank. Many are former diplomats. Yet, as revealed in a recent staff satisfaction survey, their performance varies enormously. The best aren't always promoted and few are ever fired.

So there is much to do. However, I am not naive. Talk of reform at the U.N. usually focuses on cost-cutting. This, after all, is the public sector in 2017. And nine years after the financial crash, austerity still seems to be in fashion.

But I hope that President Trump, returning to Washington from a few busy days at the U.N., will also consider how he can empower its staff with policies that reward hard work, while making sure the organization quickly gets the best to where they are most needed.