Three Simple Fixes for the Next 70 Years

©UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

In 2014 I celebrated the 69th birthday of the United Nations in a temple in Bhutan. Speaking to an audience of monks, ministers and staff, the United Nations Country Representative to this mountain kingdom in the Himalayas described how the global Organization had helped set up the country’s first airline and had at one time fed a large part of its population.

Bhutan isn’t the only country to have benefited from the United Nations presence.

During South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994, many of my colleagues were deployed as monitors, helping to ensure a free and fair result. It was a highlight of their career.

More recently in Guatemala, a team of two United Nations staff members installed a website (, to allow entrepreneurs to officially register their businesses online, avoiding long journeys and queues in government offices. In the space of two years, over 3,000 businesses had been established through the service and the country jumped from 172 to 98 in the relevant Doing Business rankings.

These are some examples, and there are many more, of achievements for which United Nations staff members can be proud, and which to citizens, voters and entrepreneurs across the world show the United Nations at its best.

The United Nations first 70 years have certainly been productive, though not perfect.

The next big test for our Organization is a newly agreed set of targets called the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Over the next 15 years, they aim to eradicate extreme poverty, fight climate change, prevent conflicts and protect those caught in the crossfire.

Tasked with reaching those goals are my colleagues, the Organization’s 75,000 staff members. Many are hard-working, smart and well-intentioned. But the Organization we work for belongs to an era when politics mattered more than results.

In 2015, at the 70th anniversary of the birth of the United Nations, it is time to change that and to create a workplace in which talent, skill and determination can translate more easily into meaningful results. Here are some thoughts how.

Firstly, recruit some younger staff. The average age of staff members recruited to the United Nations is 41. Three per cent of United Nations staff positions are at the graduate entry grade called P-2 and only 0.3 per cent of all staff are aged under 25. Mid-career experience from outside can be useful, and there is no reason for good staff to have to retire at 62. But by reducing junior posts during cutbacks and adding senior posts in times of growth, the United Nations effectively cuts itself off from recent university graduates.

Between 2015 and 2030, the deadline for reaching the SDGs, the United Nations will not benefit from the latest means of mastering information technology and analysing big data. It will also lack the institutional skills to communicate with the 15 to 25 age group, which makes up a third of the world’s population and whose restlessness the United Nations has linked to the current rise in political conflict.

Yet managers still need younger staff, so they fill the gap with consultancy contracts. According to the United Nations internal review body, the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), 45 per cent of the work force across the UN common system serves as consultants, including in administration. Not only does this reduce the professionalization of staff, it also, according to the JIU, brings “reputational risks, high turnover, a lack of stable and motivated personnel and a potential increase in legal challenges”. Furthermore, it puts the United Nations on the wrong side of youth unemployment. So next time new posts are created, let’s make sure they are at the junior level, not the senior level. Member States will also appreciate the lighter bill.

Secondly, make promotion depend on good performance. Under the United Nations current rules, outside candidates must have the same access to advertised United Nations vacancies as staff members—we are probably the only large organization that has such a policy. To ensure equal consideration of internal and external candidates, the United Nations has decided that performance grades, which could favour a good internal candidate, should be excluded from consideration.

With performance and competence now counting less than other factors, a disappointingly large number of staff and outside candidates enlist their ambassadors and foreign ministries to lobby hiring managers on their behalf. The results are predictable. At best frustrated colleagues with no career prospects; at worst an organization exposed to serious operational risks when, and it happens, unsuitable candidates are placed in key posts.

The answer is to rule that a staff member with a strong record of performance will be preferred over an equally qualified outsider—and what would be wrong with that? It will upset the few who unfortunately see the United Nations as a politically expedient job agency. But this must be a price worth paying if we can better motivate the staff we have to help eliminate extreme poverty.

Thirdly, improve staff safety. As the United Nations former Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, recently noted, “attacks on humanitarian workers have increased every year for more than a decade.” Twenty thousand United Nations staff now work in peacekeeping or field operations, and on average 25 die each year. Unlike military personnel, my colleagues didn’t train to fight, and are not paid on the understanding that they should lay down their lives for the United Nations flag.

Yet the United Nations now expects its staff to serve in war zones and counter-terrorism operations, in spite of the fact that it was criticized for this practice in a recent report on peacekeeping reform by José Ramos-Horta, former Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) and former president of Timor-Leste. It should therefore come as no surprise that the United Nations has become a target of Al-Qaida, Al-Shabbab and the Islamic State.

What does surprise is that these attacks, while reported, are hardly commented on. They seem almost ta ken for granted. Further, no body exists to identify the perpetrators of attacks on United Nations staff or hold them accountable. An airline losing passengers at this rate would struggle to remain in business. The United Nations has committed to “stay and deliver,” even in the most challenging environments. It should then also commit to providing the same quality of security in the field as it does at Headquarters. While United Nations security is more expensive than local private security companies, our officers come screened, trained and tested. And what’s more, a safe staff can also do more to help the most vulnerable people in the most difficult and dangerous locations.

The 70th birthday of the United Nations is an important milestone. It is in itself an achievement, and one we and Member States can be proud of. However, it’s also an occasion to rethink how we work, especially with the new goals that have been set.

Now is the time to do this and to fix things properly. Bring in younger staff, link promotion to good performance and improve the safety of our colleagues.