U.N. staffer quits with searing condemnation of bureaucratic ‘black hole’

The U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, July 2013. (UN Photo/Blagoje Grujic)

Outgoing U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Banbury penned an OpEd in the New York Times describing the body as a failure due to ‘colossal mismanagement.’ It describes the maddeningly slow process in the U.N. to do simple things like hire new staff and more complex things like respond to emerging crises.

Banbury knows the challenges firsthand having recently served as the head of the U.N. mission to combat the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Accusations that the U.N. is slow and inefficient are not new, but coming from a former high-level staffer the descriptions carry greater weight. Especially when Banbury takes extra care to describe just how bad things were when he took the assistant secretary-general post six years ago.

“I was unprepared for the blur of Orwellian admonitions and Carrollian logic that govern the place,” he wrote. “If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result. The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again.”

On average, it takes 213 days to recruit someone to join the U.N. Banbury says that it makes it difficult to attract the most-talented people, particularly in an emergency. He describes how he struggled to get qualified people on the ground during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. One colleague was held up for weeks as she waited for new health forms to be processed. Banbury admits that he had to break some rules in order to get things done.

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The office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon defended the body against Banbury’s OpEd. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric conceded that efforts are under way to modernize the U.N. system so that it is up to date, but attributed many of the challenges to growing pains and the need to have “proper check and balances” when hiring new staff.

“Reforming an organization … whose rules were designed really for a talk shop in 1945 and transforming them into a much more field‑oriented, service‑oriented, action‑oriented organization is a complicated process when you’re dealing with an organization as complex and as far‑reaching as the United Nations,” said Dujarric, in a press briefing. “I think no one is more committed to modernizing the United Nations than the secretary‑general himself.”

Banbury paints a very different picture. He cites the U.N.’s response in Mali after a coup removed the government as their “most grievous blunder.” The 10,000 soldiers deployed by the U.N. were not equipped to deal with counterterrorism and were instructed not to engage in it while an al-Qaida-linked group was launching attacks in the north of the country.

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Worse yet is the Central African Republic. The ouster of the government led to violence across the country over the past few years. Foreign troops and U.N. peacekeepers meant to quell the fighting and provide protection to civilians have been accused of various incidents of rape and sexual assaults. The inclusion of peacekeeping units with a history of human rights violations is an example of the gross negligence witnessed by Banbury.

All of the points are framed in an argument about the future of the U.N. This year, member nations will vote on the person who will take up the position of secretary-general. That person must reform an organization that is a “Remington typewriter in a smartphone world,” argues Banbury. Decisions made and structures erected should all flow towards the mission of humanitarian assistance and security.

“I am hardly the first to warn that the United Nations bureaucracy is getting in the way of its peacekeeping effort,” he writes. “But too often, these criticisms come from people who think the United Nations is doomed to fail. I come at it from a different angle: I believe that for the world’s sake we must make the United Nations succeed.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.