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UN Week – 10/30/11

This blog entry is written by members of our blogging community and expresses those experts’ views alone.

by John and Douglas Carey www.unweek.blogspot.com

Contents of this issue: more US calls for UN budget discipline.

          On October 27th, US Ambassador Joseph M. Torsella told the General Assembly’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee that he welcomed “the comments made regarding transparency by the Group of 77 and China and their joining us in our efforts to . . . operate in a fully transparent and open manner by taking the important step of webcasting our public sessions, making us more effective advocates for the taxpayers to whom we are all ultimately accountable. We enthusiastically join their call for webcasting all formal sessions of the Committee and applaud their leadership on this issue.”

          Torsella commended the Secretary-General, who “took a bold first step—and some political heat—in calling for United Nations managers to tighten their belts. We applaud him for seeking to halt a ten-year trend of budget increases, and for courageously telling this organization not what it wants to hear but what it needs to hear: these are not ordinary times.

“We see innovation: the Department of Public Information proposes to spend about $5 million dollars less than it did in 2010-2011 by introducing modern information management technologies, making wider use of the Internet and social media, and deploying online reporting and management tools.

“And we see what good, entrepreneurial management can look like at the United Nations. We heard in the Committee on Conferences that, since 2009, the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) has reduced the number of pages printed by the United Nations by 65 percent. That means that DGACM has saved, on an annual basis, a pile of paper 49 times the height of the Secretariat building. We need to look no further than that pile of paper to know that reducing resources does not mean compromising mandates: the United Nations, like any organization, can always do more with less. And doing so unleashes a cycle of creativity and dynamism, innovation and renewal. * * *

“Our first and most urgent task is to set the United Nations on the path of real fiscal discipline in the 2012-13 budget. * * * Doing that will require, above all, tackling personnel costs, which have dramatically increased over the past decade. As the ACABQ report points out, 74 cents out of every dollar the United Nations spends is related to personnel costs.

“The United States therefore calls for a freeze on pay for United Nations staff while the comparator salaries, those of the United States federal civil service, are frozen. We also repeat our call for repealing the nearly 3 percent raise given to New York based employees through the cost of living adjustment in August, and we urge the General Assembly to act on this matter. Many Member States, governments, businesses and NGOs have implemented total or partial hiring freezes on vacancies resulting from attrition, and in these difficult times the United Nations should do the same. Moreover, posts that have been persistently vacant over long periods should be abolished. The disturbing trend toward upward re-classification of posts identified by ACABQ should be reversed: the budget before us proposes upward reclassification of 55 posts—more than double the 27 reclassifications contained in the proposed program budgets for the past three biennia combined. Few of these reclassifications should be approved. Furthermore, we call on the Secretariat to comprehensively review all current employee benefit programs and costs, including health care, pension, leave, and travel policies. * * *

“Our second task is to ensure that the budget we pass is in fact a binding budget, and prevents the United Nations from spending more than we actually approve this fall. We continue to be disappointed and concerned that every year Member States are presented a significant number of add-ons at considerable cost that in some cases are not mandated, in many cases can be foreseen, and in all cases should be better managed. Budgets are not suggestions. The United Nations must strictly adhere to the principles reflected in resolutions 41/213 and 42/211 that call for new proposals to be ‘budget neutral’ or offset with savings within the approved budget. And we, as Member States, must ensure that the Secretary-General has the tools to enforce these policies.

“We also continue to be concerned that the large additions to budget requests stemming from ‘re-costing.’ While we recognize the organization needs some ability to protect itself from inflation and currency fluctuations, there are better ways to achieve that protection than passing a budget with blanks instead of numbers and regularly adding new funds to it. We continue to seek further details and analysis from the Secretariat—as soon as possible—on options, such as currency hedging, to deal with this issue. We should leave here with the confidence that we’ve approved a final budget, not a first draft.

“Our third and final task is to make this the last year we deal with a budget under the current rules, by reforming the budget process itself.

“As the United Stateshas said before, the United Nations’s budget is too complex and opaque, and it is built around the wrong measures. Paradoxically, there is too much data, and too little useful information. Readers of United Nations budget documents, for example, will search in vain for the actual travel budget by department or the cost of employee healthcare. But they can easily find the precise number of policy papers issued by any number of the executive committees, as if the number of papers itself is a meaningful measure of accomplishment. * * *

“And finally, we need to reexamine how managers build the United Nations budget in the first place. It is striking that each budget begins with the prior budget’s appropriation. We are caught in a perpetual exercise of adding to the previous biennium’s budget appropriation with the assumption that all previous mandates should be met in the same way and at the same funding level and every new mandate requires new resources. This premise is flawed. The fundamental reality is that resources do not equal results. No organization can work effectively without prioritizing to bridge the gap between limited resources on the one hand and ambitious goals on the other. That’s a conversation held daily in most governments, businesses and families; it should be held more frequently here at the United Nations and in the Fifth Committee.

“Three tasks. A 2012-13 budget that represents a significant and sustainable belt-tightening from 2010-2011. A 2012-13 budget that is in fact final, comprehensive, and stable for the full biennium. And reform of the budget process this year so that United Nations budgets in future years will be prepared, presented and debated very differently. If we do those three things, Mr. Chairman, we will indeed have seized this opportunity.”

That’s all for this October 31st issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. We’ll be back with the next issue. Meantime, send along your own views on UN-related issues to www.unweek.blogspot.com

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