The UN’s Alphabet Soup of Entities

by Kenneth Anderson

(Amended:  Kevin suggests in the comments that this is a cheap shot at the UN, and after sleeping on it, I agree.  I’ve amended it, but in case anyone wants to see what Kevin is objecting to – and I agree he’s right that it’s unnecessary sarcasm – the original is below the fold.  I’ve amended the title as well.)

Economist blogger Emma Bond quotes an email (including the above post title) mentioning a UN entity with the following title:

Open-ended Ad Hoc Working Group of the General Assembly on the Integrated and Coordinated Implementation of and Follow-up to the Major United Nations Conferences and Summits in the Economic and Social Fields

(H/T Hayes Brown and his Water’s Edge blog.)  The email is somewhat sarcastic about the oft-remarked alphabet soup of UN agencies.  But it points to another feature of the UN, often remarked upon by managerial experts at the UN itself, viz., that though there are many mechanisms for creating agencies and entities, it has far fewer mechanisms for eliminating them once created, whether because the original purpose has gone away, the functions performed by one actor duplicate those of another or have been absorbed, or because whether the function is useful or not, it should be eliminated to free up resources for other things.  While this is generally true of national governments, particularly large ones, the highly diffuse nature of the UN and its institutions, along with many vested interests – some national and some internal to the UN itself – makes the problem more intractable.

It is not an irrelevant question at the moment, however, given the increasing pressures on the UN budget (rather budgets, given that peacekeeping, in particular, is larger than the mandated UN budget) with developed world governments in difficult times.  Budget negotiations over the general budget were strained this cycle, as even the Europeans, for obvious reasons, pressed to hold down budgets – but at the same time budgets have been creeping up.  Budget negotiations over the peacekeeping budget were just wrapped up a few days ago, and likewise showed the strain of increased pressure to do more peacekeeping – particularly given that it is widely perceived as a useful and fairly effective activity, despite the problems with procurement corruption scandals, sexual abuses by peacekeeping forces, and other questions of operations management – at a time when developed countries are under fiscal pressures.

One suggestion I make in my book, Living with the UN – one that is also frequently heard among UN efficiency experts inside the organization or hired to consult to it – is that the UN simply ratchet down the number of conferences, international meetings, roadshow events taking place in places other than the UN’s existing centers.  They are expensive and it is unclear what the long run value is as compared to simply undertaking the activity in existing venues, and often using existing processes.  I suggest that the US adopt this as policy and simply announce that it is going for a moratorium on international conferences in favor of undertaking the actual negotiations giving rise to the conference in the venues and processes already existing.  Pretty obviously, this is not a suggestion that is going anywhere, but it points to the difficulties in forcing highly diffuse UN agencies to have to make internal tradeoffs over scarce internal resources.

That’s not me talking in the post title, it’s Economist blogger Emma Bond, writing on her Tumbler blog about a friend’s email, which makes note of the following UN entity:

Open-ended Ad Hoc Working Group of the General Assembly on the Integrated and Coordinated Implementation of and Follow-up to the Major United Nations Conferences and Summits in the Economic and Social Fields

(H/T to the inimitable Hayes Brown and his UN blog.) I haven’t been blogging much on account of some family stuff, but … this is why You Need to Read My Book, Living With the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order.  Among other things, the book recommends that the US simply skip all the UN conference roadshows and urge instead that their matters be taken up in the course of ordinary business.  (I’ve posted the first three chapters as a sample up at SSRN, here.)

5 Responses

  1. With due respect, this is a cheap shot, one that is unlikely to attract readers to your book who don’t reflexively hate the UN.  You might have pointed out that the group — which was designed to coordinate the results of conferences involving development goals — was created nearly a decade ago.  And how is the group’s name any less absurd than, say, “the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Ad Hoc Subcommittee on State, Local, and Private Sector Preparedness and Integration”?  Or “the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Co-Mingling Of Defense and Commercial Waste”? Or “the Committee on Agriculture Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Grain Elevator Bankruptcy”?  Governments and organizations create committees with silly names.  That’s not news.

  2. Thanks — now I’ll read the book… 🙂

  3. (I actually intend to.  That wasn’t sarcasm.)

  4. I think this is just a rail against bureaucracy and bureaucracy is endemic to institutions.

  5. Nope – you were right, it was snarky.  However, be warned … The book is snarky too; it’s aimed at a general audience, it’s not academic, and a dear friend said, you have written a book only John Bolton could love.  Hold off buying it, though, I’m trying to get the press folks to send around comp copies to OJers.

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