Bloated UN bureaucracy bewildering

When Bolivia wanted a list of standards drawn up for the trade in llama and alpaca meat, it turned to an unlikely source: the UN Economic Commission for Europe.

This little-known body, based in Geneva, published a report in 2008 offering global norms for the fat thickness and trimming of llama cuts, and the means of avoiding “ragged edges” and ensuring that “cross-sectional surfaces” form approximate right angles with the skin surface.

It also offered a colour gauge for in-shell walnuts and walnut kernels, and recently a glossy 75-page brochure on red and green peppers, highlighting product characteristics for food traders to avoid, like mold or discolouration.

The United Nations is widely known for functions like peacekeeping, health programmes, refugee support and the International Court of Justice. But those are just a part of its bureaucracy, whose size and structure still bewilder many of its own employees.

There are five big centres — New York, Geneva, Rome, Vienna and Nairobi — and numerous smaller ones. In Geneva alone, the United Nations held 10,000 meetings in 2009, offered 632 training workshops and translated 220,000 pages of documents for its yearbooks, reports, and working papers.

But in these difficult economic times, as many countries reduce their own services, critics are asking whether there is a case for putting this army of civil servants to work in a smarter, more streamlined manner.

“There’s huge redundancy and lack of efficiency,” said Mark Malloch Brown, deputy in 2006 to the secretary general at the time, Kofi Annan, “but it’s entirely the making of the member states, who want to pass certain resolutions and demand certain papers.”

There appears little prospect of genuine overhaul soon, given its size, the competing interests of its 192 member states, and the fact that the worst of the financial crisis may be over.

The frustration is often most pointed among those with exposure to the private sector, like Jean-Pierre Lehmann, professor of international political economy at the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“Generally, the UN has been a terrible disappointment compared to the ideals with which it was established” after World War II, he said. “It serves as a gravy train for a very bloated employment system, and, yes, there is huge overlap between the agencies.”

The United Nations itself is broadly divided into six parts.

Latest UN figures show it employs about 75,000 people, including those in related agencies, under a $5 billion annual budget. This excludes its 16 peacekeeping operations and the cost of several agencies financed by voluntary contributions from member states. Mr. Malloch Brown, chairman of global affairs at FTI Consulting in London, estimates the real annual budget is about $20 billion when all funds and programmes are included.