A few years ago there were regular stories about the US failing to pay their full UN dues; the Senate refused to authorise the payments because of perceived waste on the part of the UN. In a bit of knee-jerk anti-Americanism I used to think this was a perfect example of the US refusing to play by international rules (also e.g. refusing to sign up to the ICC). Now I am not so sure. I suspect that many of the Senate’s objections were based on conservative ideologies with which I have little truck, but I do question why much of the UN system exists, and now I note that the new UK government has similar concerns.
My view is this; the UN is an incredibly important institution for international peace, law and order. If the UN did not exist we would have to invent it or something very similar. And much as some American libertarians may object, I think they should be as subject to international norms as everyone else. However, although the UN is hardly a perfectly equitable structure, it’s founding principles are about giving everyone (or at least every country) a voice and a stake. It is, by its own definition, far from a meritocratic institution.
I have never worked for any UN institution, but I have plenty of friends who have, and they all complain about stifling bureaucracy and a hideously inefficient organisation. Kofi Annan carried out various reforms which I am lead to believe improved things significantly, but there are still far too many time wasters and placemen from UN member countries whose paper qualifications somewhat flatter their actual abilities. Of course not all UN agency staff are a waste of space, but enough are to significantly hinder their operational effect. There are apparently more UN development agencies than there are developing countries! (HT: Owen Barder, see also Aid Watch.)
The Economist made an interesting argument (sorry no link) that bilateral agencies should get out of much of direct aid management, thus simplifying aid delivery for over-stretched recipient country governments, and let experts from the World Bank do it. I agree completely except that the World Bank’s record on many development projects is abysmal. (I am not in a position to comment on the Bank’s other functions at macroeconomic level and supporting the finances of developing countries.)
Bill Easterly has called for a more market oriented approach to aid and development, and I think this is part of the solution. Massive, non-meritocratic, inefficient UN behemoths should get out of the way, and let smaller, nimbler actors who can actually deliver change in the field take over. Not all will succeed, but we need to allow for failure.
There is a joke here that upon returning from any business trip UN staff must fill out a trip report, the obligatory first sentence of which is “The trip was a success.” The UNDP and its brethren have not been a success. Some international political oversight is useful and needed, not least to prod governments who may not be actually doing the best by their citizens, e.g. Sudan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe. But not running the projects for which they clearly lack the management nous.