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Pushing the "R" Word

Published by The Earth Times on 1999-01-01

Governor George E. Pataki and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani may have a thing or two to learn from Kofi Annan of Ghana, who has just won himself a heap of global headlines praising him as the new standard-bearer of the "R" word--reforms. Specifically, our less endowed New York stalwarts may have four things to learn from the UN's Secretary General:

_ How to slash bureaucracies by creating new ones. Supposedly under pressure from the United States--which, citing mismanagement at Turthe Bay, has refused to pay the UN $1.2 billion in arrears--Annan announced with great fanfare on July 16 that he was undertaking the most massive overhaul ever of the bloated bureaucracy. Annan says 1,000 jobs would be permanently eliminated. But these are slots that have gone unfilled anyway for several years now. Annan is also creating a new cabinet of about a dozen offficials to whom some 24 UN agency mandarins would report, instead of bothering the Secretary General directly. So much would such a cabinet cost? Let's see. A UN Under Secretary General pulls down about $175,000 in basic pay. Then there's typically a New York housing allowance of $25,000 annually. Then there's a provision for education of the official's children. Then there's subsidized food and drink on the UN's premises. Then there's travel by business class (and occasionally by first class). And, of course, since no high-level body can function without support staff, the Annan cabinet will have a battalion of secretaries, aides, flacks, and diplo-bouncers. Typical mid-level salary at the UN: $80,000 a year. Plus housing, plus travel, and minimal taxes.

_ How to bamboozle the media. After reading the breathless editorials in many American and international newspapers these past few days, the joke making the rounds at the UN is: "Did you read the best articles Kofi didn't get bylines for?" The Pataki and Giuliani spinmeisters are surely intrigued. When was the last time media eggheads completely misunderstood public figures' pronouncements and actually wrote uncritical essays singing praises of empty promises? Maybe it's Kofi Annan's tailored suits, or his slightly bemused demeanor, or the media savvy of his advisors who nicely wine and dine reporters, but Pataki and Giuliani have serious competition here for "media darling of the moment." Just wait until Annan gets his green card (all senior UN officials are automatically eligible for one) and you may even see a new star on our domestic political firmament.

_ How to keep friends happy. Annan says he wants a leaner, trimmer UN. Music to Jesse Helms' ears. What Helms, who has led the critics brigade in the US Senate, may not have heard is that Annan also wants to rely on the accumulated wisdom of those who have served the UN long and hard. What does that mean? Handing out consultancies, of course. Here's how the system -- of which Annan, a lifelong bureaucrat, is a recognized high priest -- works: Those who are cashiered out receive a lumpsome payment, plus annual pensions up to 80 percent of their last salaries. While the UN cannot technically re-hire retirees at full pay, it can invite them back as consultants at a maximum of $22,000 a year, plus expenses. At the New York City per diem rate, that's about $400 a day. (On assignment, many UN officials stay with friends, thereby coolly pocketing their per diems, for which no receipts are required.) The Secretary General can also authorize additional expenses. One $1-a-year advisor is reported to be making $1,000 a day in expenses--and he's been on board for two years now. Moreover, not all UN-affiliated agencies are required to adhere to the "no rehiring" rule. Thus, one retired UN official now working for an affiliate of the UN is said to be getting about $100,000 in annual pension, plus a fulltime salary of $150,000. No wonder Kofi Annan is a man known to have more friends than he can count; but they're counting all right.

_ How to be creative in your accounting. The UN budget is variously reported to be $2 billion a year, or $1.5 billion, or $3 billion. That's not including the 54 agencies and organizations attached to what's called the "UN family." Whatever the aggregate figure, the fact is that of every dollar the UN spends, up to 70 cents goes into salaries and administration, and not for grassroots development in whose name the UN gets nations to cough up money each year. Unlike Messrs. Pataki and Giuliani, Kofi Annan doesn't have to justify his budget to the public, only to the UN's incestuous General Assembly whose ambassadors spend a lot of their time trying to win post-retirement UN jobs for themselves or handsome consultancies for their cousins. There's virtually no transparency at the UN when it comes to financial matters, and little accountability.

Kofi Annan has shown that a boondoggle can be projected as an act of statesmanship. Pataki and Giuliani must be green with envy. They'd better start taking notes.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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