Interview of the month


While warning of tough times ahead, the Secretary-General welcomes greater contract security and Member States’ acceptance of the UN’s universal mandate.


It seemed an appropriate place to announce a coming age of austerity at the United Nations.
A bare stripped-out room, hurriedly converted into a makeshift office for the travelling Secretary-General and his team, replete with desk, laptop chained to a chair, a conference table with a seating plan of an earlier meeting of the inner circle, a flagpole and slightly worn out 70s furniture. From UNhere the United Nations was being run, and under the harsh glare of neon lights, aides rushed around looking for adaptors to recharge their Blackberries and keep in touch with New York.

Into this walked the Secretary-General, fresh from the Human Rights Council, and nearing a long day of meetings having landed in Geneva that morning.

With the short time available for the interview, he wasted little of it in getting to his main point, that times would be tough.

“Resources,” the Secretary-General said, “are becoming less and less while most of the countries are going through a very difficult economic and financial period. We have to adapt ourselves.” Not just because of diminishing resources, but, he added, because Member States kept asking for more.

The answer he stressed, was to work “very hard to make our Organization more efficient, accountable and effective. That is the only way we can meet the expectations of the international community.”

“This is a budget year. But the Member States will not allow a further increase in our budget. We have in the past been increasing our budget 0.5 or one percent. They have been cutting their own budgets 20 percent, 30 percent.”

“I am going to ask our staff to work with less of what we have. I need to ask for support and patience,” a prescient remark perhaps, given his subsequent request in early March for programme managers to shave three percent from their 2012-2013 budget proposals.

However, the Secretary-General pointed out, there was a silver lining to the grey cloud of austerity, which came in the form of the General Assembly’s recent approval of continuing contracts, something that the staff unions have also lobbied Member States hard to achieve. He was keen to contrast the situation now with four years ago.

“When I was first appointed as Secretary-General, I was surprised to find out that there were 11 types of contract services and it was extremely difficult to manage human resources and later on career development. So I decided to reduce and streamline this to three. The continuing contracts are the last.

This means more job security and better career development.”
The Secretary-General added that such contracts could be obtained by staff on established posts with five years of fully satisfactory service.
What though did he think of the 75 percent ceiling, which the staff unions had objected to but which certain Member States had imposed?
“This is a competitive society.” And in any case, he said, the ceiling could be entered through factors such as “good performance, mobility, language proficiencies.”

Which brought us to the subject of mobility, of which the Secretary-General, a former diplomat, has been an enthusiastic supporter; an enthusiasm not necessarily shared by all staff. Given the different occupations at the UN, we asked, could it really work across the Organization?
“Up to now,” the Secretary-General replied, “because of the very different levels of conditions of service, it has been very difficult to have an overall mobility programme implemented.”
He clarified, “There are many non-family duty stations. Depending on which department
you are in, for example in the Secretariat,
you were not given any additional allowance when working in a non-family duty station. You had to manage two places.”

“With the General Assembly approval of harmonization of conditions of service, the possibility of expanding this mobility has become greater.”
The Secretary-General was referring to the agreement by the General Assembly to increase allowances paid to Secretariat staff to run a second household. This had been approved in December at the same time as continuing contracts. But would this be enough to counter staff concerns and encourage them to change duty stations? After all, not all mobility is to non-family posts. “That is what we have been trying to promote on the basis of voluntary mobility. But it has not been as successful as expected.”

Ian Richards interviews Ban Ki-moon, Evelina Rioukhina attends the interview.

Partly to blame, the Secretary-General explained, were rules making Secretariat staff external when applying to UNICEF and UNDP; an issue that the International Civil Service Commission, which oversees our pay and conditions, is now focusing its attention on.

“We hope to be able to reduce the gap which has existed between headquarters and funds and programmes. All these kinds of entry barriers should be broken down. This is what I’m pushing very hard and with General Assembly approval, I’m sure we’ll be able to do more.”

Having discussed human resources, we moved onto the broader role of the UN in the world and its evolution in the coming years. Could the UN continue to have a leading global role given the rise of such institutions as the G20 and the World Economic Forum, which he was on his way to attend?
According to the Secretary-General, yes. “The UN role has been much appreciated recently. The UN has been in all the places where they needed help and our contribution.”
“There are of course many actors, regional, sub-regional and national. They have a limited mandate as we have seen.”

Ban Ki-moon with Ian Richards and Evelina Rioukhina

In contrast, the Secretary-General pointed out, “The UN has a universal mandate in dealing with peace and security, development and human rights,” though, he stressed, the UN could increase its effectiveness by working closely with other actors.
“I am very much pleased,” the Secretary-General announced, “that multilateralism has come back.”

It was a more upbeat ending, if only slightly. And as he got up, he noted that he was glad to have finally had the interview with UN Special. Cameras clicked and he was off to the next event, aides on the phone to New York in tow.


Evelina Rioukhina attended the interview on behalf of the Editorial Board of UN Special.
Elizabeth James contributed questions. Thanks to Lynne Goldberg, Yeocheol Yoon and Vannina Maestracci for making it possible.
Photos by Dimitri Tatarinov.

© 1949-2011 UN Special