WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- Those responsible for the creation of the United Nations conglomerate were idealists, intent on seeking to avoid another international conflict.
They succeeded in the conventional sense. The prospect of another conventional world war is remote, though regional and intercontinental conflicts continue and groups like al-Qaida -- not specifically nation-states though tied to one or more of them -- have emerged to fight a global war against the values and the systems of pluralist democracies.
The Peoples Republic of China is seeking to create a self-perpetuating super state independent of the people as a means of securing its interests. The PRC is supporting a slew of similarly authoritarian structures across the world with missile and nuclear technology.
Several democracies are having to battle against insurgencies and terrorism while AIDS has replaced tuberculosis as the primary killer of the world's poor.
What are the conflicts that the UN has succeeded in preventing?
The threshold of effectiveness appears low. In a few instances the UN system as such -- as distinct from the actions of a few of its member states -- was able to prevent a conflict or stop it once begun. The organization's principal value has been as a talking shop, a pulpit for the preaching of verities. Much of the "work" of the several thousand functionaries is comprised of going from one meeting to the other, organizing yet another "talk-a-thon" after getting through several.
Stripped of verbiage, the UN has value only as a clearinghouse of concepts and policies. It has value in a world in which several countries are below the radar of the attention of the powerful. If there were no United Nations, it would need to be invented -- but not along the lines of how the current organization as taken shape.
The first mistake made by those who midwifed the UN system was the belief that the higher the remuneration, the better the quality of both planning and implementation.
The result of this approach has been the creation of a bureaucracy that is the highest-paid in the world, subject to no local taxes, and enjoying pension and other benefits that match the standards of top corporations.
The difference is that corporations are accountable to shareholders and have clear benchmarks to achieve. Those in the UN system do not face similar tests. Each botched-up crisis is seen as an opportunity for an expansion in manpower and a further flurry of "consultations" and "meetings."
Those for whom a paycheck is the primary motivation are not the people with the mindset needed to wade through the swamps in order to fix matters on the ground. It is a travesty of the truth to say that the best -- including in the developed world -- will not volunteer unless they are paid princely sums.
Several NGOs and the examples of numerous individuals who have forsaken comfort in the United States and Europe to work in Asia and Africa give the lie to the basic foundation of the UN system: that money is all.
The first step in UN reform would be to bring salaries to an international average, which would be around 40 percent of present levels. Those unwilling to make such a transition should be cheerfully allowed to depart. There is something obscene in those with Super First World salaries lecturing about poverty alleviation
A concurrent step would be to shift UN offices away from the developed world into locations that are more representative of the problems that the organization is expected to address.
A suggested location for the UN headquarters is Ethiopia.
The building of this can be financed from the money raised through the sale of the properties in New York now owned by the UN. In fact, even the sale of UN assets in Paris or Geneva would be sufficient to construct a complex that would meet all the operational needs of the staff now quartered in some of the most expensive cities in the world.
Once the UN headquarters has shifted to Ethiopia, or to a similar location, the properties in New York can be sold and the money used as a fund that can finance projects for health, education and economic empowerment, especially of women.
The lower costs of salaries and the cheaper rates in the new headquarters would free larger sums of money for activities other than meeting payrolls and pensions
While the UN headquarters can function from a location in Ethiopia that has been made secure and which has its own transport links, other UN agencies can get relocated to countries such as Sri Lanka and Egypt.
The United Nations has a large number of affiliated agencies, such as the IAEA, UNICEF, UNHCR, WHO, FAO, ILO and the World Bank group. These can get shifted from their pricey first world locations to more affordable facilities in the countries and regions that really need attention. While Vienna, Paris, Geneva and New York definitely have problems, these have not yet reached the scale of what the people in Mexico City, Calcutta and Cairo face everyday.
Sadly, thanks to the affluence of their surroundings, the UN's personnel find themselves separated from the ground realities that they have been mandated to address.
The UN General Assembly would function as it does now, when most of the permanent representatives go shopping or indulge in other useful activity while presidents, prime ministers and potentates give speeches alleged to be important.
The permanent membership of the UN Security Council would be expanded from five to ten with the inclusion of Germany, Japan, Brazil, India and South Africa, with the same rights and functions as the current permanent five.
Instead of 10 non-permanent members lacking veto power, there would be 20, selected by rotation from each of the members of the General Assembly save those already on the security council, each serving a term of three months.
In this way, over the course of two years, almost every member of the U.N. would have the privilege of joining in the discussions around the table. There would be room for all, rather than the few who today repeatedly get themselves re-elected to the non-permanent seats in the U.N. Security Council.
As for the U.N. bureaucracy, this is today a potpourri of individuals from widely different countries and systems across the world.
Thanks to the astronomical (by international averages) salaries paid to UN staff, there is a scramble among officials in the developing world to sign up, at least for a few years. Most of the time of these worthies gets expended in finding permanent jobs in Europe or the U.S., and in getting their children through school and college in these locations
What is needed is for the United Nations to be staffed by its own dedicated cohort, chosen through competitive examinations open to the citizens of the member-states.
The best of these can then be selected for a training program. At its conclusion, they will be moved into the UN as part of a team of dedicated international civil servants willing to work in the third world in modest surroundings rather than in the comparative comfort and opulence of the first world.
Thus far, every one of the "suggestions" that are being made for UN reform merely nibble around the edges. What is needed is for a comprehensive makeover. Otherwise the UN will remain a costly burden on taxpayers across the world, an institution whose primary task is to perpetuate the elitist conditions in which its officials function.
-- M.D. Nalapat is professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India.