The United Nations (UN) will turn 70 in October 2015. It has surely delivered enormously to humanity since it began in 1915. However, is it well positioned to take on the world’s current and future challenges? In an article published on 12 May 2015, Ian Richards, President of the Coordination Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations at the UN in Geneva, expressed his doubts.
Too scared of failure, overly centralised, ageing
In the article on the Inter Press Service (IPS), Richards said the UN “has become an organisation too scared of failure, overly centralised, ageing and unsuited to operating in conflicts where our blue flag is seen as a target rather than a shield.” In addition, Richards is not convinced that Ban Ki-moon’s current reforms will make it any easier for staff to help the UN achieve its goals.
Where are the young people?
On 2 February 2015, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, told a Youth Forum at UN Headquarters in New York to get involved in shaping a future sustainable development agenda. Later he added “that it is time now to see this huge cohort (of young people) as a force of change that harbours the ingenuity and creativity to help solve the world’s most daunting challenges.“
In contrast to these exaltations, only 0.3% of UN staff are aged between 18 and 24, according to Richards. This figure reflects 2004 numbers showing that only 0.3% of UN professional staff were under 30 years old.
Don’t fail here
Pinned to many office walls in Silicon Valley you’ll find the mantra: “fail fast, fail often”. This culture has contributed to huge innovation and technological progress that most of us have benefited from.
Rejoicing failure is now a well established part of Silicon Valley culture and has produced organisations such as Failcon, a series of global conferences with the tag line: “Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it”.
“UN staff are brimming with ideas but centralised bureaucracy and a culture unsupportive of risk taking, and the failure it entails, means most won’t see the light of day”, said Richards in the same article on IPS.
There are growing numbers of social entrepreneurs operating independently of large organisations such as the UN. This independence offers freedom to experiment and fail as well as recognition for success. This model could already be drawing the most talented socially minded youth, challenging the UN as a crucible for social innovation and progress.
Show us your losers
Progress starts with political institutions that support creative destruction, a process where change inflicts losses on incumbents in favour of overall progress, argue the authors of the book Why Nations Fail. Eighteenth century England saw a new law that broke the monopoly enjoyed by the wool industry. This allowed cotton and linen weavers to compete with woollen textiles. It also inflicted huge losses on the highly protected wool industry, but paved the way for a period of unprecedented innovation and progress that eventually benefited global society as a whole – many new winners emerged at the expense of a few incumbents.
At the same time in continental Europe, those controlling protected monopolies prevailed. There was little creative destruction and none of the same social and economic progress seen in England during the same period. Most of the population remained suppressed by an elite, unmotivated and unable to progress.
Political progress in large organisations such as the UN will create losers in the same way that it did in eighteenth century England and does in business in the pluralistic societies of today. Incumbent losers are part of progress and their absence a sign of little evolution.
The need to include outsiders
Inclusiveness and a level playing field is another key ingredient of progress. When former political outsiders, English cotton and linen weavers were included in the political process, England leapt forward.
Edward Girardet describes the UN’s political outsiders when he highlights the precarious existence of the many contractors at the UN. According to an internal document procured by the Swiss newspaper, Le Temps, nearly 40% of those working with the UN and its agencies are hired on short-term or “non-staff” contracts and are sometimes only told on a Friday that their contract will be renewed Monday.
This large group of UN contractors cannot be expected to take risks and innovate when they sit precariously outside the UN’s political process. A risk followed by failure could mean the end your contract.
Taking inspiration from outside
In another article Edward Girardet, former Editor of Le News, quotes Michael Møller, the Danish diplomat, former aid worker and head of the UN in Geneva saying “We need to act together to put a spotlight on the extraordinary things that this (Geneva) region represents and their impact on the planet.” He would like to see a vibrant new International Geneva that includes not only the UN agencies and NGOS, but also multi-national corporations, Swiss businesses, donors and the local population.
Perhaps an external search for inspiration should include independent social, business and technology entrepreneurs. Their experience and attitudes to risk taking could be of enormous value to the UN. A more politically inclusive system for UN contractors, enabling them to take risks and innovate could be put on the table as well. Like England’s eighteenth century linen and cotton weavers, who took on the wool monopoly and won, greater inclusion of political outsiders could drive the UN’s evolution by bringing about the creative destruction so prized by those failure-loving agents of progress: entrepreneurs.
The U.N. at 70: Risk Averse, Unsafe and Too Old (Inter Press Service – in English)
‘2015 is a chance to change history,’ Ban tells UN Youth Forum (UN news service – in English)
Use of non-staff personnel in the United Nations (UN Joint inspection Unit – Geneva 2014 – in English)