Rein in United Nations pay / Salaries at the world body are out of control, writes a former staffer (NEW YORK DAILY NEWS OP-ED) BY KATRIN PARK 04/28/12)
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At the UN in New York, I once had a boss who, whenever she had to
take a personal trip back to Africa, found a conference to attend.
The UN then paid for her business class flights between New York and
Dakar, for instance, and gave her a travel allowance. She kept the
One Saturday, she called me on her way to the airport. She said I
needed to find her another flight because she was running late. When
I called her back with new flight details — 40 minutes and a thousand
dollars later — she told me she managed to check in and hung up.
Knowing the pompous squandering of public resources that go on inside
the UN, I cannot entirely refute the cynical comment that the UN
takes money from poor people in rich countries and gives it to rich
people in poor countries.
What I can say is that there are insiders dedicated to promoting the
universal values of the United Nations. I can also say that the UN
should do housecleaning of its own, as it urges others to up the ante
in their fight against corruption.
My boss, an associate director, earned about $143,000 annually. She
received an additional $65,000 cost-of-living pay, which ensures the
same purchasing power worldwide. The UN paid for up to 40% of her
$4,000 rent, 75% of her son’s tuition and her trips to home country
every two years.
Between 2002 and 2011, the UN’s core budget grew from $2.89 billion
to $5.37 billion (the United States pays 22% of this). The largest
share was personnel costs.
The UN pay dates back to 1921 when the League of Nations, the UN’s
predecessor, decided its staff should be paid the same as the highest
paid national civil servants. They believed this would attract the
best and the brightest. Since then, an independent commission tasked
with setting salaries of international civil servants has used the
U.S. federal pay as a keystone.
Last year, as pay freezes continued for U.S. federal employees, some
4,800 New York-based UN staff received a three-percent pay raise.
When Joseph Torsella, Washington’s envoy for UN reform, called for
the “inappropriate” salary hike to be rescinded, the independent
commission responded by ratcheting up salaries in Geneva, Rome,
Paris, London, Tokyo and a score of other cities.
An acquaintance of mine at the UN maritime agency in London told me
her salary went up twice in less than a year. Yet she does not have
the funds to fill the vacancies in her department.
Presently at 130% of U.S. civil service salary, the UN wage is
seriously inflated. This is out of touch with reality, and it has not
proved successful in recruiting or retaining talent. On the contrary,
it has become a magnet for those who want a UN job only because it
The UN salaries should be reset to reflect staff members’
performance, rather than nationality or sex, even if that means less
than perfect representation.
One problem of performance is directly related to the organization’s
ominous one-year contracts, renewed yearly “subject to funding
availability.” In the absence of job security, employees are
naturally more focused on keeping their job, rather than producing
results. The duration of contracts must be extended to at least two
years. And meaningful performance-evaluation tools need to be put in
The cost-of-living pay has to be slashed. Instead, resources should
be redirected to improving training and prospects for career
Additionally, the UN agencies should decide for themselves whether a
pay raise is appropriate given their financial situation. A 15-person
commission sitting in New York should not be determining salaries for
UN agencies in other continents.
Given the dismal success rates (and emotional baggage) of past
attempts, introducing any change at the UN seems impossible.
Conflicting national interests and grotesque administrative
procedures have time and again thwarted such initiatives.
Root-and-branch reformers insist only a fundamental change can save
the UN. The ongoing conservative politicians’ threat to withhold all
American contributions until they could be made voluntarily is an
ultimatum along the same line that does not address the deep-seated
The UN will not collapse, nor are radical reforms possible. The
solution is a modest but gradual change that can enable the
organization to do more with less.
Such incremental improvements are not impossible. The UN has agreed
to cut its biennial core budget from $5.37 billion to $5.15 billion.
This 5%, only the second spending cut in 50 years, translates into
$100 million of taxpayers’ budget, according to Torsella. The UN’s
embattled office of oversight has begun to post audit findings on the
web. Several other UN agencies are following suit.
I left the UN a year ago and now work for an intergovernmental
organization in London. While it is not part of the UN system, it is
on the same pay scale — and it is in a desperate need for some
serious housecleaning just like the UN. For starters, it will
separate the hard-working professionals from those who work the
system to serve their own interests.
Park is a former UN staff member. (© Copyright 2012 NYDailyNews.com.
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