Chris Blattman

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“The UN of today is not the UN I entered”

Yesterday I moderated a session with James O.C. Jonah, the former Number Two at the UN (under Boutros Boutros-Ghali). The title is his quote. After dedicating a lifetime to the institution, he is deeply disappointed.

He joined the UN in 1963. Born in Sierra Leone and educated in England and the US, some of the leading intellectual lights of the UN recruited him into the system. Thirty-one years later he left to oversee a transition to civilian rule in his native home, becoming finance minister of Sierra Leone from 1998 to 2001.

I’m accustomed to diplomats being, well, diplomatic. Jonah laid his opinions bare.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he says, was pushed out for being too capable and strong. It stands to reason that the Security Council wanted to replace him with someone weak. Enter Kofi Annan. Annan, says Jonah, hadn’t the credibility or the intellectual capacity to be a great Secretary-General. Ban Ki Moon is smart enough, but doesn’t have the organizational touch. In both, the Security Council got what they wanted: Secretaries rather than Generals.

Neither did Jonah sugar coat a life of international public service. I asked him what advice he had for earnest undergraduates with an interest in diplomacy and development. “Well,” he said, “Life is unfair.”

From the Yale Daily News:

Jonah said he was not trying to give students considering a career in multinational organizations false optimism about the effectiveness of peacekeeping efforts. Rather, he said he hoped to provide a true vision of what a “headache” working for bureaucracies like the UN can be.

That is a slight understatement. Jonah cautioned against¬†joining the UN, unless it’s out in the field. Today people work for the UN because it’s a job, not because it’s a passion and vocation. The good work done nowadays, he said, is by NGOs.

In 1963, men and women of his generation looked ahead to a booming Africa, an effective and hopeful UN, and an international civil service to be proud of. One can see how he would be disappointed.

Rather than steer young people away from public service, he wanted them to see it unadorned. “It’s a very brutal business being in politics,” he said, “You have to persevere, and idealism doesn’t take you anywhere.”

His mantra: Patience, thoughtfulness, and perseverence. “The world is a very difficult place,” he ended, “If you are tending sheep, it is better to know where the wolves are.”

3 Responses

  1. Nice post by my name sake but not by me. I would only add that the U.S. has done as much as anyone to undermine the UN as an effective organization.


  2. Yes, Ghali does not come out of various books I’ve read covering the period well.

    When in the UN, I worked with by far the best people I’ve ever worked with – and also the worst. I was in an HQ office, but too many could not relate to the aims of the organisation. Talking about maximising their personal frequent flyer points from business travel to volunteers from warzones for example.

    Nevertheless, if the good workers are put off joining the UN, then the careerists, liars and bullies will take over and run it into the ground. So if you care about the aims of the UN, don’t be put off!

  3. BB Ghali was pushed out for being too “capable”? He should forever be remembered as the UN Secretary General who couldn’t call the killings in Rwanda a “genocide” and thus gave cover to countries who did not want to intervene. Pshh.

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