Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Academic Council on U.N. System Leaves U.S. for Canada (July 21, 2003)
"The United States may be the biggest world power, but it is not much of an international player."

Guess Who's Sustaining Iraq (July 14, 2003)
"Nine U.N. agencies are now operating in Iraq, doing many of the jobs the U.S. military was apparently not prepared to tackle."

A New Step for the U.N.—an Ombudsman (July 8, 2003)
"Until now, most employees had to wait until an internal dispute provoked administrative action—and then appeal it."

U.N. Still Battered by U.S. Action On Iraq (July 1, 2003)
"Americans seem to hate the United Nations for not supporting the war, while a lot of the rest of the world hates the organization for not preventing it."

AIDS, Other Trends Give New Prominence To U.N. Population Division (June 23, 2003)
"Ethnic wars, epidemic diseases, huge migrations of people have helped make [the U.N. Population Division] one of the busiest offices in the U.N. Secretariat."

Fixing The Security Council (June 16, 2003)
"If the United States and the rest of the world seem to be looking at the same Security Council and seeing two very different images, most governments can agree on one point: the council needs fixing."

Peacekeeping's Unsavory Side (June 10, 2003)
"Among the uglier stories surrounding international peacekeeping in recent years is that U.N. operations too often fuel booms in local prostitution."

More from U.N. Notebook.


U.N. Notebook | July 21, 2003
 
from U. N. Wire Ahead of Information Summit, U.N. Should Examine Itself

by Barbara Crossette
 
....

UNITED NATIONS—In December, a grandly titled World Summit on the Information Society will confront the technical (and, hopefully, political) gaps that keep so many of the world's people in perpetual darkness, deprived of the basic knowledge they need to change the course of nations, or just their own lives. A good place for member countries to start fixing things might be in the United Nations itself.

The United Nations has many skilled people here at its New York headquarters and in the field who know exactly what communications tools the organization needs to improve its image, its outreach and its effectiveness. But they hit wall after wall—political, bureaucratic or budgetary—when they try to put some good ideas into practice.

Semi-autonomous agencies and programs on the whole do much better, but at headquarters, information specialists are constrained by the refusal of member nations to invest in bringing the United Nations fully into the age of electronic media, able to reach both sophisticated urbanites and village-level audiences. Political commitment to the free flow of information and open access to the media is also uneven among the 191 member countries.

A culture of information, it seems, is as hard to institutionalize as a culture of democracy, within the organization as well as among its member states. Countries happily vote to stage yet another gigantic international conference like the forthcoming information summit, while at the same time exerting pressure to control freedom of information right in U.N. headquarters. Most recently China was able to block a U.N. Correspondents' Association news conference at headquarters requested by the Taiwanese, who—hit hard by SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome—wanted to push their case for membership in the World Health Organization. Officials at the highest level acceded to the Chinese demand in contravention of a longstanding practice of allowing the correspondents' association freedom to choose its guests.

Add to this atmosphere the bureaucratic rules and entrenched power of sinecures within current information units, which can make creative staff reshuffling extremely difficult, and the environment for effective communications is hardly friendly.

As if to underline the problem (and just in time for the December information summit, the first of two on this issue) virtually all U.N. information centers in Europe—in Athens, Bonn, Copenhagen, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Paris and Rome—are to be shut down by the end of the year and their activities consolidated in a Brussels office. With that and other sacrifices under its belt, the Department of Public Information will go to a General Assembly committee this fall to ask for the first time in years for permission to hire some specialists elsewhere, notably to improve services in languages other than English and French. Hope is not very high.

Here are some facts.

In creating and sustaining a U.N. Web site, the information department was not authorized to hire a professional webmaster from outside, but had to reassign personnel from other information jobs to take on this critical task. The catchphrase is "work within existing resources." The site, www.un.org, is still difficult for outsiders unfamiliar with the organization's structure to navigate. Decades of documents may appear in no chronological sequence. Finding as high-profile a body as the Commission on Human Rights takes work. After several attempts, I gave up trying to locate the World Summit on the Information Society at un.org. I had to go to www.itu.org, the site of the International Telecommunication Union, a sponsor of the meeting. How many ordinary interested citizens would know that?

Although agencies like UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the U.N. Development Program as well as the World Bank are refreshingly user-friendly by comparison, the main U.N. Web site is not without bright spots. The abysmal search capacity is being enhanced by Google. On the main U.N. home page, clicking on "news center" opens a door to a lively topical summary of what is going on currently around the organization. The news center also includes audio clips of the daily U.N. radio programs, but no video.

Now, about those radio programs. The enormous U.N. system in all its diversity and activity has the resources to offer only one 15-minute news-and-features program from Monday to Friday, at about midday (5:30 p.m. GMT), which stations around the world may air then or later, free of charge. Other special programs in a range of languages are produced when possible, though the radio section has no travel budget or money to do field reporting, unless it can piggyback on someone else's trip. Yet radio remains the main source of information for several billion people in the developing world, and the use of radio in peacekeeping missions (paid for by other budgets) has proved to be very popular as a calming, credible source of information in disturbed areas.

The daily U.N. radio program, in the six official U.N. languages, can cover some but not all of the day's news, given its early release time. Who hears it? Well, because shift work is not allowed at U.N. radio, Asians generally don't, because the news is too late the first day and stale the next. African stations cannot always use the news broadcasts because their slow Internet systems make downloading too time-consuming, if there is any Internet access at all. In some cases, radio engineers must telephone African stations to deliver programs manually over phone lines. On the other hand, Spanish-language programs are apparently more successful in reaching their target audiences, and are reported to have a wide following in Latin America.

U.N. radio has had problems with its software, which it cannot afford to replace. Its staff has to commute between eighth floor offices and basement studios to create and record programs. It has been estimated that it would cost about $1 million to upgrade to an effective contemporary radio service. That much money will never materialize at current budget levels and no large international corporation has stepped up to donate new equipment.

The entire public information division—including the radio operation, a talented video team reduced mostly to making archival footage and the very busy office of the secretary general's spokesman, which also monitors the Security Council and all other aspects of U.N. work for daily briefings and press statements—operates on a current budget of $146 million spread over two years. Most of that, about $110 million, goes to pay a staff of 754 people, a large number of whom are in jobs protected against layoffs, officials say. That leaves $18 million a year for everything else, from buying new equipment and to meeting crisis needs, like promoting the voice of the United Nations in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The sum of $146 million is about what Morocco and Brazil each budgeted to upgrade rural roads in the last five years of the 1990s, or what the Massachusetts Port Authority allocated recently to add a new baggage-screening system to Logan International Airport.

It is the size of the public information staff that has caused many of the problems. When Richard Holbrooke was the Clinton administration's U.S. ambassador to the U.N., he lost no opportunity to criticize the large number of jobs that accrued over the years as the General Assembly assigned many paperwork tasks, and then protected those positions from cutbacks. He was not the first American envoy to do so, and Europeans are also critical of what they describe as an information department with too many people overall but not enough professionals where they are most needed. Consequently, money requests are routinely vetoed, especially now that the United Nations is expected to operate in a no-growth budget.

The Department of Public Information outnumbers other very important units. The peacekeeping department, for example, employs 600 people at headquarters managing tens of thousands of peacekeepers and locally employed people abroad. Around the corner from headquarters, UNICEF runs an effective communications network with just over 200 people in more than 150 countries.

The challenges inside and outside the United Nations are ample, if the forthcoming information summit is prepared to tackle them. But with countries that still ban or limit Internet access or harass journalists taking part, can such a meeting do anything more than issue more platitudes or make more demands on countries that lead the information society—precisely because they have embraced an information culture?

Secretary General Kofi Annan has named Nitin Desai, a former U.N. undersecretary general from India, a country with a thriving media culture, to be his representative at the summit. That is an interesting choice. Until his retirement this year, Desai had been in charge of social and economic affairs for the United Nations. Few could know better how key the free flow of information is to development, both economic and political. Let's see what he can do.


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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.