As the United Nations (UN) general assembly met last week in New York City, one was reminded of the words spoken by former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. “If the UN had 10 less floors, nobody would notice.” While Bolton was notoriously undiplomatic, his words have found resonance with lawmakers worldwide. The British, who generally are favourable to multilateral organizations, just ended funding to five UN bodies. In a world facing unprecedented economic challenges, funding for the UN will come under pressure.
There is a solution: move large parts of the UN to India or other parts of Asia, Africa or South America. Despite being a global organization, the UN and its 15-odd subsidiary bodies are headquartered predominately in Europe and the US (Kenya hosts two bodies). New York (home of the UN Secretariat General), Geneva (home to five UN bodies) and Vienna (home to two more) are some of the most expensive cities in the world. US corporations have long moved out of New York due to high rents and cost of living. Why does the UN still house most of its operations in these cities?
Part of the reason is historical. After World War II, it made sense that a good portion of the UN be based in the heart of Europe to help keep the peace. But the world is changing and the UN needs to change with it. World affairs have moved distinctly east with the rise of Japan, China and India. To be fair, Asia and the rest of the developing world need to step up. China and India combined contribute less than 5% to the UN budget and need to contribute more. But that is a different matter.
The case for moving the UN rests on two pillars: cost savings and service.
Cost savings: The UN’s budget approaches $5 billion and the budget of other UN bodies is more than equivalent to that, bringing the total budget of these entities to more than $10 billion. Shifting some UN subsidiary headquarters to India would save significant amount of money.
If nothing else, India can serve as a host to the UN’s back office. The world has woken to the benefits of outsourcing. The UN can easily shave several hundred million dollars in costs and use that money to increase humanitarian relief or peacekeeping operations.
And peacekeeping efforts show outsourcing works. More than 80% of UN peacekeeping staff—soldiers and police officers—come from Asia, Africa or South America. Why shouldn’t more than 80% of UN offices be based in these countries as well?
As much as the US granted the UN a prime land bank in the middle of Manhattan, the government of India could grant the UN a 25-acre parcel of land somewhere in India (Pune, Agra, Mysore come to mind, as being in the high-cost Delhi/Mumbai would defeat the purpose of the move) to house the UN’s back offices. In addition, the UN will gain better perspective by having more employees dispersed throughout the world.
Service: And therein lies another reason to move the offices of the UN. The names of many UN agencies, say United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Labour Organization, suggest they are solving problems in the developing world. There is no better place to solve the problem than the place where the problem is. One of the better economics books this year, Poor Economics, is by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo who found economic solutions to problems by being in India, Indonesia, Kenya, etc.It’s not that Geneva isn’t a nice place; it’s that Geneva is a nice place that makes it the wrong place for diplomats and technocrats to be solving the world’s problems.
Countless men and women serve the UN with utmost devotion. Sérgio Vieira de Mello was an ace UN diplomat and troubleshooter who lost his life in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2003; the UN pulled back operations and that is one of the reasons Iraq went to hell. Among the most heralded diplomats of this century and the first UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold, famously said the same: “The United Nations was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.” The world’s hot spot used to be Europe, now it’s Asia.
Today when any city is just a flight away, and communication through cellphone and the Internet is instantaneous, housing a monstrous infrastructure in the middle of Manhattan or Geneva or Vienna makes no sense for corporations or the UN. The UN Secretariat General’s main functioning can stay in New York, but the UN is global in nature. So should be its functioning. A win-win for the UN and the world would be to move its offices, back and some front, to India and other parts of Asia, Africa and South America.
Prashant Agrawal, a principal at a management consultancy, will write on public policy issues in India and internationally.
Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org