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Saturday Feature
United but a bit disjointed
A world apart at the UN amid the smoke and bureaucratic fog
Richard Beales

          Smoking is allowed inside the United Nations' headquarters on New York's East River. The complex consequently lacks what every other office in Manhattan now has: a bunch of exiles puffing away outside, buttoned up against the cold.
Other vestiges of a different time linger, too. With its fluttering flags, the place still exudes the "never again" idealism of its creation 60 years ago in the aftermath of two world wars. But the headlines do not look good. The institution's credibility, its budget and, perhaps, even its existence are under fire.
A new dozen journalists, new to the UN, are shepherded through the airport-style security to learn more. Most report on the UN, and some have permanent credentials. My case is different. I cover finance, not geopolitics, but having lived in four scattered countries and visited 30 or more, I am curious.
We are given a lightning tour in three groups. My group is denied entry to the General Assembly. As we wait, a canine security team knocks over a security barrier. Then one of the other groups suddenly emerges from the chamber, having been allowed in unchallenged through a clitterent entrance. A microcosm of the UN's ineptitude and inconsistency, I decide.
We finally reach the heart of the UN where 191 states whatever their size or power, wield one vote each. Getting any measure of agreement must be hellish. And yet it is a place where every economic or military minnow has a voice.
Cynicism returns as we wait for the inadequate lifts to transport us all. "It feels like the Congress in my country," remarks a Brazilian journalist. The UN and the Congress in Brasilia have more in common than just the influence of architect Oscar Niemeyer, she explains. They also share an intangible aura of bureaucracy, of political posturing.
Jan Eliasson, president of the General Assembly, arrives and initially reinforces the impression. He reveals his frustration with snail-paced negotiations on human rights, terrorism, UN management reform and budget issues.
Yet the experienced and articulate Swedish diplomat is also a believer in the UN. He talks about humanitarian and development activities, which grab fewer headlines than the machinations of the Security Council. And he reminds us of the often forgotten principle without which the UN would fail completely: "This body cannot be the place where you realise 100 per cent of your national ambitions."
Mr Eliasson departs, along with his energy, from the windowless, airless conference room with its dull green carpet, plain wooden furniture and glassed-in translation booths. The identifying placard in front of his seat -- brown with white lettering -- is removed.
Someone at the UN must be charged with ensuring that the placards end up in the right place at the right time.
Instead of names, the placards are inscribed with titles, which staffers shorten to acronyms. The "SG" is among the simpler ones, and refers to Kofi Annan, the secretary-general -- or could the initials, his communications chief later ventures, actually be short for scapegoat? Other UN business is done by numbers.
The cryptically named "fifth committee", as insiders know, is the administrative and budgeting body. Mundane descriptions conceal serious purposes. The "1267 committee", for example, is the Security Council body responsible for sanctions against al-Qaeda (the number refers to the resolution establishing it).
And just as the bureaucratic fog swirls around me again, another refreshing wind blows through. Enter David Nabarro, the UN's bird and human influenza response co-ordinator ("I think I've got flu," he declares).
A recent arrival from the World Health Organisation, Dr Nabarro is eloquent on the need to prepare for a deadly pandemic. He is trying to get the extremities of the sprawling UN system to work together. He also hopes to promote a co-ordinated, global response. Here, the UN's multilateralism is an advantage. As the secretary-general said of the Indian Ocean tsunami a year ago, "Everyone was willing to work with the UN."
Hearing accounts of that disaster from my friends affected me far more than, say, Hurricane Katrina. If the UN did not exist, would less help -- however faltering -- have reached those hundreds of thousands of bereaved, desperate and penniless survivors?
Even with the will to act, however, red tape emerges at every turn. One everyday example: as much as possible of the UN's rambling website has to be translated into Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish, the organisation's six official languages. Soad Sommereyns, chief of the languages website, speaks all of them -- and, amazingly, another five.
The UN is different. It is cumbersome, inefficient and often ineffective. Yet, from time to time, it works wonders. Even when it does not, it remains a symbol of hope and a potentially life-saving forum for discussion. For this alone, I think as I leave, the basic budget of less than $10m per member state per year -- excluding special agencies and peace-keeping seems a small price.

Richard Beales is the FT's US bonds market correspondent.


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