Dept. of sucking up: Aren’t our dear leaders great!

Some high-ranking U.N. officials hired in the wake of Ban Ki-moon‘s re-election have been receiving something of a hero’s welcome at Turtle Bay, marked by the solicitousness one would associate with, say, a visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to a rural hemp factory. The U.N. Department of Management (DM) and the U.N. ...

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KNS/AFP/GettyImages
KNS/AFP/GettyImages
KNS/AFP/GettyImages

Some high-ranking U.N. officials hired in the wake of Ban Ki-moon's re-election have been receiving something of a hero's welcome at Turtle Bay, marked by the solicitousness one would associate with, say, a visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to a rural hemp factory.

The U.N. Department of Management (DM) and the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), issued internal memos last month detailing the debuts of their new bosses, undersecretary generals Yukio Takasu, a former veteran Japanese diplomat who once served on the U.N. Security Council, and Wu Hongbo, a former top official in China's foreign ministry, in their first three months of office, while taking note of the incredible pride their staff take in serving the United Nations.

The two memos -- which have the ring of 1950s corporate press releases or state propaganda -- contrast starkly with the scathing portrayals of dysfunction and leadership failures that dominate international media coverage of the United Nations. As readers of this blog may recall, Wu's predecessor, Sha Zukang, drew attention for his outrageous antics, including a drunken toast he delivered to the U.N. secretary general, capped by the line: "I know you never liked me Mr. Secretary-General -- well, I never liked you, either."

Some high-ranking U.N. officials hired in the wake of Ban Ki-moon‘s re-election have been receiving something of a hero’s welcome at Turtle Bay, marked by the solicitousness one would associate with, say, a visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to a rural hemp factory.

The U.N. Department of Management (DM) and the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), issued internal memos last month detailing the debuts of their new bosses, undersecretary generals Yukio Takasu, a former veteran Japanese diplomat who once served on the U.N. Security Council, and Wu Hongbo, a former top official in China’s foreign ministry, in their first three months of office, while taking note of the incredible pride their staff take in serving the United Nations.

The two memos — which have the ring of 1950s corporate press releases or state propaganda — contrast starkly with the scathing portrayals of dysfunction and leadership failures that dominate international media coverage of the United Nations. As readers of this blog may recall, Wu’s predecessor, Sha Zukang, drew attention for his outrageous antics, including a drunken toast he delivered to the U.N. secretary general, capped by the line: "I know you never liked me Mr. Secretary-General — well, I never liked you, either."

Instead, these latest memos paint of picture of an attentive U.N. executive class, driven by a hardy work ethic, and basking in the gratitude and admiration of their U.N. inferiors, who are touched that they have taken the time to talk to them.

"It’s been 100 days since Mr. Yukio Takasu took office as undersecretary-general for management," reads the memo from his office. "With many big-ticket items on DM’s to do list, Mr Takasu’s tenure has been off to a labor-intensive start."

Indeed, as memo notes, Takasu has been juggling numerous priority projects, implementing new accounting standards, overseeing the return of U.N. staff to the renovated U.N. headquarters building, and managing the roll-out of the U.N.’s new automated management system, known as UMOJA, the Swahili word for unity, which has been plagued for years by administrative failures. (That last bit isn’t mentioned in the memo).

But the memo does mention that Takasu toiled late into the night during marathon negotiations in Arusha, Tanzania, during his first month on the job over the terms of a new policy encouraging U.N. civil servants to change jobs more frequently. Within a week of his return to U.N. headquarters, he invited staff representatives to a luncheon to discuss the new agreement. 

In his office’s own telling, Takasu’s underlings are clearly impressed by his debut. 

"DM staff has come to know him as a knowledgeable and approachable boss who prepares thoroughly, draws on his detailed technical expertise, and makes ample time for extensive and frank strategy discussions with the projects teams," according to the memo. "He is known to listen carefully, as colleagues brief on their proposals, before raising tough questions to understand the risks and challenges that a project may face."

The reaction to Wu’s first three weeks in office was no less effusive, according to a memo produced by his own staff.

Touring his new digs in the renovated U.N. headquarters built, Wu apparently took a break from his important responsibilities to talk to staffers, inquiring about their families, their job assignments, and solicited their opinions on the department’s priorities, according to the DESA memo. He sought their views "about the move, the new floor plan, the lighting, the functionality of work stations and the overall environment," it noted.

The meet and greet was clearly a success.

"What began as a planned forty-five minute walk through turned into a three hour chat."

But of course, it wasn’t all small talk, and Wu quickly turned his attention to weightier matters of building safety, examining plans of everything from the fire alarms to the placement of evacuation routes. He pressed his aide, Ivan Koulov, about forthcoming plans for emergency drills. "As it happened, a drill was organized on Thursday morning."

How’s that for efficiency!

For their part, the U.N.’s unidentified staff members were impressed, praising the renovated Secretariat building, and "noting in particular how the floor plan allows for abundant daylight" as well as the ‘state-of-the-art energy saving controls, such as adjustable window blinds and temperature controls for air conditioning."

"As one staff member put it," the memo continues, "‘[w]orking in this new environment, I am even more proud to come to the office every day and make my contributions to the mission of the United Nations.’"

As for the future, Takasu vowed to pursue greater transparency in the U.N. financial report, and to meet the U.N. secretary general’s vision of a "modern, global, unified and dynamic secretariat."

"It will be a challenge but I am confident that together, we can and will make it a success."

Well, if you believe your own memo it already is a success.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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