A Grunt’s View of U.N. Leadership

An internal U.N. survey shows that the bosses think they are doing a better job than their employees do. 

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
UN-secretaries-general-survey-document-021320
UN-secretaries-general-survey-document-021320

The vast majority of U.N. workers—89 percent—say they are proud to work for their international organization, which keeps the peace in far-flung war zones, tends to natural and humanitarian disasters, and promotes the global response to issues such as climate change and pandemics.

But drill down deeper into the lower ranks of the U.N. Secretariat and you will find far less confidence in the leadership’s ability to position the world body to confront the challenges ahead. When he came into office just over three years ago, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres undertook a major reform of the U.N. Secretariat, restructuring divisions that deal with peace and security, development and management.

So, how has that been going? Depends who you ask.

The vast majority of U.N. workers—89 percent—say they are proud to work for their international organization, which keeps the peace in far-flung war zones, tends to natural and humanitarian disasters, and promotes the global response to issues such as climate change and pandemics.

But drill down deeper into the lower ranks of the U.N. Secretariat and you will find far less confidence in the leadership’s ability to position the world body to confront the challenges ahead. When he came into office just over three years ago, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres undertook a major reform of the U.N. Secretariat, restructuring divisions that deal with peace and security, development and management.

So, how has that been going? Depends who you ask.

According to a recent internal U.N. staff survey—which we are highlighting as Foreign Policy’s Document of the Week—the U.N. top brass provided a rosier picture of the reforms they were leading than those who were tasked with carrying them out.

For instance, 75 percent of the U.N.’s most senior officials—undersecretaries general—saw initial improvements from the management reforms. Drill down into the lower ranks of professional staff and you will see that only 24 to 27 percent agree.

The picture is only gloomier for reforms in the fields of development and peace and security.

For instance, 60 percent of undersecretaries general viewed the reform of the U.N. peace and security sector favorably. Only 18 to 21 percent of lower-ranking professional staff agreed. It’s a similar story for development reforms. Some 70 percent of undersecretaries general viewed the reform favorably. Only 18 to 23 percent of low-ranking professional staff viewed it favorably.

Unsurprisingly, 90 to 91 percent of assistant secretaries general and undersecretaries general thought they were open to adopting good ideas whether they were proposed by senior or junior staff.

The more junior professionals may quibble.

Only 50 percent of entry-level professional staffers—designated P-1s—believed that good ideas were adopted regardless of who put them forward. Only a small percentage of employees—9 percent—from that same group felt it was safe to challenge the status quo in the U.N. Secretariat. Some 60 percent of undersecretaries general disagreed. But they got little support from their deputies. Only 38 percent of assistant secretaries general felt it was safe to challenge the status quo.

There was plenty of good news in the survey—which was based on responses from 18,742 U.N. employees. In 2019, 79 percent of U.N. workers saw a “clear link” between their jobs and the broader goals of the U.N. agency they served, an improvement over 2017. Eighty-three percent felt comfortable asking their superiors for help when they struggled with their work. But the U.N. saw a decline over the past two years in the percentage of workers—from 64 to 59 percent—who said they felt valued as a staff member. There was also a drop in the percentage of workers—from 72 to 69 percent—who felt that men and women were treated equally in the workplace.

A majority of respondents—58 percent—said they would prefer to keep their jobs at the U.N. even if they were offered a “comparable position with similar pay and benefits elsewhere.” But that figure dipped slightly, from 61 percent in 2017.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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