Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Survival in a Bureaucracy

It seems to me that the Oil for Food program was really developed as a way to get around the sanctions that the UN had imposed on Iraq after Desert Storm. However, when the UN proposed expanding Oil for Food, Saddam opposed expanding it because he didn't want the food and humanitarian aid. He wanted more industrial projects: trucks, telecom equipment, and industrial machinery.

Michael Soussan chronicles in Backstabbing for Beginners how "Saddam and his cronies were happy to organize parade burials through Baghdad once every couple of months, with little wooden coffins that supposedly contained "children killed by the sanctions," but when it came to actually saving these malnourished kids," Saddam had no interest.

Finally, an inquiry panel headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, began to investigate Oil for Food. "Innocent Until Investigated" was the phrase Soussan used in his book. Of course, the UN authorities knew about Saddam's massive fraud from the beginning. The UN, writes Soussan, "was completely unable to enforce even minimal standards of accountability on its members, staff, and agencies. I tried to explain to the investigators that expecting accountability from the UN system was akin to expecting a blind dog to catch a flying frisbee."

Soussan's job was not to tell the truth. It was to figure out on whose behalf he was supposed to lie! Was it Kofi Annan? Was it Pasha, the Armenian Cypriot who was in charge of Oil for Food, as well as other things at the UN, such as security? Was it the Security Council, "which was itself composed of ambassadors who were lying to each other?" Finally, he realized that his job was "to pretend that there was unity of purpose among the members of the Security Council, the UN Secritariat, and Iraq." Though it was clear to Soussan that the program "ripped off the Iraqi people," his job was to extol the program's humanitarian achievements.

The real work of diplomacy took place at diplomatic cocktail parties. Soussan quotes Adlai Stevenson, "A dipomat's life is made up of three ingredients: protocol, Geritol and alcohol." Alcohol was the truth serum, according to Soussan.

Decisions? "The safest decision for a bureaucrat to make was often no decision at all. If you let them sit long enough, most issues go away all on their own," a high-level UN bureaucrat explained to Soussan at a cocktail party. To avoid personal responsibility (the "buck stopping at your desk"), the best thing to do is call a meeting. The point of a meeting, Soussan writes, "is to spread out responsibility for decisions - or, better, to find a reason why no decision can be made at all."

What about management and authority? A deputy was appointed for the Secretary General, to help with management of programs. Follow the logic of this paragraph: "The deputy would be given responsibility for management, though not the authority to manage. Decisions would remain firmly controlled by Annan's chief of staff. It made perfect sense, and it reflected the core nature of the UN's management culture in that it ensured that the person with responsibility had no authority; and vice versa, it protected the people with authority from having to take responsibility."

As in most (or all?) bureaucracies, "survival was what the game was all about."

1 comment:

Terri Wagner said...

Thanks for the Joel Rosenberg reference, Bob. I'll check it out. This is fascinating and revealing especially the part about the best decision is no decision. No wonder bureacrats are so useless...they too are caught in a system of rewarding doing nothing. Totally enjoying this.