"In Black and White" is a magazine with news and information about Old Hiltonians, published by the Old Hiltonian Society. The article below was written on request from the school and published in issue #23, April 2012.
This article is an account of the three years, from mid-2008 to mid-2011, that I spent at the United Nations in New York, as director of “Umoja”, the UN’s global, administrative reform program. More importantly, it is a personal tribute to Hilton College, as the challenges I faced in this role reminded me of the immense value of the education and moral grounding I received at our fine school.
The UN is an organization that exists, not because of our humanity, but our lack of it. If it hadn’t been invented yet, someone would no doubt do so. But sadly, despite the best efforts of many selfless humanitarians, the UN is struggling more than ever for relevance and impact. For instance, despite many billions of dollars spent on peacekeeping in Africa over the past few decades, millions of people have died in atrocious conflicts, most that continue to this day.
Such failings are traceable to the ineffectiveness of diplomacy, governance and administration. Weak leadership and partisan interests prevent the organization’s re-purposing from a post-war parliament to a 21st century tool for peace, development, and the protection of human rights. In tandem, the creaking bureaucracy has resisted all attempts at modernization, and cannot serve global operations adequately. In short, the UN has become badly dysfunctional and has needed a major overhaul for some time.
From 2002 to 2005 I had already tried to address the problem in my own small way. Based on private-sector experience in management and operational efficiency, my consulting firm helped implement significant improvement to the administrative functions that underpin humanitarian programs at three UN-related organizations: the High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Labour Office, and the International Organization for Migration - all headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
In 2006, the UN GA (General Assembly - made up of 193 member states) mandated the Secretary General to undertake a broad administrative reform program, covering all major functions of the UN across 40 countries, including the massive business of peacekeeping. Fascinated by this opportunity, in 2007 I applied for, and in 2008 accepted, a three-year contract to create the program, and begin modernizing the murky labyrinth of the UN’s accounting, budgeting, payroll, procurement, supply-chain, logistics, human resource and facility management functions. It was a daunting assignment: as I discovered, this 43’700 staff, $18-billion-per-year, paper-guzzling behemoth takes months and sometimes years to perform the simplest of functions. Using post-war practices, thousands of redundant and contradictory policies, and at least two thousand outdated and non-connected information systems, the UN’s bureaucracy is likely the world’s most broken.
The first hurdle was to show the GA that Umoja could indeed save the organization hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and obtain adequate funding in the middle of a global financial crisis. Even this preamble tested me more than I could have imagined: facing the budgetary and finance bodies of the UN and of the GA is no picnic, and I was grilled every which way for several months in formal committees, in briefing sessions and in dark corridors in between. I was hugely thankful for every ounce of public-speaking experience I had ever gained, going back to Hilton institutions such as the Debating Society, the Ten Club, and many class presentations besides. Actually it was at my prep school Cordwalles that I was first introduced to the dark arts of public debating and the amateur Shakespearian stage, and it’s funny how relevant that was too: the UN is a showcase for real-life irony and melodrama!
In 2009 the $315.8 million I requested were approved, an amount that would cover costs for staff, consultants, premises, computer hardware and software, travel and sundries, for up to five years. Starting with a team of 20 professionals of the 200 required, the many tasks began, the primary example of which was the redesign of all business processes. Hundreds of workshops were conducted all over the world, involving thousands of staff. Every last administrative function across the organization was dissected, analyzed, debated, and eventually reassembled and catalogued. In many cases, the exercise shrank administrative processes from months to minutes - literally. Despite inadequate resources and invasive scrutiny, the team eventually created and documented 318 re-engineered business processes that described the future workings of a new, efficient and effective UN administration in exquisite detail.
While the work may appear simple in this precis, the daily challenges were immense. In trying to hire staff, procure goods and services, and just get things done, the team was severely hampered by the antediluvian system it sought to change. The major battle was not technical but cultural: we had to persuade senior administrators and clerical staff alike to work in new ways and think differently about the organization and its mission. Again my education and experience served me well, as my leadership, teamwork and organizational skills were tested to the limit. Some lessons learned on the rugby field came in handy too - like recovering from a tackle quickly and then making one, and not panicking when being crushed at the bottom of a collapsed scrum!
As we progressed nonetheless, the true purpose of Umoja became clear to the organization: far more than simply upgrading administrative procedures, it would bring hitherto unimagined transparency and accountability in a radical shift from tradition. Many people were thrilled, but some were not: in any large bureaucracy, the obscurity of technical and procedural obsolescence is perfect cover for back-room deal-making, which is well ingrained at the UN, but which Umoja stood firmly against.
As a result, creative attempts were made to discredit me and my senior staff, and stall the program, including fabricated accounts of corrupt practices being leaked to auditors and the press. Although cleared of any wrong doing, it wasn’t much fun to have my integrity questioned on the front page of the Sunday papers. Fortunately the slander only steeled the team’s resolve, and we powered through the unpleasantness until the culprits either gave up, or were identified and stopped.
In such difficult moments, I could picture Raymond Slater, on the stage of the Memorial Hall, making it very clear that leadership and morality are not popularity contests. I wish I had a quote of his, but perhaps Winston Churchill will do: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” In championing unprecedented change at the UN, I hope I did just that.
By the end of my contract, the Umoja solution was by and large designed, and the major functions had been prototyped in a brand-new, global computer system. This major milestone was a natural segue-way for leadership change, and my part being complete, I handed the reins to my deputy - a peacekeeping veteran well qualified to take Umoja to the field. Now in phase two, the team is preparing for global deployment that will likely last through 2015. The magnitude of this endeavour cannot be underestimated, and I follow progress with keen interest, still advising from time to time. If the Umoja spirit can be maintained, then it really will help the UN become a more effective tool for a better world, if not by its logic and technology then by its culture of transparency, collaboration and good sense.
At no other time have I been more grateful for my education than during this massive test. I doubt I could have applied for the job, much less achieved anything, had I not benefited from four critically formative years at Hilton. In addition to my dear parents and family of course, and some excellent friends and mentors along the way, the Hilton community taught me reason and humour, passion and compassion, perseverance and the courage to stand up again when knocked down, belief in both myself and others, and the ability to see right and wrong as clearly as day and night. I had to draw deeply on all these lessons and no doubt would have crumbled without them.
Going forward, I continue to pursue my interest in the improvement of processes, systems and culture in the service of organizations that, in turn, try to do something positive for humanity. I am currently working on an overhaul similar to Umoja at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington D.C. - another enthralling experience where both my schooling and experience allow me to face new challenges daily.
In conclusion, I’d like to record my gratitude to the Hilton community, and in particular these good men, who gave me so much, and whose wise words still sound in my ears after 33 years: Raymond Slater, Paul Cannon, Doug Anderson, Gordon Crossley, Mervyn Gray, Ant Lovell, Andy van der Watt, Brian Goodwin, David Pickstone, Ken Franklin, Robert Hofmeyr, Andy Ward, Bill Jarvis and Rob Dickson.
Paul van Essche
Brooklyn, New York
Footnote: Umoja is Swahili for Unity
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