Shashi Tharoor Sees his 28 Years at the United Nations as an Asset

An interview with the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and India’s nominee for UN Secretary General

Defending the strengths an insider would bring to the job of U.N. Secretary General, Shashi Tharoor said: “an old broom can also sweep clean and even sweep cleaner into further corners than a new broom.” He added: “If you see an insider as somebody who is a stereotyped bureaucrat stuck in a rut, always doing as little as possible, then of course, such a person should not get the job. But no one in my 28 years at the U.N. has ever seen me that way. In every job I have held, colleagues and staff have found me fairly inspiring.”

“I am proud of the fact that I have come up with new ideas, innovations, new energy, new ways of doing things in every job I have held.” Tharoor said that when he came to the Department of Public Information with the mandate to reform the department, he “came up with a new mission statement, a new operating concept, a new model of how to structure the place.” He added that he closed offices in Europe; consolidated others in a regional center; and introduced a culture of evaluation into the department, with an annual performance impact review under which every manager had to study the impact of the programs and services they produced before these programs could be extended or amended.

Considering the level of complexity international organizations have reached, Tharoor believes “a rank outsider would face an extraordinarily steep learning curve.” Contending that an outsider would be quickly frustrated because “in the U.N. you have to know the culture of the organization; you have to understand the importance of 192 member States looking over your shoulder as you work; you have to understand the constraints within which you are obliged to work; and at the same time you have to appreciate that the diplomacy of management is as important as management itself. And yet you have to deliver results… it takes a very special set of skills. I believe I have demonstrated that I have those skills.”

Responding to the question why he would like to be Secretary General (SG), Tharoor said that he never thought of his work at the United Nations as a job. “It has always been a cause … my motivation has been to try and make a difference. For me the U.N. is far more than an institution… it represents the vision and foresight of the leaders of the world who wanted to make the second half of the twentieth century better than the first. A first half that witnessed two world wars, countless civil wars, mass displacement of populations, genocide, the horrors of the holocaust and Hiroshima. If the world had gone on like that, frankly, we would not be sitting here today talking to each other. The U.N. was part of an attempt to genuinely make a better world and I believe that for all its limitations and failures, it did succeed in doing that.”

“The biggest challenge for the U.N. today and in the near future is the sheer multiplicity of challenges. We are not an organization that has the luxury of a challenge of the day, a message of the week, or a theme of the month. No new SG should come to the job with any illusions that he or she has the luxury to focus on just one issue at any time. You may have a major crisis going on, in let’s say Korea and also be worrying about escalation in Lebanon; helping to run an election in Congo; receiving bad news of terrorist attacks in a major member State; at the same time an environmental conference is coming up to think about; you are pushing increased funding for Aids; talking to your Coordinator on bird flu; solving an administrative problem; dealing with staff coming to you with some specific management issues in the SG’s office, or involving one of the many people who report directly to the SG; you have a speech to make or give an interview to a journalist – all of these things on one typical day. And even then there really is no typical day because there could be 15 different things tomorrow. That is part of the nature of the job.”

To deal with such a multitude of issues, Tharoor said, you need an “SG who is interested in a wide range of things, as our current SG is. An SG who has the ability and the talent both to respond to all these issues and to know where to go for expert judgment when he or she feels unqualified or uninformed on specific issues. Somebody who recognizes he does not have all the answers but trusts himself to ask the right questions. That is the way in which I would function.”

Asked about the qualifications he would look for in a Deputy Secretary General, he said” “We have had two Deputy Secretary Generals so far, and each has been very different, both in terms of personality, skills, background and therefore job description. I would look for a deputy who complements my strengths as an insider, my strengths, if you like, as a leader, as a communicator, and as a fairly experienced manager within the system. I would want somebody with a different sort of profile, different sort of strengths in terms of professional abilities, national background, from a different geographical region and ideally a different gender – an outsider who could bring governmental experience, international diplomatic experience, and management experience from outside the U.N. system. And I think that if somebody very different from me is elected, that person should bring a very different kind of deputy. Certainly somebody coming from the outside should look for a deputy who is a strong insider who knows how to make the system work. But I do not think you can start off with a job description and impose this on a deputy – you look at individuals who complement your strengths and see how you can share the workload in a way that brings out the best in both of you.”

In response to the emerging North/South divide over implementing UN management reform proposals, Tharoor said: “I would like some attention to be paid to understand the concerns of the South. To put it bluntly, part of it relates to power equations within the organization. Many countries in the South perceive that there is an important balance to be maintained between the political power of the Security Council (SC)… and the one-nation-one-vote in the General Assembly (GA) which has control over budget and finance issues. That balance between the SC and the GA, some countries see as being threatened by the management proposals. I don’t think, personally, that they need to feel that way, but I also believe that the way we put across our proposals ought to be done with some sensitivity to these concerns. I tell my friends in the South openly of my own frustrations as a manager – knowing how little flexibility there is in the system, knowing for example, how the GA not only decides what my budget should be but how many staff I can have and what level they should be and quite separately, how much operational money I can have. I cannot tomorrow decide that in country x I would fill a post at a lower level or not fill a post and spend that money on operational activities, because I do not have the authority to do that and instead I have to go back to the GA in a two-year budget process under which I first would have to offer to give up the post, secondly ask for more money for operational activities – without any guarantee that the swap would occur: I might lose the post and not get the money for operational activities! As a manager, what I want to be judged on is results. I would want the flexibility, within the overall budget established and approved by Member States, to do what is managerially effective - that is a nuts and bolts thing. The worry that some members in the South have is that the flexibility that the SG has been seeking will simply become flexibility to fulfill the priorities of the North – that the SG will be vulnerable to pressure from the big donors rather than the GA.”

Regarding questions of regional balance in the hiring process, he stated that “there does not need to be a hard and fast rule, but we do have to be a mirror of the world, to reflect some of the geopolitical realities of the world. No SG can be effective without the cooperation of the big and powerful countries but neither can an SG be effective if he alienates the vast majority of poor and small member States. That balancing act is one that every SG has to perform. And the first cardinal rule is to listen – to listen to both sides and to see how you can search for common solutions by bridging some of the divides. I believe that bridges can be built on an issue by issue basis… I want to create a nuts and bolts practical manner of management to fulfill our mandates. … How much flexibility will be given to us and what kind of accountability will be demanded in return and let’s make it work” Tharoor expects that “the current reforms underway right now will not be completed in time for Kofi Annan to implement them and this will be a challenge for the next SG.”

As to Security Council reform, Tharoor compared “Council Reform to one of these unusual maladies where the doctors all gather around the patient and all agree on the diagnosis but they do not agree on the prescription. I think the diagnosis is widely accepted that this is a Council that reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945, and not of 2006. Whether you analyze it mathematically or geographically or if you do it in terms of population or in terms of contributions by countries – there are obvious anachronisms and anomalies that you and I can both point to. There is no question that the Council needs to be reformed. But until and unless Member States can agree on the shape of that reform, I am afraid it is very difficult for a SG to come up with a formula, because ultimately this is a member State issue. The current SG has done a good job of stimulating debate on this issue, but it’s not his decision.”

Asked about the importance of the independence of the SG, Tharoor said that it is fundamental for any SG. With regard to independence from the State nominating him, he replied: “There I am lucky because India is a country with a long tradition of respect for the independence of its domestic civil service – which is not meant to have allegiance to any political party – as well as the independence of its international civil service. Throughout my 28 years at the U.N., not on one occasion has the Indian government tried to influence my professional conduct, given me any instructions or asked me for a special favor – that is simply not the way India does things. Even officials of India at the U.N. who have been seconded from the Indian government are treated as outside the pale – no one from the Government seeks any improper influence on them, and this makes me very fortunate.”

“The issue of independence from permanent members, biggest contributors and so on, is slightly different. I believe independence is necessary from all such interests, including from States that are powerful militarily and financially, and States that are powerful numerically. Why? Because it is as much in their interest as in the SG’s interest for the SG to be seen and perceived as independent. I will give you one very interesting example – a couple of years ago, when the US was handing over power in Baghdad, from the Coalition government headed by Mr. Bremer to the then interim Iraqi government, the U.N. was able to send a special envoy – Mr. Brahimi – who was received by, and was able to have dialogue with, important Iraqi political actors who were refusing to talk to Mr. Bremer and his coalition leadership. This would not have been possible if the U.N. was merely seen as a handmaiden of the big powers, and of the United States in particular. Rather it was the perception that the U.N. was an independent actor that enabled the U.N. to be of service to the big powers in that particular case -- and that logic is something that I do not hesitate to advertise to anyone who asks. Not only is independence a virtue in itself, it is also an extremely important tool that guarantees the effectiveness and usefulness of the U.N. The perception of independence is so important that an SG will have to take every step to ensure that in practice he conducts himself – or herself some day – in an independent way.”

According to recent reports, the Security Council will start considering the nominated candidates in the second half of July. In this regard, Tharoor said: “I have to say that I am obviously not very thrilled about the timing because I have entered the race only three weeks ago and therefore I am the only candidate who has not had an opportunity to visit all the 15 capitals, I am not even close to a third of those. I have not had a chance to make my case to even all the Ambassadors on the Council – so I have to say that I am not delighted by the fact that this initial vote may be given an importance that is not entirely fair, given the fact that some candidates have had far more time to make their case than others. But having said that, I respect the SC’s right to proceed as they see fit and I am still hopeful that what is known about me might give me some cause for encouragement in the ballot.” He added: “I would welcome new candidates. The world deserves a wide choice, a broad choice, and a fair choice. In my own view, this job is too important for the world not to have an opportunity to consider all possible people, of any region if necessary, though I do believe there is a strong case for an Asian. I think any victor in the race, whether it is me or somebody else, would want to feel that he or she has won the job after the world has had a good look at all possible alternatives. And that is certainly the spirit in which I would like to go forward.”

Lydia Swart is the interim Executive Director of the Center for U.N. Reform Education. The Center does not endorse any particular candidate, but works to promote a public element in the selection of the Secretary General.