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Vijaya Ramachandran Headshot

The UN Goes to Hollywood, But Is It Ready for a Close-Up?

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This is a joint post with Lauren Young.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been getting negative press about the relief efforts after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Perhaps worst is a scathing report from Refugees International accusing the UN of ineffectual leadership, missing coordination, and weak communication while an estimated 1.2 million Haitians remain displaced. Though much of the report consists of standard blandishments (the authors spent just 10 days in-country), there is indeed evidence of serious negligence. To give just one example: the organization initially planned on allowing itself two and a half months--well into the rainy season--to distribute plastic sheeting to protect the displaced. It took a personal intervention from a senior official to get this activity moved up.

A U.S. public opinion poll released last month found support for the UN the highest it's been in five years. But this "high" is just 31 percent, meaning less than a third of Americans think the UN is doing a good job. Reviews are mixed in many other parts of the world as well.

Perhaps in response to this flood of negative stories (eg. in the NYTimes), the Secretary-General decided to head to Hollywood to get the film industry to "have the UN message coursing continually, and spreading out continuously to the whole world." Ban warmed up his Hollywood audience with quips about cowboy flicks and held private meetings with Anne Hathaway and Samuel L. Jackson (Snakes in the General Assembly, perhaps?).

The Secretary-General's actions reflect a culture of deflecting blame that has taken the pressure off of staff. In some ways, this is understandable. The U.S. has used scandals such as Oil for Food to beat the institution over the head and threatened to make it obsolete during the Iraq War. And the UN does in fact work in the most difficult operating environments. With infrastructure and institutions that were crumbling long before the earthquake, Haiti is one of the most complex emergencies it has ever had to manage. But precisely because the stakes are so high, the UN needs to get serious about transparency and accountability to its member states.

There are a few examples of scrupulous individuals challenging their colleagues to do better. One is John Holmes, the soon-to-depart Emergency Relief Coordinator, who chastised the UN team for failing to push beyond business-as-usual. Another is Peter Galbraith, the number two person in Afghanistan who was purportedly fired because he refused to ignore fraud in the last election. These men respected their colleagues and the institution they worked for. They also expected the UN to make good on its promises and be honest about what it has and has not accomplished.

Instead of treating its donor-members like an audience to be dazzled with romantic plotlines and pyrotechnics, the Secretary-General could invite them to take a more active role in the organization. Asking critics to produce ideas instead of complaints could generate some good suggestions, and at the very least may convince the more reasonable of these critics to recognize the difficulties the UN faces. On its side, the UN can use new media--including social media--to be honest, transparent and accountable, providing data in real time on its accomplishments and failures on the ground. This will help to exorcise the culture of defensiveness, and refocus the UN on rising to meet its challenges. In other words, a real blockbuster.