3 Questions to Ian Richards
Ian Richards © GEORGE YOUNES
Posted on 8 Oct 2020
Categories: 3 questions to
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

Former President of CCISUA and Economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

You have been in the staff representation since 2009 and have occupied many functions such as Executive Secretary of the Staff Coordinating Council, the Vice President of the Staff-Management Committee and the President of Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations. Could you let us know what was the most challenging situation you faced in defending staff rights?

It has been a great privilege to serve staff in Geneva and around the world, and to work with some many hard-working and dedicated staff representatives from whom I have learned a lot, but also some honest and decent people on the management side. 

The most recent challenge of course was ICSC-recommended pay cut, which we showed was based on incorrect calculations and data and appeared to have been done with some clear pre-meditation. When we communicated this to staff, there was rightful outrage about the statistical manipulation. The issue is still ongoing of course, and we obtained some reductions in the cut, and the post adjustment methodology had been given a mich-needed revision (so we have won some) but what really struck me was the extent to which staff were ready to work together to fight this change.

© IAN RICHARDS

During Ban Ki-moon’s time I witnessed management walk out of negotiations in Mexico City, on the pretext they couldn’t agree with us on the agenda. Staff were clearly upset as this came at a time when UN personnel in the field were coming under attack from terrorist groups and we could no longer negotiate on their safety. By highlighting this to member states but also by getting a better understanding of what management itself was looking for, during three days of emergency talks in Geneva, they finally came back to the table.

Recently we have seen attempts to move administrative posts to low-cost locations in a scheme called the Global Service Delivery Model. Fifteen years ago, such a move may have made sense. But IT has changed the nature of administrative work. With fewer administrative staff doing more analytical work, we shared a business model with the General Assembly that showed that the savings from moving to a cheap location and using untrained staff would be less than the investment costs. Since then, enthusiasm has waned.

A big challenge recently has been improving how our pension fund is governed. I ran for the pension board because I saw retirees not being paid for months and a board of effectively 93 members doing little to hold the fund’s leadership to account. Working with fellow UN participant representatives we obtained a complete change in leadership, better client support and General Assembly support to completely reform how the Board works so that it’s smaller and more aware of its responsibilities.

The UN is celebrating its 75th anniversary amidst a lot of challenges. How in your view will the UN and its working conditions change?

I think member states continue to believe in the UN and in cooperation. If anything this pandemic has demonstrated how problems such as viruses and their economic impact don’t stop at borders. Even the richest and most powerful countries are struggling.

That doesn’t of course mean that they support the UN as it currently is. If you look at where the funding is going, and there has been a lot of it recently, it has been at the country level through the new resident coordinator system. I think we should expect the UN to move in that direction as it follows the money.

Organizations in Geneva will need to be a lot more plugged into what is happening at the country level if they are to remain relevant and continue funding their activities here. Geneva can no longer use a business model that relies on massive on-site global conferences with thousands of participants, like the Human Rights Council. Covid has helped technology upend that. With regards to working conditions, we will probably see a whole host of measures to encourage staff to move to the field. 

© IAN RICHARDS
© IAN RICHARDS
Ian Richards with António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Credit: Ian Richard

What have you learned from all this?

You don’t get what you want if you don’t fight for it. And we have had some successes. 

But not just us. Look at the Fair Internship Initiative to get stipends for interns. We gave them support at the start at a time many said they would not succeed. But one by one, they have convinced organizations to pay interns and promote diversity in what is a first rung for many. Hopefully the UN Secretariat will follow. 

The point is that future staff representatives shouldn’t give up, even when things look bleak. My time has been bookended by the financial crisis and the pandemic. It was never easy. And there is more to do. For example, pushing back against greater contract precarity, helping colleagues more on temporary contracts, improving conditions in the field, fighting harassment, addressing racial discrimination.

There is so much. Don’t give up!

* Prisca Chaoui is Executive Secretary of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council. Prisca Chaoui est Secrétaire exécutive du conseil de coordination du personnel de l’Office des Nations Unies à Genève (ONUG).