The UN’s social peacemaker
Hany Abdel-Aziz chairs staff-management consultations. He tells us what needs to be fixed at the UN, starting with better dialogue and mobility
1 Jun 2021

As President of the UN’s Staff Management Committee, do you think management is really consulting staff representatives on conditions of service and welfare as it should?

The rules on staff-management consultations are over a decade old. It is a result of much give and take, like any negotiation, and is a compromise. Still, it has been a useful tool.

This being said, there is room for improvement. Many grey zones exist, other subjects are ignored, for example how administrative instructions are issued.

Many issues are in my humble opinion procedural. For example, the UN’s structure has evolved. We have new entities that need to be represented while others carry less weight than before. We need to look at how the field is represented, including peacekeeping and special political missions.

We also need a simple mechanism for conflict resolution. The role of the bureau could also be widened and be given authority to submit recommendations to the SMC plenary. I am sure that staff and management can identify plenty of ways that the consultative process can be adapted to our everchanging organization structure. So yes, the SMC has been useful and still is as it currently stands. But it could benefit from an update based on lessons learned and recent developments in order to reflect a better-balanced approach.

You have worked for more than 30 years at the UN, including in senior positions in the field. Have issues affecting staff changed much?

We need to pay more attention to the conditions of work for staff in the field, and by this I mean the real field, not luxury duty stations like Cyprus and Brindisi. They work in the heat and rain, with malaria, facing physical and mental risks on a daily basis. Their workload is sometimes 7 days a week. I think even on a salary level or global compensation level, they are mistreated. They should have better conditions to continue working and to continue attracting competent elements.

Another subject is rotation. I know this won’t please many colleagues but it’s a reality. People serving in the field in those difficult conditions, are effectively second- if not third-class citizens. If there is no rotation system like at UNHCR or UNICEF, you will not establish fairness but resentment. There should either be a mandatory rotation system or a points system to allow access to higher-level positions.

Going from different headquarters in the US and Europe to the field also brings a wealth of information and expertise, which they can bring back to the same duty station or to another.

I don’t buy the argument that staff can’t move because they bought an apartment or real estate. We are a para-diplomatic organization. We always say we need more or less the same advantages and privileges of diplomats, and we have many of them already, but diplomats manage to move, even though they also have families and own apartments.

The Organization should help staff move back and forth between headquarters and the field. I don’t know why our SG is not implementing a system like this. They say it is for financial reasons but money is always found for a good cause.

Few people appreciate the experience staff gain in the field, the pleasure of getting concrete, tangible achievements. It is so rewarding. Sitting at HQ pushing paper is not in my opinion the best thing for the organization, nor for member states.

It also seems that certain “luxury” peacekeeping duty stations are reserved, and we know what that means. Reserved without enough diversity and I don’t have to be more specific.

A fair system can bring happy staff, capable of performing. The UN has to be versatile, has to be flexible, in terms of location, sharing experience, working together, and sharing the burden.

How in your view can the Secretary-General make use of the SMC in order to improve his relations with staff unions?

There is an issue of imbalance. The SG is in a particular delicate situation at SMC in the sense that he is the Chief Administrative Officer of the Organization, and the SMC reports to him, but he is also management.

His management representatives at SMC have tremendous access to him and his front office. On the other side staff representatives do not have the same access. In my humble opinion it’s necessary to balance what is an unbalanced situation.

I have requested more than once for the SG to meet with staff representatives, even with the presence of management, in order that they be able to submit to him their point of view concerning questions of conflictual nature for which there has been no consensus.

This has not happened. I have no idea if this is because of the SG’s very heavy, political schedule, or from advice given to him not to do so. I am therefore using this forum to reiterate to management and to the SG that there is a need to meet at least once, if not twice a year, for one hour, no more, with staff representatives in an organized manner.

The meeting could be planned well in advance with questions submitted beforehand and a format agreed upon in order to prevent a descent into micro-discussions. I am calling for such a meeting at least once if not twice a year with all the representatives of staff. This is my advice and my recommendation, which I will reiterate again. The SMC needs to be more balanced.

* Prisca Chaoui is Executive Secretary of the Staff Coordinating Council of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG). Ian Richards is an economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
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