Waning Moon

This week’s Economist paints a rather dispiriting portrait of the tenure of U.N. head Ban Ki-Moon. (“More Secretary, than General,” opines one quoted wag.) Although the article is critical of the “first-half” performance of Moon, it is nothing compared to the hit he takes from Jacob Helilbrunn, who in the latest issue of Foreign Policy calls Moon, only half in jest, “the world’s most dangerous Korean.”

Given the intensely political nature of the secretary general appointment and the incredible number of constituencies that have to be satisfied, it’s a wonder they can ever find someone willing to take the position. Nevertheless, Moon, a compromise candidate, took the job knowing full well that the post is hard on its occupants, and that few have left with anything approaching glory. Just think of Kofi Annan and the Oil-for-Food scandal, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his diddling over Rwanda, or Kurt Waldheim’s tarnished reputation as a former SS officer. It’s no surprise that Moon equates the job with caution. To a fault.

This year alone, confronted by a full menu of catastrophes — in the Congo, in Sri Lanka, in Somalia, the Sudan and Pakistan — the U.N. performance has been less than stellar. It’s not that anyone expects the U.N. to solve these problems. But in the case of the Congo, the U.N. may have made the situation worse by failing to execute its mandate, and by failing to punish miscreants in its own ranks. As for the others, the U.N. was simply a non-starter. With the exception of softball assignments like Liberia — an acknowledged success story — U.N. peacekeeping operations have hardly been worth their expense.

An African academic once asked me this simple question: How much different would the world be if the U.N. would move from New York to Nairobi, and the World Bank from D.C. to Jakarta?

It might serve to break down the insularity of the U.N. and put it in touch with its customers. That’s a mantra in the private sector. Why not give it a try in global development?