The Guardian just published a list of 11 tips how to make a career in the UN, most of them giving advice on how not to work. Of course, the list is a satiric take on the myth of the UN’s lazy buggers who only pretend to save the world when they are actually playing minecraft or hanging out at the pool, or even worse, abusing the power they have. There are many such lists and articles (here and here); ineffectiveness or stupidity is also commonly laughed at on the very popular blog ‘Stuff expat aidworkers like’ (which has seriously lost speed in the past years); and there have been a number of books written on the UN’s ineptitude (see for instance the highly tainted and disputed memoirs of Pedro Sanjuan).
But the laziness of UN staff thus decried is a myth. UN workers do work their bottom off. Especially in field missions Un staff usually does not have 9 to 5 working hours or a four-day working week. On the contrary, stress is a major problem of UN work. In my 2012 survey of civilian staff in peacebuilding missions which I did for my book project, a third of the respondents said that they felt extremely or very often stressed. More than 40% of the respondents found it very difficult to balance family and work life.
So, the problem is not that UN staff doesn’t work. If it is not the real laziness of UN staff that is at stake, then the myth has another foundation. The problem is that their work is not very visible to the outside world. As this graph shows from the same survey, most staff is in regular contact with other UN agencies or international organizations during their working day, however they deal little with, however defined local agencies. They also draw their information and ideas less from locals than from international sources. Even though many read local newspapers or say that they are in regular contact with people living in the country and that they know many since a long time, they still privilege international newspapers and expert advice as information sources.
UN work (and probably also of any other international agency) is highly self-referential. Hence, it might appear irrelevant and remaining aloof of the reality of the goals to be achieved. The world seems to go on very well without the UN. The 2015 Millenium Development Goals for instance were successfully met largely because of China’s formidable economic growth that took place entirely independently from any UN work (and with economic policies which, according to some, defied the development politics’ wisdom).
Yet, this is only part of the story. As it is true for all administrations and bureaucracies the UN is most successful if not seen or heard. Ideally, the UN (and its affiliated organizations) is in the background and provides the conditions of possibilities for other– NGOs, national or local governments, local organizations etc. – to act. The critique that the UN is bunch of lazy buggers, hence, also expresses extreme unease with the organization’s elusiveness. The UN appears unaccountable, byzantine and far removed from the people it is supposed to serve. The contradiction is particularly disturbing where the UN is engaged in ‘empowerment’ or ‘democracy’ projects; whoever is the beneficiary of UN aid is her/himself utterly powerless and excluded from any major decision-making (despite the rhetoric of ‘consultation’) – an impression which is reinforced by the self-referential nature of UN work where the views of headquarter officials are more important than the views of the people on the ground.