Flying doctors: UN personnel unloading medication from a helicopter in northern Darfur

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Taking up a far flung post at a multilateral institution only to be confronted with suspicion, favouritism and even animosity can be a hard lesson for anyone. But it happens, especially in Africa where bodies such as the UN and the World Bank carry most weight and play many crucial roles, but also suffer the burden of their mixed record of success.

For staff deployed to African posts, the working environment is hugely variable – from a solo IMF posting to one of the 20-plus agencies sharing the UN complex on the outskirts of Nairobi, a hermetic compound in landscaped grounds with its own recreation and health facilities, bus fleet and duty-free supplies.

The UN is a sprawling bureaucracy, needing to balance nationalities and subject to culture clashes and complaints about promotion opportunities. The majority of employees are local, and while pay is geared to local levels, job security and fringe benefits mean that these are widely regarded as desirable positions.

Cronyism has in the past been notorious at some UN agencies, and steps to overcome it have not always had total success, according to one official. “Recruiting is baroque, and the capacity to retain dead wood is evident,” he says. A scheme to shift from permanent to fixed-term employment contracts was launched five years ago.

Similar conditions are in force at the African Development Bank (AfDB), currently in the throes of moving its headquarters back to Abidjan after 11 years based temporarily in Tunis. In an attempt to cut staff costs, the bank has offered voluntary separation packages, but the perks attached to the headquarters move are such that the scheme has found a disappointing number of takers.

Despite these difficulties, however, experts broadly agree standards of professionalism across the various institutions have risen, says Mats Karlsson, who spent five years as head of the World Bank’s office in Accra and is now a senior adviser for the Middle East and north Africa.

“The general quality, the desire of people to work for global public good, is increasing,” he says. He believes that “who you recruit is more important than how you move people out”. The most important job now, he argues, is to broaden the intake to talented younger people with fresh ideas.

Achieving that task is crucial if the UN and other international public sector institutions are to stem the erosion of their influence.

“The UN and other institutions matter more to Africa than to any other continent,” says Salim Lone, an expatriate Kenyan journalist and former UN media director. But the picture has changed in the past decade, with the strengthening of economies in much of the region, he adds.

For one thing, African countries can now tap alternative sources of funding – China, India, Gulf states or, increasingly, international markets. For another, past mistakes rankle in people’s memories, from the UN’s catastrophic failure to act against the Rwanda genocide 20 years ago to the damage left by heavy-handed “structural adjustment” programmes, set by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But Mr Karlsson says many African governments are now following sounder economic policies, and the bank and the IMF could take some share of the credit. “We have got a lot of things right in the past 15 years,” he says.

Ever since decolonisation, Africa has been a testing ground for the big international organisations. It gets the largest share of soft loans from the World Bank, and the same goes for the IMF, even though the bulk of IMF lending overall is now in Europe.

Africa also hosts the only UN headquarters in the developing world and most of the UN’s peacekeeping activity, including its biggest and costliest operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it undertook its first large-scale intervention more than 50 years ago.

In many areas the UN performs indispensable services, and some parts of the organisation hold unquestioned status – the UNHCR refugee agency, Unicef, the children’s agency, and the World Food Programme, for instance. It can count significant achievements in fighting diseases such as HIV/Aids, malaria and polio, and tackling emergencies.

However, a UN official with experience in different branches of the organisation described its record in co-ordinating relief as “patchy” and suggested that its leadership function in this area was declining.

Meanwhile, Eric Chinje, a Cameroonian former World Bank official who also served with the AfDB, says: “a whole lot more focus” and better communication are needed.

“We do not engage with those we are trying to help, and because we do not engage, they do not understand what we are trying to do,” he says. He adds that the organisation’s criteria for advancement are also part of the problem, because they centre on internal targets rather than whether desired outcomes were achieved.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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