Something Ignoble within the UN
I write this piece with the standing belief that internal democracy and freedom of expression are still practiced and honored within the United Nations system. That belief may have been shaken some with my recent work experience at the office of the UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines, but I nevertheless remain confident that a small but deeply flawed component does not represent the whole. I also trust that a progressive institution such as the UN has the capacity and tools to self-repair… I have been with the UNRC Office for four months, having been invited to apply (and chosen) for the temporary post of Coordination Specialist for nine (9) months from December 2006 to September 2007. Since then I've been clocking in 12-15 work hours everyday, given the extraneous load of the RC office.
On 4 May 2007 at 1:00 p.m. , I was called to a meeting by my boss, Ms. Nileema Noble (UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative). Two other UNDP officers were also called in: Mr. Kyo Naka, UNDP Deputy Representative, and Ms. Ethel Capuno, UNDP Procurement Officer. After having seated, Nileema got straight to the point and said that they were already terminating my contract that same day. (I was to be paid half a month after the termination date in lieu of the 15-day notice as provided in the contract).
"Can I ask for the reason why?" I queried, matter-of-factly. "You know that we are not required to give you a reason," replied Nileema. "Your Special Service Agreement (SSA) contract allows either party to unilaterally terminate it at any point within the duration." She then stated that she was not satisfied with my performance, and that there is a mismatch between the skills I possess and those that are demanded by my work.
"I would like to contest that," I answered. "I am not questioning your move to unilaterally terminate my contract, as that is your prerogative, but I do not agree with the arbitrary appraisal of my performance. I am not perfect, and I'm sure I have had lapses in my work like anyone else, but I have so far delivered the tasks expected of me." I went on to enumerate the accomplished assignments thus far: the clockwork regularity of the UN Country Team (UNCT) meetings, the series of Delivering as One briefings, the UNCT Retreat, the mission of Prof. Philip Alston (UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions), and so forth. In all this I was able to harness the collective strength of the UNRC office team, ensuring that tasks were properly delegated while taking on direct, hands-on work myself. I have indeed received positive feedback from UNCT members and other UN colleagues.
"The UNCT members have negative comments against you," Nileema retorted, "but I don't want to divulge them here. Also, you may of course contest this decision but that is up to you, and there are consequences. As it is now, you can leave with a record of good standing in the UN, because we are not declaring any reason for the contract's termination. But if you contest, then we will do that. Furthermore, another reason is that there are confidential RC Office documents that somehow reached other people." I gave her a bewildered look, thus she continued: "I'm not saying you yourself leaked them. But it is the RC office's responsibility to safeguard these documents."
I asked what exactly these documents were, for I was clueless, but again she refused to say. I was thus left unable to clarify whatever it was or even defend myself against accusations.
I was then asked to sign the letter of termination, stating that the Coordination Specialist function I was performing was no longer required. I said I do not want to sign any document, asking for some time to consider these things.
"No!" she blurted. "You cannot confer with anyone!" I found that incomprehensible. Since when did the "freedom to consult" been banned in a higher institution such as the UN? But I simply said I don't intend to "confer" with other people about this. I just needed a few hours to mull things over. "You don't have that option."
"So what will you do if I refuse to sign this document? Bodily carry me out of the UN premises?" I was beginning to boil then. It was then Ethel's turn to intervene, trying to be diplomatic. "No, we don't do that naman at the UN. All we ask is that you simply 'acknowledge receipt' of this notice." Nileema stated further that, whether I sign it or not, the termination will be effective anyway.
So I silently sat there for a number of minutes, weighing things, looking each of them in the eye, finding it strange that within the UN such disregard for due process and humane conduct continue unhampered. I considered defying it, but realized in the same instance that I wouldn't want to stay a minute longer in such an oppressive work environment. In all of my years as a professional, it was only at the UNRC Office where I felt I was living a nightmare existence. I've been dragging my feet to work every single day. Thus I wrote "notice received" in the one-page document, signed it, and quickly packed my stuff. I wasn't able do a proper handover because my email was immediately cut that very afternoon.
Taking the Fall
Soon as I left, I contemplated the reasons for the early termination of my contract. "Mismatch of my skills with those demanded of the job," she said. Perhaps there is some of that element. I was once described by Nileema as an "academic" type, but what was required of us was to attend to the voluminous, assembly line-like routine of the RC office and perform simultaneous tasks. Hardly anyone, however, can keep up with this. The "work-life balance" bandied about was an illusion. As one UN official told me: "I'm in your mailing list, and I can't imagine how you can perform all those demanding assignments. I saw the ones before you leave one after the other. The system, clearly, is designed to fail." While I am confident that my extraneous efforts delivered the goods, amid the difficulties and aggravations that multiplied the burden, I grant that the boss has the prerogative to declare otherwise.
The other reason was the so-called "leaked document," of which I remain uninformed, thus the best I can do is speculate. It maybe something related to human rights, or MDGs, or whatever themes we worked on. Hundreds of documents fly around and from the UN everyday, though I can assert that I have not sent any document to anyone with malice and without authorization or protocol. Still, Nileema can claim any single one of them has "fallen into the wrong hands" and I would be in no position to question that.
What I object to is the arbitrariness and utter disregard for proper procedure, and more importantly the abhorrent behavior one would not expect from a civilized human being, much less from a UN diplomat.
A Dreadful Work Environment
The Coordination Specialist position was designed to assist the UN Resident Coordinator (UNRC or simply RC, officially the highest-ranking UN position in a country) in harmonizing work among various UN agencies. The post was vacated successively by two other people (the first one, temporarily). I won't hazard a reason for their premature departure, though it is particularly telling that people under Nileema's watch are leaving in droves. More than 20 people have left the UNDP since she came, and counting. I also cannot speak in their behalf, but I can speak from my own experience.
"Tolerance and understanding are basic human values. They are essential for international civil servants, who must respect all persons equally, without any distinction whatsoever. This respect fosters a climate and a working environment sensitive to the needs of all. To achieve this in a multicultural setting calls for a positive affirmation going well beyond passive acceptance." (Underscoring supplied) [ Article 6 of the Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service, The United Nation's Ombudsman's Office.]
The present RC is some kind of an enigma. I have never seen such kind of leadership conduct before. It is the kind of behavior one can associate with a jail warden (from whom it is not acceptable as well). There is no normal conversation with her, at least so far as I have observed in her interaction with all the staff. (Equal or higher-ranking officials are a different matter – she deals with them casually or with reverence).
There was never an instance when she did not raise her voice. The surreal "meeting" we had on May 4 that I just narrated was not unusual – it was a daily occurrence with Nileema.
A senior UN official, from whom we sought advice a few months earlier, suggested that the problem might have something to do with "cultural differences." I considered that notion, and caught myself thinking that, if at all, the cultural dimension here takes the form of an anachronistic social construct called the "caste system," which bases the treatment of human beings based on their position in the pecking order… What apparently matters to Nileema is a person's place in the human artifice called "hierarchy."
As such, Nileema somehow antagonizes most everyone she meets, as most of us are "subordinates" anyway. Her behavior towards people seemingly comes with a personal sense of entitlement; that her high UN position gives her the Brahman license to treat people in such abysmal manner.
In all four months with the office I forced myself to hang on, I resolved to try and "survive" it and find ways to somehow solve the unbearable situation we were all in. I saw an opportunity to constructively address it at our UNRC Office retreat, where presumably we can air out grievances. I told Nileema in the most reasonable manner that there could be a better way of relating with the UN staff. "Whenever you are around, the stress level among the staff shoots up." She responded that she always had that effect on people wherever she was – whether in her previous posts or even in her family.
"But that is how I am, and it has to do with my passion for work. I'm just passionate."
Fine. It's just unfortunate that she seems to have mistook treating people as virtual slaves 'to get the job done' as 'passion.'
It also gives her the authority to dictate what is wrong and what is right, regardless of what others say or think. You cannot argue your point. Nileema is known to crash in on a workshop underway, whether it's a government or civil society function, undermine the proceedings and declare that "everything is wrong." She then proceeds to declare what is right. What is right is not based on merit but on brandished authority.
An example indicative of this abrasive unilateralism was when she was asking me about a human rights-related meeting that was not proceeding according to how she wanted.
"Are you sabotaging the RC office?" she exclaimed.
Sabotaging?! I was so incredulous and offended I almost replied: "With the way you are running this office, I don't even need to." But I checked myself, realizing that would've entailed stooping to the level of coarseness I was objecting to. I simply expressed my incredulity. "Of course not. Why would I do such a thing?"
One of Nileema's oft-repeated justifications for her behavior is that she is just hammering people to work better. "Not good enough!" is a common outburst. The question is: does it work? The exodus of her staff is hardly an indication that things are going in the right direction. Frayed nerves of those who remain can never produce quality work. Nileema does not believe in positively motivating people; she promotes a culture of submissiveness and subjugation. In the process, she continues to lose the cooperation and respect not only of her staff but partners as well from donors, government offices, and civil society.
A sympathetic colleague tried to assuage my distress by saying that Nileema is an exception, rather than the rule, in the UN. She is just a fluke and therefore I should not be disillusioned with the entire system. But this aberration has the potential to wreak havoc on the whole. Allowing this to continue, apart from driving people out and restricting the creative freedom of workers, holds the greater danger of perpetuating a vicious cycle. It creates a system that cultivates a handful of clones that unquestioningly do their boss' bidding and replicate her behavior toward their respective colleagues and subordinates, while leaving a throng of embattled, embittered soldier ants. It breeds "transfer of oppression;" or the so-called "kick the dog" syndrome. I saw it happening already, and the repercussions are frightening.
What is ironic in all this is that other UN agencies and parallel international organizations have already evolved far more egalitarian systems of work. The present UNRC, assigned with the momentous role of leading the UN system's sweeping reform agenda under the "Delivering as One" banner, remains stuck in a patently feudal mindset and form of rule. This may perhaps explain the major reluctance of officials and staff during the Delivering as One briefings, which provides for "one leader" among others. This would've been easier to swallow if that "one leader" respects "all persons equally, without any distinction whatsoever…and fosters a climate and a working environment sensitive to the needs of all." Regrettably, the current UN leader in the Philippines considers the organization as her own private fiefdom.
I realize that the foregoing could very likely jeopardize any possible UN career for me in the future. For all it's worth, right now I am still presumably "in good standing" and can continue searching other options within the system, so long as "I keep my peace." I'm better off being mum about it, however I can never feel fine with myself knowing that such abomination continues to exist and I simply let it pass.
It is incumbent for those who are still within the UN, especially those who relate with Nileema directly, to do something about the regressive state of affairs she is perpetuating. The country's development is at stake, and so is the UN's potential to affect its course. The country and the UN cannot condone yet another tyrant, for that would breed more of her kind. As Lord Achton once famously declared: "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
In many of our meetings, Nileema often declared that she "does not know anything about human rights." Does one really need to overstate the obvious?
I rest my case.
Robert Francis Garcia
Former Coordination Specialist
UN Resident Coordinator's Office
(Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews' effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their experiences in their adopted countries, the countries they're presently working in, their growing up years or homecomings in Mindanao, their hopes and dreams and suggestions for Our Mindanao. P.N. Abinales of Ozamiz City is Associate Professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University, Japan.)