The Forgotten Organ: Why the United Nations Secretariat Underperforms and What Can Be Done about It



Thant Myint-U, International Peace Academy

Date and Time

May 11, 2006 3:30 PM - 12:00 AM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


Reuben W. Hills Conference Room

FSI Contact

Laura C. Page

The United Nations Secretariat--the main part of the UN bureaucracy directly under the Secretary-General--has arguably changed or been challenged more than any other part of the UN system in recent years, with more and more mandates and rising expectations. Though much attention has been given to the reform of the Security Council, and though Washington has made UN 'management reform' a core pillar of its UN policy since the Oil-for-Food scandal, the UN Secretariat has nevertheless proved singularly impervious to even the common sense suggestions for improvement. In many ways, there is a greater gap today than at any time in the past between what the Secretariat does, what it's meant to do, and the capacity it has. Why has improvement been so difficult and what have been the recurrent mistakes of UN reform efforts? With the election of a new Secretary-General due in late 2006, can we think about the UN bureaucracy in a different and more practical way?

Thant Myint-U is a visiting senior fellow at the International Peace Academy. He is also a senior advisor to the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council and a Fellow of the Cambridge University Centre for History and Economics.

From 2000-2006 he worked in the United Nations Secretariat, first for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and then for the Department of Political Affairs (DPA). From 2004-5 he was Chief of DPA's Policy Planning Unit of the Department of Political and in 2005-6 he was a Senior Political Officer in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General. In 2004 he was also a member of the Secretariat of the Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.

Thant Myint-U has also served on three United Nations peacekeeping operations, with UNTAC in Cambodia in 1992-3 and with UNPROFOR and UNMIBH in the former Yugoslavia from 1994-6. In 1994 he was the UN's senior spokesman in Sarajavo.

From 1994-1999 Thant Myint-U was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, where he researched and taught Asian and British imperial history. He received his bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1988, his master's degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1992 and his PhD in history from Cambridge University in 1996.

He is the author of several published and broadcast works, including two books: The Making of Modern Burma (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and The River of Lost Footsteps: Remembering Burma's Past (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2006 forthcoming).

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