The 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York. The world body is cash-strapped and over-staffed particularly in its top tier. EPA PIC

SINCE the beginning of last month, the hallowed corridors of the United Nations (UN) have been abuzz with the cash-strapped status of the world body.

The story of the UN being cash poor is not a new thing — it has happened before. But not to the extent of last Thursday’s announcement, and not to the point where the UN secretary-general had to send a memo to all UN heads and explain the austerity measures that took effect yesterday.

Face it — the UN has just become too big. Its operating budget for the coming year is US$2.87 billion (RM12 billion) and that is not including the peacekeeping budget which is handled separately.

Only 70 per cent of the annual budget comes from the assessed contributions of member states. As we know, the United States contributes around 22 per cent of the overall member states’ contributions. This is why when the US is late in its payment, or defaults, the UN starts sweating.

Let’s put aside the fact that the UN is running low on cash because its members fail to pay their dues on time. After all, the assessed contribution of each member state depends on the overall budget of the UN. The bigger the budget, the more member states have to contribute.

Let’s look instead at the UN budget itself, which has become bigger and much more unmanageable in the past decade or so.

In April this year, the Secretary-General’s office issued a report on the size of the UN workforce, mainly its secretariat strength. A total of 37,505 people, from 146 countries work for the UN.

Of that number, 35 per cent are in the professional and senior management category, meaning the UN itself is top-heavy, with more than one-third of its employees in the top tier of its workforce.

A good organisational structure is one where top management does not exceed 10 per cent of the total employees, or else there are too many managers and not enough workhorses. This total workforce does not include the actual peacekeepers on the ground, which number between 90,000 and 100,000 military and police personnel.

Next year will be the first year that a new way of budgeting at the UN will be implemented. Normally the UN budget is approved for two years. This year, the ongoing reform of the UN dictated that the budget would be an annual budget, which also means that it would be easier for laymen to analyse and compare.

By the end of last month, when the UN General Assembly for the 74th session started, the UN was owed about US$1.3 billion — about half of what it needs for the next budget year.

For an organisation which is dependent upon membership fees and which is supposed to work for the member states, the budget should be: what are the projects to be implemented, and how much will it cost. If the overall salary payments are too high, then perhaps it is time that they think about reducing the number of managers in the system. After all, too many cooks tend to spoil the broth.

Earlier this year, the UN instituted another reform to its organisational structure. The UN Resident Coordinators — a system in place since 1977 — saw an overhaul of the system in 2008. Country coordinators were appointed, meaning they were the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) heads in those country as well as the ceremonial heads of all the UN agencies in that country.

Last May, this system was again reformed. The UNDP heads are now UNDP representatives only, and answer to a new UN Resident Representative who oversees the whole of the UN machinery in that country. So, what has happened is that where there used to be one post, there are now two, and for the 130 posts around the world there are now 260.

The UN needs to focus on the projects it undertakes — to make sure that those projects are viable and short term. Then it can decide on the amount needed to make that project a success. Only then should it think about the personnel needed to carry out that project, preferably without creating new posts, and definitely without creating new undersecretaries-general in New York.

If it reduces its top-heavy personnel force, then perhaps it would not need so much money to do its job. And member states would not have to fork out the moon and stars just for the privilege of being a member.

The writer is a foreign service officer who writes on international affairs with a particular emphasis on Africa