The Fifa fiasco is not just about football. It is also emblematic of a chronic problem with international bureaucracies of all kinds. The tendency of supranational quangos to become the personal fiefdoms of their presidents or directors-general, and to sink into lethargy or corruption, followed by brazen defiance when challenged, is not unique to Fifa or sport. It is an all too common pattern.
Outside sport, consider what happened to Unesco, the UN cultural body, in the 1980s. No organisation had ever begun with higher ideals. Its first delegates were mostly distinguished writers and intellectuals.
Under the presidency of Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, from 1974 to 1987, it became (in the words of The New York Times at the time) “bogged down into a totally politicised, demoralised bureaucracy whose chief concern is to provide cushy jobs for politicians unwanted at home and a forum for attacking the very concepts Unesco was supposed to serve — human rights for all, press freedom, unrestricted access to culture.”
At its meetings, Mr M’Bow was wont to win landslide votes for resolutions praising himself and his regime, not unlike Sepp Blatter or Augustus Caesar. Only when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher took the provocative step of withdrawing their countries entirely from Unesco did reform come. Mr M’Bow, unwelcome in his native Senegal, retired to Morocco where he still lives.
Hiroshi Nakajima’s two terms as director-general of the World Health Organisation (1988-98) saw an enormous expansion of its budget and bureaucracy and rows over the response to Aids. As Mr Nakajima fought off a challenger, the Japanese government lavished research contracts on 23 of the 31 members of the executive board — a coincidence that “presented a problem of ethics”, a later audit delicately decided. Mr Nakajima eventually bowed out only after saying that Africans had difficulty writing reports, which is why they were under-represented in the organisation. That is how far you have to go before you lose the support of delegates in such bodies.
Or take the case of 74-year-old Rajendra Pachauri, until recently the chairman of the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. He dismissed as “voodoo science” an official report by India’s leading glaciologist challenging the IPCC’s mistaken claim that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035. The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), which Pachauri founded, had hired the man who made the claim about the short life of the glaciers, and snared a share in a €3 million grant from the European Union to pursue it. The IPCC had to withdraw the claim.
That and other errors led to what Mr Pachauri hoped would be a friendly inquiry into the IPCC by the world’s top science academies, but which in fact found “significant shortcomings” in the IPCC’s assessment process on conflicts of interest, transparency, the presentation of uncertainty and other matters. It said the chairman should serve only one term. Asked if that meant Mr Pachauri should step down immediately, the chairman of the panel said that was “one logical conclusion”, but Mr Pachauri sailed on for another five years as if nothing had happened, flying around the world telling people they should not fly.
It was only this year, after a 29-year-old female employee of Teri went to police alleging sexual assault, stalking and harassment that Mr Pachauri resigned as IPCC chairman (he is at present on bail). This month, an internal Teri panel found him guilty of work-
place sexual harassment. So once again it took unrelated events to remove a chief from the top of an international fiefdom.
A smaller example: the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe is not much of a household name, but its secretary-general, a former US congressional staffer called Spencer Oliver (one of those whose phones was bugged by the Watergate burglars), has served continuously for all its 22 years. He has fended off challenges and tried to frustrate attempts to reform the constitution. Having now — at 77 — reluctantly conceded that he might like to think about letting somebody else play with the limos and tax-free, Danish-diplomatic status that go with the job, he seems intent on influencing the choice of his successor.
Fiefdoms suffer from cock-up as well as conspiracy. In March this year, leaked emails revealed just how much the World Health Organisation’s officials delayed urgent responses to the ebola outbreak in West Africa last year. Ignoring increasingly frantic pleas from its own staffers and other organisations, WHO refused to declare a public health emergency for two months during which the epidemic got out of control. The organisation even hindered the attempts of some to get more expertise to the region.
“This outbreak isn’t different from previous outbreaks,” said a WHO spokesman in April last year. As late as October, when the ebola crisis was at its worst, the WHO director general, Margaret Chan, gave her apologies to an international conference on ebola, preferring to talk about the dangers of electronic cigarettes at a meeting in Russia.
There is no suggestion of corruption, here, just failure to do the job properly. But it would be inconceivable in the private sector, or in national bodies, that heads would not roll after such a lethal debacle. Instead of which, WHO has come out with the usual “lessons will be learnt” platitudes and gone about its business.
This illustrates the problem. Companies are answerable to shareholders; even national agencies are answerable to parliaments; both fear the press and the police. International quangos are utterly unaccountable and effectively above the law. That it took the FBI to charge some of Fifa’s executives for things they did elsewhere, because of a glancing connection to American jurisdiction, illustrates the difficulty. If determined, such bodies can ignore the views of national parliaments, dismiss the attention of journalists, scoff at legal challenges, and write their own expense-account rules. Most of the people who serve on such bodies are too principled to let this go to their heads. But not all.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com. This article was first published the Times.