Yesterday we were at the farewell ceremony for someone close to me leaving the UN after many years of service in many parts of the world. What he said was “I leave the UN, still believing in the institution and its ideals, but also firmly believing that it needs to reform and change to meet expectations”. I think many people inside and outside the UN still believe in the charter of the organization, its noble cause, and its ideals. But this is an organization that is sixty four years old, of course it needs to change to stay relevant, and reform is a given when processes that were designed for the forties of the last century do not seem to respond to the needs of the twenty first century. The Palais des Nations in Geneva is a relic of the old UN. It represents a world that moved at a much slower pace, and seems to be mothballed in that era. Work on organizing yesterday’s event meant coming in very close contact with the inner machinery of the Palais, with all its rigid rules and frightening inflexibility. I fail to see how an organization of the present century can function properly and efficiently if it is still working with the mindset and management practices that are decades old and by definition, obsolete. People who work in the Palais seem to revel in the status quo and are most resistant to change, and can you blame them? Well I can, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.
They mostly come to work at 9, take their first coffee break from 10 to 11, then lunch from 12 to 2, then another coffee break in mid-afternoon, then home before five to avoid any hassle with traffic, as a lot of the local workers come from France and they have a “long” commute of about ten to fifteen minutes. This is material for a comedy series. Besides hardly ever answering phones (you’re lucky to catch someone in between coffee and meal duty), there is the attitude problem. They are not helpful for the most part. They also have a great book of rules that they all quote from, which helps in telling you what you can’t do or what you are obliged to do, black and white, no grey, grey and other colors are not acknowledged by Palais administrative staff as they imply flexibility, a word alien to the whole essence of the place. I half expect them to ban rainbows over the Palais.
I will illustrate by giving an example from yesterday.
One of the things that we had to do for the event is to transport an electric piano to the Hall where the event was taking place. My friend and I put the piano in my car – which had the proper plates and badge for access (thank God, or else it would have been a nightmare to bring that piano into the holy grounds) – to be transported to the front of the Assembly Hall where big glass doors could be opened for direct access to the hall. This was for saving time and avoiding hernias by carrying the piano a number of flights of stairs.
We drove into the Palais grounds, piano in trunk, to the front of the assembly hall to find that the people who were supposed to let us in were not really there (it was 12 after all, time for lunch). There were two electric retractable road blocks blocking the asphalt access to the front of the hall, but one can get around them easily. So we did. My colleague advised that this would be the best way to get security on the spot to open the door for us. He is a seasoned UN employee who knows how things work. He explained that if we call and wait for the chain of command to issue an order for the blocks to be retracted and doors to be opened so we can offload the piano, it would take hours, only to find that the person who has to do it is out to lunch/coffee/tea, or whatever these people do when they’re not answering their phone. His advice was “just drive around the road block, it’ll make them show up and save time”. I did. And boy did they show up.
Three security staff came, and looked at us as if we were a mix of Osama bin Laden and aliens from planet Zork. My friend and I exchanged smiles, “it’s working”. The chief honcho in charge of intergalactic peace said, in muted words, barely controlling his rage : “what do you call these things on the road right here?”. “Um, road block thingies”. “Did you not notice that that means no access? Nobody, nobody can drive over the marble floor to get here” “No”, I innocently said, with a smile that could have given him an embolism, “I thought that we were supposed to drive around them, as how else would I be offloading a piano in front of the hall?” Captain world was visibly shaking by then, his eye twitching, his hand on his baton, threatening to completely lose it. I maintained my cheerful disposition. “We will just put the piano in the hall right here, and then we will move the car out. Please ask someone to open the doors for us”.
I thought he was about to have a heart attack. Gritting his teeth, getting red in the face, the excitement obviously taking a toll on his nerves as it made him stammer, “please take the car out and then a colleague who is responsible for electrically lowering the roadblocks will then lower them and then you can drive in again.” I almost laughed at the ridiculous suggestion. My car was already in front of the door, and bozo with a stick wanted me to drive out, OVER HIS SACRED MARBLE, and then drive back in again, after calling the keeper of the road block-probably at lunch enjoying his boudin with apple sauce-to lower the blocks. I don’t think so. So I pointed out that it was forbidden to drive over the marble, to which the enforcer said, looking at his sidekicks (three of them were there by then, their stomachs rumbling, missing their lunch by a few minutes, and getting really antsy) “you can drive over marble when I am here”. To which I proceeded to open my trunk, and my friend and I started offloading the piano. Almost popping a nerve in his forehead, the security guy gave in to something he had probably never experienced, people politely challenging what he said, and opting for common sense.
He stayed there benignly watching us busily transporting the piano to the inside of the hall. Then numbly waved as I cheerfully wished him a “bon appetit” before driving out on the marble as the road block keeper guy was surely at lunch and we had no intention of waiting for him. We had to go to lunch ourselves. Boudin was on the menu in the Palais.