Many in the developed world may be surprised to learn that the United Nations is the sovereign of the tiny Pacific island nation of East Timor. The UN Transitional Authority in East Timor decrees binding laws, negotiates treaties on East Timor's behalf, makes police arrests from district offices throughout the country, incarcerates suspects, and even runs Timor's postal service.
While the UN's benign colonialism in East Timor is designed to facilitate the planned transition to full East Timorese independence, this type of unprecedented assumption of power - even with the best intentions - also has the potential to zap the initiative of local leaders and hamper more effective international assistance in East Timor and other transitional societies. One promising solution is the partial privatization of UN nation-building activities.
For more than a decade, the United Nations has created UN-run transitional administrations in places like Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, eastern Slavonia, and Kosovo. All of these missions have made significant contributions. Few, however, have been able to bring the full gamut of outside expertise to bear in civil administration. Many UN officers are not highly specialized in their areas of responsibility, and most are international bureaucrats accountable to UN bosses instead of local leaders. While local leaders may also not yet be selected in a democratic process, they and their populations can often come to rely heavily, sometimes too heavily, on UN assistance.
To remedy this, the post-conflict nation-building process could be improved by privatizing many components of transitional assistance.
Instead of asking the UN to establish and run a finance ministry for a transitional territory like East Timor, for example, interested donor states could create a fund from which contracts for specific services could be drawn.
Local leaders could offer a contract for establishing a ministry of finance and training local personnel, with strict evaluation procedures and quantifiable benchmarks of success. Firms with expertise in finance would then submit competing proposals to be considered by a corporate board of diverse local leaders, overseen and assisted by a UN ombudsman. The same model could be used for other basic government functions within a hybrid UN/indigenous/private framework.
This approach would allow local leaders to retain autonomy, control, and accountability to local populations, while ensuring that essential international assistance and expertise would still be available.
Creating competition for the provision of these services could also do a great deal to enhance the quality and appropriateness of international assistance.
Although many of the firms that could provide these types of services may not now exist, the partial privatization of UN civil administration would allow such firms to grow. This process would parallel recent trends in international development and military assistance, in which private firms such as Development Alternatives International and Dyncorps compete for American USAID and Department of Defense contracts to fulfill seemingly public policy functions.
Privatizing UN nation-building is not a panacea. Many transitional countries have greater problems than even the best civil administration can overcome. But the international community, which is doing a great deal of good in places like East Timor, owes the nations it attempts to help the most effective assistance possible. Fostering competition to inspire such excellence can be an important step in this direction.
Jamie Frederic Metzl, a former US National Security Council and State Department official, is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an International Affairs Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.