Insiders here, who often view the world body's roster of top-level executives much like handicappers watch over the Kentucky Derby, are training their binoculars on the upcoming selection of an administrator for the U.N. Development Program, one of the organization's most prestigious and important agencies.
For the insiders, it will answer the question: Who's in front, the Americans or the Europeans? Both want to see one of their own appointed.
For other observers, though, the current exercise offers an object lesson in the foibles of the U.N. appointment process--in which nationality sometimes matters more than qualifications--and in the erosion of U.S. influence resulting from Washington's $1.5-billion debt to the world body.
The Development Program, along with the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, is the world body's main instrument for battling Third World poverty. Its annual budget exceeds $785 million.
James Gustave Speth, the American who has headed the Development Progam since 1993, announced this month that he will leave office in June to take a position with Yale University.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan is not expected to select a successor to Speth until early next year, but the European Union already has begun to lobby on behalf of Poul Nielsen, Denmark's minister for developmental aid. The U.S., which has been the leading financier of the Development Program for most of the agency's more than three decades of existence, is expected to fight to keep the administrator's post as an American fiefdom.
Although the U.N. is officially dedicated to the notion of countries acting collectively for the world's greater good, in many ways it remains divided along regional and national lines. Nowhere is that more evident than in the careful balance accorded to handing out the most powerful jobs.
The majority of the top positions go to Americans, Europeans and Japanese, whose nations provide the bulk of U.N. funds. A few--including the top job, secretary-general--are held by citizens of developing nations, which provide most of the votes in the General Assembly.
Moving the Development Program post into European hands would be seen here as a major power shift and another signal of diminished U.S. influence.
Both sides cite their financial backing for the agency as a principal reason for snagging the appointment.
Bernhard Wrabetz, spokesman for the Austrian mission to the U.N., whose nation now chairs the European Union, notes that the 15 EU countries collectively contributed more than half the Development Program's budget last year.
"There is no U.N. law that says the UNDP administrator has to be an American citizen," he said. "We think someone from another region should get a chance."
Princeton N. Lyman, assistant secretary of State for international organizations, said there has been no decision on an American candidate to replace Speth. But he noted that an increase in U.S. funding for the agency this year has allowed the United States to "reclaim our place" as the largest single donor, though final figures on contributions are not yet available.
Lyman added pointedly that "whoever leads it will want the United States to continue to be a major contributor" and thus should be acceptable to the Clinton administration and Congress.
Contributions to the Development Program are voluntary and separate from the regular assessment each member state contributes to the U.N.'s general administrative fund. However, the U.S. debt to the general fund has undercut its position.
A source close to Annan suggested that the debt, and cutbacks in U.S. funding to the Development Program in 1996 and 1997, may affect the appointment. The time could be past, the source said, when Americans will head both the Development Program and UNICEF.
"It has become increasingly untenable for the United States to run both organizations as its contributions go down," the source said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Donations: U.S. and Europe
The United Nations Development Program, which along with UNICEF is the world body's major agency for fighting Third World poverty, is funded by member contributions given separate from U.N. dues. Added together, contributions from the 15-member European Union exceed money given by the United States. James Gustave Speth, an American, steps down in June as the program's director.
Millions of dollars
EU nations: 506.40
Top single European donor: 93.7
EU nations: 508.40
Top single European donor: 105.4
EU nations: 492.00
Top single European donor: 98.1
EU nations: 412.10
Top single European donor: 87.5
*European Union contributions from 13 nations (none listed from Greece and Luxembourgh).