UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Ebola epidemic and the war in Syria have cast a spotlight on the inadequacies of the United Nations as it tries to operate in a globalized world with a power structure that hasn't changed since 1945.
To many who know the U.N. well, the organization has grown bloated with age and lack of change, is underfunded for the tasks it faces, and shows few signs of righting itself. That was evident when a recent internal report by the U.N. health agency revealed that cronyism and incompetence in its leadership may have been factors in the spread of Ebola.
Since the U.N. was born from the ashes of World War II, it has grown from 51 members to 193. As it approaches its 70th anniversary next year, the world body is hobbled by bureaucracy, politics and an inability among its five most powerful members to agree on many things — including how to bring peace to Syria.
"If you can imagine any big multinational corporation keeping its structures the same as in 1945, it would have been destroyed by now in the marketplace," said Patricia Lewis, a nuclear physicist who led the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.
The paralysis shows in the debate over what the U.N. itself should be. Nearly every nation agrees that the 15-member Security Council — the U.N.'s most powerful body — must adapt to address threats to international peace and security. Almost 60 countries called for more transparency at a council meeting in October on its working methods.
Yet every Security Council reform proposal over several decades has been rejected, as national interests and regional rivalries trump the common good.
"Those who wield the power don't want to lose the power and they don't want to share it," said Lewis, who is now research director on international security at the Chatham House think tank in London.
The five permanent members of the council who can cast vetoes — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — ultimately call the shots. The U.S. and Russia use their vetoes most often, blocking each other especially on decisions about Mideast conflicts.
One result is that Russia, a close ally of Syria, has been able to block all Western resolutions that would pressure President Bashar Assad to end the conflict there. Despite intensive efforts, the U.N. has also failed to get negotiations started on a peace deal and to bring significant amounts of aid to opposition-controlled areas without the Syrian government's consent. It did unite and pressure Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons, but questions remain about possible hidden caches.
Certainly the U.N. has had some success in its primary mission "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." It has helped prevent and end some conflicts, and a record 130,000 U.N. peacekeepers are currently deployed in 16 hotspots.
The U.N. is often indispensable in helping people caught in conflict and trapped in poverty. It provided food to 80 million people in 75 countries in 2013. It is responding to an unprecedented four simultaneous, top-level humanitarian crises: Iraq, Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan. It supplied vaccines to reach at least 38 percent of the world's children last year. Its development goals adopted in 2000 have significantly reduced global poverty, it has led the campaign for action to combat climate change, and the organization is a major employer in Gaza.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the secretary-general, argues that the U.N. has adapted since its founding in such diverse areas as collective security, international transport, health and human rights.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "has been very much focused on working with member states to make the system more flexible and even more responsive to those needs," he said.
But inefficiency, inaction and sometimes paralysis extend through a sprawling U.N. system that includes 15 autonomous agencies such as the World Health Organization and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; 11 other funds such as UNICEF and the World Food Program; and numerous commissions and bodies. In many U.N. forums, decisions are hard to reach because they must be unanimous, and decisions that are reached are often watered down.
The U.N. General Assembly is a truly global body with all countries represented, but its resolutions are not legally binding. Only the Security Council can authorize military action and impose sanctions, and its resolutions are binding. The secretary-general is the U.N.'s chief administrative officer, elected by the assembly with approval from the Security Council, which means the five permanent members have a veto.
The result: Secretary-generals may have an outsized role on the world's stage, but behind the curtain, they have little independent power and 193 bosses.
"The secretary-general has not been a general for a long time," former U.N. official Lewis told The Associated Press. "They're not marshalling troops. They don't have the freedom to act. Everything has to go through member states."
The members often fall short in funding the U.N. and owed the world body about $3.5 billion in early November for regular operations and peacekeeping. WHO, the U.N. agency addressing the Ebola crisis, has not been spared: Countries slashed its budget by nearly $600 million in 2011, and the U.S., its biggest contributor, has dropped its donation by at least 25 percent since then.
Such faults, along with bureaucracy, became painfully evident as the Ebola virus spread across West Africa and beyond. The WHO's botched initial response was blamed on a shortage of funds, overstretched staff and a dysfunctional structure where the Africa office, not Geneva headquarters, was in charge.
A draft internal document obtained by AP in October describes how WHO country offices in Africa are led by "politically motivated appointments."
Secretary-General Ban stepped in and mounted a campaign to halt Ebola in West Africa. The WHO announced Monday that two of the three hardest-hit countries, Liberia and Guinea, have met a Dec. 1 target for isolating 70 percent of people infected with Ebola and safely burying 70 percent of those who die — but not Sierra Leone.
In general, the five permanent council members claim top jobs in the U.N. Secretariat and leadership of some U.N. agencies. Behind the scenes, many deals are made over which countries should get key posts.
Meanwhile, U.N. peacekeeping operations have grown dramatically, but peacekeepers have been criticized for not doing enough to protect civilians from attacks, and accusations of sexual abuse by troops persist.
Perhaps the highest-profile blunder in recent years was the likely introduction of cholera into Haiti by peacekeepers, an outbreak that killed more than 8,500 people and led to several lawsuits.
The U.N. does not have a standing army and relies on member states to provide peacekeepers. Its far-flung operations, mainly in Africa and the Mideast, are getting their first thorough review in a decade and a half.
Peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous recently said that his department is under the most severe strain since the U.N. was founded, pointing to the deaths of more than 100 peacekeepers this year, dozens taken captive, and a spate of targeted attacks.
The agency's human rights operation also faces problems: Although it is one of the U.N.'s three so-called pillars, along with development and peace and security, it gets only 3 percent of the regular budget.
"A stool with one leg so vastly shorter than the others cannot possibly bear the weight of dramatically increasing global expectations," said the new high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, in his first speech at the U.N. General Assembly.
The only way the U.N. can take decisive action today is to go to the one place it is strong — the Security Council.
As a result, everything is declared a threat to international peace and security, and "that's the wrong lens really to look at diseases and many other global ills," Columbia University Professor Michael Doyle, a former U.N. special adviser for policy planning, told AP.
The U.N. is also regularly criticized for being an organization of words, not action.
"I get to live a daily talkathon up in New York," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power recently told the Center for American Progress in Washington. "If you imagine aggregating government habits across 193 governments, imagine what you end up with, right? I mean, that is not ideal."
But she said that if the United Nations didn't exist, "you would definitely build it, because you want a venue to come together. And even those countries with whom we are estranged or not cooperating in visible ways, it's a channel for communication so you don't have misunderstanding. It's a way of pooling resources."
The question now is whether the U.N. can change.
The U.N.'s founders "built in a veto on future change," Doyle said, by requiring Charter amendments to be approved by two-thirds of the General Assembly and ratified by two-thirds of the states, including the five permanent members.
The U.N. overhauled its machinery to fight corruption after revelations in 2005 that more than 2,200 companies from some 40 countries had colluded with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime to bilk $1.8 billion from a U.N.-administered oil-for-food program that helped Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions.
A U.N. anti-corruption task force established in 2006 uncovered more than $600 million in internal corruption schemes around the world. But the U.N. shut it down in 2008 due to opposition from some countries and diverted its work to the Office of Internal Oversight, the organization's internal watchdog. A review of reports submitted by the office to the General Assembly through August shows that no major corruption cases have been completed since.
Real reform will always be a struggle because so many governments see the U.N. as a "spoils system" offering plum posts for their politically connected citizens, said Stewart Patrick, who directs the Council on Foreign Relations program on international institutions and global governance.
"One of the things we know from history is that institutional reform is extraordinarily difficult in the absence of a major crisis, a major policy failure," Patrick told AP. "It may take something along the lines of an existential crisis or something as horrific as nuclear use or dramatic deterioration in the world's climate, with potentially catastrophic cascading effects."
Edith M. Lederer has covered international affairs for The Associated Press for 32 years and has been AP's chief correspondent at the United Nations since September 1998. Associated Press reporters Cara Anna at the United Nations, Maria Cheng in London and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.