Diary of a UN Official #2: The Gentleman From Iran
My (Adventurous) Life at the United Nations: An Unexpected End to a Drafting Committee Session.
14 November 1991, 26th FAO Conference in Rome. I glance at my watch, midnight already. The delegates, thirteen in all, are sitting around the table, looking glum, staring at the papers in front of them; coming from every region, they are the result of delicate diplomatic negotiations: three each from Africa and Asia, two from Europe and Latin America, plus the United States, Australia and the Chairman from Denmark. A portly gentleman with a bold head and red cheeks, he is sitting next to me at the head of the table. Behind us, a vivid mural depicts a field of corn plants, the green stalks standing straight in a row, like soldiers at attention, and with a sun-bleached village in the background, the color of sand.
This windowless room deep inside the FAO building is known as the Mexico Room – the furnishings are a gift from Mexico – and the mural is the only focus of interest. On both sides, a string of glass panes stretch across the wall, and we can barely glimpse the blurred faces of the interpreters sitting behind them, hard at work, translating every comment made on the draft report.
The snack I had ordered for nine o’clock – only soft drinks and juices, the ham sandwiches separated from the cheese ones and clearly marked to prevent Moslem delegates from eating them by mistake – is a forgotten memory.
We started on the draft report at 7 pm, after the day’s debates were over in the main conference rooms. The draft, available in four of the official languages (English, French, Spanish and Arabic), is a mere five pages, double-spaced, only a section of the full report. I sigh, we’ve still got a full page to go before we’re done. Yet we need to finish it tonight, the report has to be adopted tomorrow – it’s the big day of the vote on FAO’s budget, the only item that is voted on at the FAO Conference, everything else is adopted by consensus.
I glance again at my watch, ostensibly, trying with that gesture to prod the delegates to move on. Because when they’re finished, we of the Secretariat still have a couple of hours of work to finalize the report for printing. I know that if all goes well, I won’t be able to get home before 3 am, driving alone in the rain, across a deserted town, taking care not to wake up my husband when I get home (but I know he will be awake and worrying). Conference work is an expensive affair for FAO; Vikram Shah, my boss, a savvy Indian who heads the budget and programming bureau, once estimated that it costs around $4 million, considering all the extra expenses that have to be incurred, from overtime pay for general staff (professionals don’t get it) to round-the-clock translating and printing of documents in all languages. For that amount of money, you could run several aid projects for thousands of needy people in the developing world.
“How is the TCP managed?” thunders the American delegate.
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