In a period of large-scale international transformation, is the United Nations able to help resolve the current and emerging challenges of the twenty-first century? Ten core principles should guide practical reform of the UN to ensure it remains relevant and a core part of the global order.
We are living through a period of great and rapid change in international relations. Underpinning this change is a deep feeling of uncertainty and pessimism. The world as we knew it at the beginning of 2016 is completely different to where we find ourselves in 2017.
Many ask whether the global institutions that were formed after the carnage of the Second World War are ‘fit for purpose’, and indeed whether they will survive at all. And is the United Nations, at the core of these post-war multilateral institutions, able to help resolve the current and emerging challenges of the twenty-first century? The answer must be yes – but not without practical reform, beginning now.
The reform of such a vital institution is easier said than done. The United Nations is an enormously complex organization with obvious flaws. And Secretary-General Guterres has many urgent challenges ahead of him, the most immediate being how to retain US engagement and funding of the UN under the Trump Administration. But those of us who care about the future of the UN must remain firmly focused on making sure it remains an integral part of modern global life, not an artefact of a distant age.
In order to achieve this we must undertake a comprehensive reform program. The Independent Commission on Multilateralism, which I chaired, consulted member states widely from 2014-16 to develop a practical reform agenda that could be accepted, rejected, or modified by the Secretary-General and member states as they chose. The report proposes ten principles to guide practical reform of the UN. A further 55 specific recommendations can be found in the ICM’s full report. The core ten principles follow.
“Change can happen. It is another matter entirely whether it will.”
First, the UN should introduce a comprehensive doctrine of prevention across the entire system. This echoes the agenda of Secretary-General Guterres, who has stated that his top three priorities in office are “prevention, prevention, prevention.” The UN can’t simply be a reactive organisation; prevention must be embedded in the organization’s leadership structure, culture and resources.
Second, the UN needs a new, comprehensive doctrine of delivery. There is a real danger that reports, high-level panels and even reform commissions become a substitute for practical, measurable, accountable on-the-ground action. UN staff must be rewarded for results delivered, not by the number of reports authored or panels convened.
Third, the UN needs to produce a new ‘Agenda for Sustainable Peace, Security and Development’ that integrates all of the UN’s work into an agenda that recognizes the profound inter-connections between the three pillars of the UN’s mission: peace and security, sustainable development, and humanitarian support. This would help align the UN’s peace and security functions with its sustainable development and climate change agendas, and go some way to break down institutional silos.
Fourth, UN field operations need to be prioritised over activity at headquarters. There should also be an integrated ‘Team UN’ in the field. Under Secretary-General Ban, the UN made inroads in this area. But there is more to do. The UN should move to fully-integrated, multi-disciplinary teams in the field, guided by common mandates and under the leadership of an empowered Director of UN Operations in each country.
Fifth, the UN needs a senior management team with a maximum of ten individuals. At the moment, the Secretary-General has 43 direct reports from across the UN Secretariat, funds, programs and specialized agencies. This balloons to nearly 100 if Special Envoys are included. Reducing this number to 10 would allow much more focused lines of reporting, and in turn, a more effective and efficient management structure.
Sixth, a single UN official must be responsible for the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the UN system. The 17 SDGs and 169 targets within them won’t be met without specific institutional changes. And an integral part of this must involve harnessing private sector investment. We know that global public finance is not a realistic way to meet the multi-trillion-dollar price tag of the SDGs.
Seventh, given the UN has limits on what it can do, we need a more formal global compact between the government and non-government sectors, so that joint assessments can be made and practical efforts coordinated. There also need to be agreed measures of success for periodic evaluation. These partnerships should be joined up across the highest levels of UN management, cutting across traditional silos.
Eighth, women must be at the center of the totality of the UN agenda, not just in discrete parts of it. Women make up half the world, but receive far less than half the world’s resources and opportunities. This must change, and a first step is to mainstream gender equality across the UN system.
Ninth, a new formal platform for global youth is needed within the UN system, recognizing the explosion of structural youth unemployment across many parts of the world. The three billion people under 25 can’t be an afterthought; they should be heard in the corridors of power.
Finally, UN member states should reaffirm their commitment to multilateralism at a Second San Francisco Conference in 2020, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the UN. This would help underscore the advantages the multilateral system delivers to its member states. It is not simply a burden to be borne.
Having outlined these practical steps, there is the question of how rapidly they can be implemented. The answer to this lies not only with the UN itself, but with its constituent member states. Change can happen. It is another matter entirely whether it will. It must also be noted that these reform proposals aren’t static. They should be part of an active process of the UN’s continual reinvention. This is the only way the UN can keep up with the pace of global change.
If we do not reform the UN as a matter of urgency, we risk the established liberal order slipping even further into disorder and possibly conflict. That tragic end is one that we must all work to avoid.