Recent Innovations at the United Nations: Are they Enough?

World leaders have gathered once again in New York, for the annual high-level opening of the United Nations General Assembly, while work continues on the renovation of the UN Headquarters complex. Whereas the buildings will eventually be modernized, the world body itself may need a more fundamental revamp.

The recent turn of events around Syria may have given the UN and the principles of multilateralism that it most centrally represents a new lease on life, but its relevance, efficiency and effectiveness are often doubted in today’s world. And what a different world this is from the one that led to the UN’s establishment in 1945. There has thankfully been no world war since, but many new challenges have arisen that the UN has not been optimized to address, from climate change to the global financial crises, increasing inequality and unemployment, public upheavals like the Arab Spring, and terrorism.

That does not mean that the UN has not been adapting to the changing times. It has been doing it for decades, through external pressure or by taking the initiative to introduce new things, like peacekeeping in the past. The question is what it is doing vis-à-vis the current challenges and whether that is enough.

This is the focus of the paragraphs that follow, informed by some on-site research at UN Headquarters by the author. The starting point is some inadequacies and shortcoming manifested in the Organization’s structures and procedures:

a. Difficult to negotiate and decide on complex issues among the full UN membership of 193 sovereign states

There is clearly impatience and frustration, especially among the most powerful, with the UN’s cumbersome deliberative processes that provide for decisions by consensus, inevitably around the lowest common denominator. Alternative smaller bodies seem to be preferred for handling important issues, like the 15-member Security Council within the UN itself for matters of peace and security, and the G7/G8 and G20 on economic and financial matters.

As a result of the Rio+20 Conference of June 2012 two 30-member bodies were established to discuss possible sustainable development goals and strategies for the mobilization of resources for sustainable development respectively. They are supposed to negotiate and report to the UN General Assembly for final decisions to be taken there by 2015. The apparent flexibility of such mechanisms has already been compromised, though. After months of wrangling the membership of the first body, the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (OWG), was de facto expanded through the sharing of individual seats among several countries of the same region, with some 70 countries now on it.

The membership of the second body, the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing , includes diplomats and other non-experts.

This shows a half-hearted effort at reform, trying to keep old ways and privileges while appearing to change. There could be more imaginative ways of going about it.

For example, it would make more sense for the OWG members to represent the major powers and regions or groups of states in the first place, thus having everybody represented without having everybody there. Problems in regional integration, though, as in the case of the European Union with its very weak “common foreign and security policy”, make this impossible for now. So the system will plod along, paying more attention to its internal balances and established privileges than the substantive qualities of its output, that is what ultimately matters most in the real world.

b. Need other stakeholders, beyond states, who have significant power and means, to be brought in and be involved in implementation

Significant progress has been made in recent years in including the private sector and civil society in consultations at UN fora. Building on the first Rio Conference/Earth Summit of 1992 and its follow-up, arrangements have been made for civil society and other “Major Groups” representation through the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), along with the UN-NGO Liaison Service (UN-NGLS). In parallel, the UN Global Compact is a mechanism created to engage the private sector in the work of the UN, on the basis of several core UN principles.

The participation of UN officials, as well as of government representatives, at the highest level in civil society briefings and the latest UN Global Compact Leaders Summit in recent days in New York, and their encouragement for participation and engagement of non-state actors, is indicative of the importance assigned to such a broad partnership. Moreover, partnerships on specific issues, like the Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, provide concrete opportunities for a wide range of stakeholders to work together for the delivery of public goods.

Of course, there are practical and substantive issues with the selection process and representation of global civil society and the private sector in the global discussions. The focus of the UN Global Compact on big business leaves out small and medium-size enterprises that are more integral to communities and provide more jobs in more sustainable ways than big multinationals. The self-selection of civil society organizations who want and can afford to participate in international events also entails an indirect bias against developing country and low-income social strata representation.

Moreover, there are no clear mechanisms for the continuous engagement of important constituencies that fall between state and non-state actors, most importantly city mayors and parliamentarians. And there seem to be no clear mechanisms for public accountability at national and local levels of partnerships struck at the global level. The definition of “Major Groups” itself, procedures for selecting their representatives, and modalities for engaging them in the UN’s work need a thorough reconsideration.

c. How to bring sustainability issues to the highest level of government and break down sectoral silos

The new High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, stipulated by the Rio+20 Conference to replace the Conference on Sustainable Development (CSD) is supposed to bring sustainability issues to the highest level of government and break the silos that separate economic, social and environmental issues normally discussed in separate fora. In view of the post-2015 development framework and the new Sustainable Development Goals that are under discussion, it could provide overview and guidance for a wide range of global activities in the decades to come.

It remains to be seen, though, how the complicated arrangements that place the HLPF both under the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will work in practice. Will the meetings of leaders every four years under the General Assembly be enough to provide the high-level overview and guidance that will lead to concrete decisions by the annual ministerial and senior officials meetings under ECOSOC? Will all relevant national and international actors be brought in in a substantive way?

This would mean bringing in the ministers of economy, finance, employment, environment, agriculture, etc. and not only the foreign ministers that normally represent countries at the UN. It would also mean working with rather than duplicating the work of or bypassing specialized agencies like the World Bank, IMF, ILO, FAO, UNEP, UNFCCC, etc. How exactly will civil society and the private sector be brought in (see also b. above)? It is a great opportunity to build something new, really global and substantive, but it may also be watered down and compromised by short-term interest considerations and cumbersome procedures.

Several questions and problems remain regarding all of the above efforts at governance innovation at the UN. It is very positive that needs are identified and efforts are made to address them. But a lot remains to be done for those efforts to achieve the legitimacy, efficiency and effectiveness required to make a major difference in the real world.

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