Reforming the United Nations: The Challenge of Working Together (2010)

The UN system is in need of reform. This has been the consensus throughout the 60+ years of its existence. Reaching agreement by reconciling the different priorities and interests among its member states has been difficult. Other stakeholders are actively engaged in UN reform, including the UN secretariats, non-governmental organizations, civil society and the public at large, as well as the group often referred to collectively as the taxpayer. Any compromises reached were often achieved by a tortuous process and tend to reflect the lowest common denominator. Then, actual implementation often fell short of initial expectations. What are the limits of UN reform? Do structural barriers exist that are difficult to overcome? Could the UN be ultimately unreformable?

            Reforming the United Nations: The Challenge of Working Together addresses those questions and makes some suggestions about what can be done to remedy the situation. This is done by presenting the reform efforts in recent years (2006 to 2009) associated with system-wide coherence, inter-agency co-ordination, management reform and the Security Council reform. Moreover, the history of UN reform, which has previously been described in detail, is briefly summarized. The current publication is the sixth volume in a series on reforming the UN.[1]1 The first three volumes present 50 earlier reform initiatives and key reform documents originating during the period from 1950 to 1996. The period from 1997 to 2002 is captured in the fourth volume, which presents, in particular, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s reform efforts, known as the Quiet Revolution. The fifth volume describes the period from 2003 to 2006 and efforts to re-establish legitimacy and effectiveness in the wake of the Iraq invasion and the management shortcomings of the UN Oil-for-Food Programme. Together, the six volumes of Reforming the United Nations bring together a wealth of information and provide an authentic, comprehensive and in-depth presentation of UN reform initiatives, with over 6,000 pages of analysis, description and primary documents on UN reform.

            The current publication, Reforming the United Nations: The Challenge of Working Together, includes three chapters, four appendices and seven documents. Chapter I (Introduction: Reforming the United Nations) provides a short description of the context of UN reform. The summary of earlier reform efforts is presented in Chapter II (The History of UN Reform Efforts, 1950 to 2006). Chapter III (New Reform Initiatives: The Challenge of Working Together, 2006 to 2009) is the centrepiece of the publication and presents the most recent reform initiatives. In the following paragraphs, the various sections of Chapter II and III are introduced.

Section A of Chapter II (Cold War, North-South Conflict and the New Unity, 1950 to 1996) describes initiatives launched by the Soviet Union during the East-West antagonism in the 1950s, the UN’s expansion in the development field following the decolonization period in the 1960s, and negotiations on a New International Economic Order as part of the North-South conflict in the 1970s. The 1980s were characterized by stagnation, financial crisis and the retreat of the United States, which triggered a reform of the budgetary process and the downsizing of the Organization. With the end of the Cold War, the rediscovery and renaissance of the UN were hailed; the first half of the 1990s saw a major expansion of the Organization and the reform associated with the Agenda for Peace launched by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali. In the wake of disappointment with the peacekeeping operations in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, there was a marked retreat from assertive multilateralism in the second half of the 1990s.

Section B of Chapter II (The Quiet Revolution, 1997 to 2002) outlines how incoming Secretary-General Kofi Annan moved quickly in the late 1990s to address some of the UN’s shortcomings. The fragmented Organization was made more coherent, with a better co-ordinated development system and more effective humanitarian structures. The fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic was energized, and a new concept of partnership between the UN and international business developed under the Global Compact. Other reforms included the revamping of peacekeeping operations following the Brahimi Report. The Quiet Revolution reached its peak with the Millennium Summit in 2000, which approved the Millennium Development Goals to combat poverty, hunger, disease and environmental degradation.

Section C of Chapter II (Security Council Reform, 1993 to 2006) captures the efforts of Germany and Japan in particular, as well as India and Brazil, to gain permanent seats and veto rights at the Security Council. It also describes the efforts of Italy and other middle-sized countries to counter this initiative. The existing permanent members – United States, China, Russia, United Kingdom and France – could each block any reform and were hesitant to enlarge the exclusive club. In the end, the 2005 World Summit failed once again to conclude the reform process that had been launched back in 1993.

Section D of Chapter II (Struggle for Legitimacy and Effectiveness, 2003 to 2006) starts with the failure of the Security Council to either endorse or prevent military action in Iraq in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The following reform initiative addressed issues such as the right of self-defence, the legitimacy of preemptive action and the response to terrorism. In the midst of this exercise, questions of integrity, ethics and management competence were raised in connection with the investigation of the UN Oil-for-Food Programme. The World Summit in 2005 recognized, albeit mainly symbolically, an international ‘responsibility to protect’ populations from genocide and the Human Rights Council replaced the discredited Commission on Human Rights. The hoped-for grand reform bargain, however, could not be achieved.

Section A of Chapter III (The New Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) presents the first reform initiatives of incoming Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, including the reorganization of the disarmament and peacekeeping areas.

Section B of Chapter III (Follow-up on Previous Reform Initiatives, 2006 to 2009) describes the period after the 2005 World Summit and covers reform activities relating to the negotiation of a terrorism convention, operationalizing the concept of ‘responsibility to protect’, launching the audit committee and the oversight review, carrying out the approved mandate review, and implementing management reform. Success was limited except for the human resources reform approved in December 2008, which included the harmonization of staff benefits as well as a simplified staff contract structure (see also the UN General Assembly resolution shown as Document VII).

Section C of Chapter III (Security Council Reform, 2006 to 2009) provides an update on what happened after the 2005 World Summit failure to agree to expand the number of permanent seats on the Security Council. Consultations in the Open-ended Working Group had come to a standstill. A new initiative launched by Germany, known as the ‘overarching process’, is described as well as the start of informal intergovernmental negotiations in September 2008 (see also the UN General Assembly decision shown as Document IV). By the end of 2009, no agreement was in sight. Faced with this reality, negotiations increasingly focused on an intermediary model which would expand the Security Council by longer-term non-permanent seats only.

Section D of Chapter III (System-Wide Coherence of UN Operational Activities, 2006 to 2009) details the new reform initiative targeting UN system-wide coherence launched by the 2005 World Summit. The Chief Executive Board (CEB), a coordinating body of UN organizations, had presented an overview of system coordination (see also the CEB report shown as Document I) and the High-level Panel on System-wide Coherence developed a set of reform proposals (see also the report of the High-level Panel shown as Document II and report of UN Secretary-General shown as Document III). This resulted in approval by the Assembly in April 2007 of a number of loosely related reform initiatives, covering international environmental governance, a unified gender organization, development funding, governance and institutional reform, simplifying and harmonizing business practices, and ‘Delivering as One’ at the country level (see also the UN General Assembly resolution shown as Document V). The latter described the consolidation of UN programme activities at the country level with one leader, one programme, one budget and one office. The initiative was viewed with reservations by the developing countries organized in the Group of 77 and the Non-aligned Movement, but was strongly supported by European donor countries. Indeed, poor co-ordination and high transaction costs had prompted donors to explore new operating principles within the OECD, as outlined in the 2005 Paris Declaration on ‘aid effectiveness’ and applied in new organizations such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. An initial assessment of the reform initiatives on UN system-wide coherence is given, which paints a sobering picture. In September 2009 the Assembly approved a new gender architecture which was considered a major breakthrough (see also the UN General Assembly resolution shown as Document VII). On the other hand, the reform of international environmental governance stalled. Advances were made neither on funding nor on governance. Very little progress was achieved in the harmonization of business practices with no institutional follow-up. For ‘Delivering as One’ pilot projects, some progress was reported on national ownership and alignment with national priorities. This limited progress in coherence was offset, however, by increased transaction costs generated by countless co-ordination meetings at the country and headquarters levels.

Section E of Chapter III (Inter-Agency Consultations: CEB Priority Themes, 2006to 2009) shows that the system-wide coherence initiative had a visible impact on the work of inter-agency co-ordination mechanisms. CEB aimed at providing synergy, avoiding duplication and targeting mandate gaps. Moreover CEB increasingly became a voice in intergovernmental conferences. This is illustrated in the collaborative efforts on three priority themes, namely climate change, food security, and global financial and economic crisis co-ordination. The CEB co-ordination effort had led to a more systematic conceptualization and presentation of the work the UN system achieved. It did not, however, advance substantive work through, for example, joint programming.

Section F of Chapter III (The Limits of UN Reform) provides some thoughts on the challenges that have to be addressed in UN reform. Whereas interesting insights can be gained from previous efforts, the recent focus was on improving the UN’s systemwide coherence and inter-agency co-ordination. It is argued that the hurdles faced by system-wide reform are considerable. First of all, there is the task of reconciling the different priorities of member countries, which in the case of the UN number 192. Second, there is a requirement for coherence at the inter-agency level. This includes the additional complexity at the intergovernmental level: one member state is sometimes represented with little co-ordination by different ministries at different agencies. At the inter-secretariat level, not unlike the intergovernmental level, the UN system is managed by a collective of equals with different mandates and interests; nevertheless, consensus between agencies is the basis for decision-making. This makes coordination a lengthy, cumbersome and costly process, as illustrated by the experience under the ‘Delivering as One’ initiative. Consolidation and merging of mandates and structures appear to be a precondition for coherent and efficient action. This would require a fundamental restructuring of the UN system, and that would face tremendous barriers. Incremental consolidations, restricted to a limited number of entities and focusing on a narrow subject area, appear to be a difficult but workable option: difficult as demonstrated by the failure to reform international environmental governance; workable as proven by the consolidation of the UN gender architecture. This is the challenge.

Four appendices are included. Information on the UN system organizations and their participation in inter-agency co-ordination mechanisms is provided in Appendix I. This includes UN secretariat offices, UN funds and programmes and UN specialized agencies. Appendix II describes inter-agency mechanisms, including their evolution. This covers the CEB and the separate descriptions of 37 inter-agency bodies and working groups. In Appendix III, background information is provided on international environmental governance, which was one of the key reform initiatives under the UN system-wide coherence initiative. It describes the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the system of governance, the fragmented system of multilateral environmental agreements and the concept of a new UN Environment Organization (UNEO). Finally, for a better understanding of the ‘Delivering as One’ initiative launched in the context of the reform of UN system-wide coherence, details are provided in Appendix IV on the evolution of aid architecture. This includes a description of the UN development system and the operating principles of the 2005 Paris Declaration on ‘aid effectiveness’. The new operating principles are also reflected in the working of new organizations which have emerged outside the UN system. One example, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, is described.

Many thanks to Ms Florence Grosfilley and Ms Zofia Laubitz for their help and to Nuffield College, Oxford, for providing supportive facilities for the final preparation of the publication. I trust thatReforming the United Nations: The Challenge of Working Together will be of use to all those interested in the reform of the UN. As always, it is understood that the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Organization I am affiliated with.


Joachim Müller

Geneva, 2010

[1] Joachim Müller, Reforming the United Nations, Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, including New Initiatives and Past Efforts, volumes I to III, 1997; The Quiet Revolution, volume IV, 2001; The Struggle for Legitimacy and Effectiveness, volume V, 2006.