Global Policy Forum

UN Reform Process Hotting Up


By Martin Khor

South North Development Monitor
March 27, 2006

The process of reforming the United Nations is heating up as diplomats and UN bureaucrats get increasingly embroiled in the many and complex strands of the process. "In my 25 years at the UN, I have never seen such a frenzy of activity and energy going into this," remarked a senior UN staff member. And he was talking about only one aspect of the process, the "system-wide coherence" issue aimed at rationalizing the work and possibly the structures of UN agencies, funds and programmes.

The process is motivated and largely driven by the developed countries, with the UN secretariat leadership seen as playing a complementary and facilitating role. Diplomats from many developing countries are concerned as they believe the major developed countries want to make use of the reforms to re-shape the role of the UN in ways that erode the influence of the developing countries, and that drastically reduce the already marginalized role of the UN in development, particularly in economic and social policy.

"Under the guise of achieving greater efficiency and avoiding duplication, I believe the developed countries want to devoid the UN of its role in development, and leave it to deal only with security, post-conflict, humanitarian and environment issues," said the Ambassador of a developing country, who has been heavily involved in the negotiations. "This would allow the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO, which the rich countries dominate, to have a monopoly over economic matters, while the UN's role which has already been weakened by past reforms, is in danger of becoming even more insignificant."

This concern is shared not only by many other developing country diplomats, but also by a wide range of UN staff members at the Secretariat and in agencies involved in development and social issues.

On another aspect of the reform, management reform, the UN staff in general are up in arms, and in an unprecedented move, the 5,000-strong UN Staff Union issued a vote of no-confidence in Secretary General Kofi Annan in February. Its president, Rosemary Waters, criticised the process for being driven by a single country, the United States. She was quoted by IPS on 21 March as saying that "Management reform is not the agenda of any single government. The process must be driven by all member states."

The reform process is being carried out mainly as a follow-up to the decisions taken at the UN's World Summit last September, in particular its Outcome document. Among the aspects of the UN reform process are the following:

* Follow-up work relating to the recent establishment of two institutions established as a result of the Summit outcome: the Peace-building Commission and the Human Rights Council. On the later, the present Human Rights Commission will be wound down, elections to the new Council are to be held, and the first meeting convened in the next few months.

* Secretariat Management Reform: Agreement has been reached to establish an Ethics Office and an independent audit advisory committee, and a policy to prevent fraud and corruption is being prepared. On 7 March, Annan issued a paper "Investing in the UN", proposing secretariat changes in seven areas, including staffing, senior management, delivery of services, budget and finance and governance. The UN staff union has protested against proposals for outsourcing and privatization of services such as translations and printing, and for staff buy-out.

* Review of Mandates: The member states are focusing on the review of the mandates that have existed for 5 years or more that were given by the General Assembly and ECOSOC (to UN departments and agencies). The aim is to review whether there is duplication of mandates and if this can be cut down.

The developed countries, especially the US and Japan, seem to be linking progress in this area (as well as in management reform) to the release of the second part of their financial contributions this year to the UN. Developing countries are concerned that under this process, the developed countries may seek to cut or erode the mandate of some UN organs, in the name of efficiency and cost cutting, leading to a reduced role for the UN in development.

The process could get bogged down by the sheer number of mandates under review, which run into the thousands. The UN Secretariat is to issue a paper soon on the mandates, and perhaps on the extent of duplication of these mandates, following which the process will intensify.

* Development and ECOSOC reform: Two draft resolutions are being negotiated on development and on ECOSOC reform, setting out measures to improve on development efforts on implementation, coordination and integration, including the follow up to major UN conferences and summits. The draft on ECOSOC reform includes suggestions for a more coherent framework of high-level dialogues with the Bretton Woods institutions, the WTO and UNCTAD. There would be a biennial policy dialogue on themes, a biennial Development Cooperation Forum to review trends in international development cooperation, and annual Ministerial-level reviews on follow-up of outcomes of major UN conferences and summits on development issues.

* Security Council reform: There has not been progress on the issue of reforming the membership of the Council, with several proposals (including from Germany, Brazil and India; from the African Union; and Japan) on the table. Recently, a proposal was tabled by a group (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Jordan, Costa Rica and Singapore) on reforming the Council's working methods to make it more transparent, and for greater accountability in the use of veto power.

* General Assembly revitalization: A working group (chaired by Latvia and Yemen) has been set up on General Assembly revitalization to discuss the role, authority, effectiveness and efficiency of the GA. Issues include the GA's agenda and working methods and the office of the GA President.

* System-Wide Coherence: In February, Annan established a high-level panel on UN system-wide coherence, aimed at laying the groundwork for a "fundamental restructuring of the UN's operational work" in the fields of development, humanitarian assistance and the environment. The panel will complete its report by the next session of the General Assembly in September, for the possible implementation of its recommendations in 2007.

Of the above issues, system-wide coherence is the latest and the one most likely, in the next few months, to generate the most energy and controversy.

There is a wide perception that the establishment of the panel was prompted by the developed countries, with the aim of a radical restructuring of the UN departments and agencies dealing with economic, humanitarian and environment affairs, and with the possibility of the closure of several UN agencies or departments, or their merger with others. At the end of last year, some European countries started to clamour for a reform of the "operational system" of the UN. In particular, the Netherlands and Belgium issued papers on this aspect of UN reform at a meeting of the OECD's Development Assistance meeting on 6-7 December.

The Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation, Agnes van Ardenne, spoke at a UNDP global management team meeting in the Hague on 31 January, saying it makes no sense for the UN to have 38 organisations as there was "too little efficiency and too much overlap". The only solution, according to her, is to select organisational units that "have proven their worth" and reorganize them into three operational agencies, dealing with development, humanitarian affairs and the environment. She made clear that donors would use "the power of the purse" to put this into effect. The Netherlands is the main contributor to the UNDP's budget.

Barely two weeks later, on 16 February, the UN Secretary-General was to announce the formation of a high-level panel "to explore how the UN system could work more coherently and effectively across the world in the areas of development, humanitarian assistance and the environment." Van Ardenne followed up with an article in the Washington Times on 5 March, saying that "the UN's last best hope these days for realizing its full potential is nothing short of radical and rapid reform .To achieve its full potential the UN will not only have to cut the number of its operational agencies to three, it will also need to create global centres of excellence." These centres would deal with health, labour standards and agriculture.

A unique feature of the Secretary-General's panel is that it is led by sitting heads of governments, unlike most Commissions which mainly have ex-Presidents as members. The panel is co-chaired by Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Mozambique Prime Minister Luisa Dias Diogo and Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Observers say the aim could be to ensure that countries or groups of countries whose panel leaders or members are presently holding high political office would own the process and thus be more likely to take the process forward and persuade others to go along with the conclusions.

Other panel members are UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, former Chilean President, Ricardo Lagos Escobar, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, European Commissioner for Development Louis Michel, Canada's Deputy Minister for Development Robert Greenhill, Sweden's Director-General for Development Cooperation Ruth Jacoby, France's Development Agency Director-General Jean-Michel Severino, US Under Secretary of State Josette Shiner, Japan's former State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Keizo Takemi and former CEO of the Global Environment Facility Mohamed El-Ashry.

The panel's formation stems from the 2005 World Summit Outcome, which invited the Secretary General to "launch work to further strengthen the management and coordination of United Nations operational activities" and mentioned proposals for "more tightly managed entities" in environment, humanitarian assistance and development. According to its terms of reference (TOR), the panel's study will encompass both organizational and funding issues, ranging from the duplication and overlap of work products across UN agencies, funds and programmes to prospects for joint, multi-year funding and programming arrangements. A central element will be the more predictable financing of the UN system.

The TOR states that the study's overarching aim is to seek recommendations on a process of rationalization that will maximize resources for relief and development programmes in the UN system while minimizing overhead and administrative costs. It will explore ways to fully exploit synergies between the UN's normative and analytical institutions and agencies such as DESA and UNCTAD, and operational agencies. It will address how the UN system works and can best exercise its comparative advantages with partners like the Bretton Woods institutions, the European Commission and other regional actors, donors, civil society and the private sector.

The primary focus will be on increasing impact at the country level (with proposals for improved management, coordination and effectiveness) but it will also make findings on work at UN headquarters, regional and country level. The TOR also states that the study will identify a short, medium and longer-term vision and benchmarks. Change is envisaged in phases, with first initial proposals for rationalization of the system without major structural changes; then proposals for preliminary restructuring of the current system to minimize duplication and overlap; and finally recommendations for comprehensive revitalisation and restructuring of the UN operational role in environment, humanitarian and development work.

The panel is expected to meet three times, starting in April, and to conclude its work in time to submit is report to the General Assembly. There is thus a very rushed time-line to conclude a review with recommendations on such a broad and important topic as rationalization of the UN system on development, humanitarian affairs and the environment.

The developed countries are evidently quite prepared, with several papers floating around and the subject of intense discussion. These papers are by European countries such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium. The developing countries have yet to put forward their positions. Their doing so is seen to be crucial, if they are to take a proactive role in the process, which has been initiated by the developed countries, flexing their muscles in their donor role.

Meanwhile, senior staff at various UN departments, agencies, funds and programmes are closely watching the process and many of these are likely to make representations to the panel. They have much at stake, as it is their organizations that are the target for restructuring and rationalization. For some, this could mean closure or being taken over by others, or dilution of mandate and resources.




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