By Harris Gleckman, Center for Governance and Sustainability, University of Massachusetts – Boston
Almost since the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) was created, there have been ECOSOC reform efforts. Most of these efforts have been preceded by a build-up of political enthusiasm and followed by quite minor changes. One then could be quite skeptical of the 2013 version of ECOSOC reform adopted this September . The timing of this round of ECOSOC reform was based on the last time "ECOSOC was reformed" (General Assembly decision 61/16), but now supplemented by the Rio+20 outcome document's call for the mainstreaming of sustainable development by ECOSOC.
ECOSOC has always been the weakest piece of the UN charter. Unlike the Security Council, there are no obligations for Member States or the UN system to act on ECOSOC's decisions. As the opening paragraphs of the new resolution repeat three times, ECOSOC‘s job is “to coordinate” the economic, social, environmental and related activities of the UN system. But it was not given any ability to sanction UN-related organizations that ignore its advice, nor has it received any real role in budget decisions. And, unlike the Security Council and the General Assembly, ECOSOC has not been a place where governments bring pressing external economic, social or environmental threats to their security or development. Further, in spite of its name, it is not a place where economic counsel is given to global economic actors or where coordination of globalization's challenges is forthrightly discussed.
What ECOSOC has become for the most part is a month-long meeting (it has convened during the month of July for decades) that receives reports from UN system organizations that Member States blindly accept, for the most part. This report-in mentality, structural weakness from the Charter, and avoidance of managing the global economy has created an ECOSOC "culture" that generates overly bland policy messages.
However, under the leadership of ambassadors from Guyana and Belgium (George Talbot and Benedicte Frankinet, respectively), Governments have agreed to new ECOSOC operating rules that address some of the drivers behind the passive ECOSOC culture. The latest ECOSOC reform resolution has four distinct new elements.
A multitude of subjects (some 70-100 topics) have been covered annually in the organizational reports submitted to ECOSOC. To manage their guidance better, ECOSOC will concentrate its attention each year on a single major theme. This theme will be selected a year in advance, based on suggestions from ECOSOC's subsidiary bodies and Member States. It will be sent to the governing bodies of the UN funds, programmes, specialized agencies, and ECOSOC subsidiary bodies, asking that they focus part of their report to ECOSOC on the major theme, drawing on their own organizational and ministerial expertise. At the end of the year, ECOSOC will integrate the various responses to the key theme and present its guidance to the wider public and to the UN system.
Second, ECOSOC will move from a July-based body to one that meets throughout the year, giving delegates more time to deal with complex issues. Some of ECOSOC's July segments will become self-standing meetings of ECOSOC, dispersed throughout the annual UN calendar. For example, the operational activities review will be held immediately after the conclusion of the meetings of the executive boards of the funds and programs. And the humanitarian affairs segment will be held in June, bringing together those organizations that focus on UN engagement in disaster response and humanitarian crises. July will see the meeting of the ministerial high-level segment, which for three out of four years will also serve as sessions of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). All the routine coordination and management work will be fit into the calendar on a simple, as-needed basis.
Third, ECOSOC has been largely disengaged from formulating responses to current economic, social, and environmental crises, occasionally preparing brief ex post facto evaluations. This resolution gives ECOSOC the opportunity to convene ad hoc meetings to “address urgent developments in the economic, social, environmental, and related fields.” This General Assembly assignment may provide a first step towards creating a multilateral platform for governments to bring non-war-related and non-human-rights-based crises to a specific UN body.
And finally, this resolution addresses a significant structural gap that has been a part of ECOSOC's culture. ECOSOC, as an intergovernmental body, does not deal directly with other intergovernmental bodies that it is "coordinating." Instead, it has allowed the senior staff from these organizations to present reports of the intergovernmental body to ECOSOC and then, in effect, has asked that staff member to transmit ECOSOC's views back to his or her governmental oversight body. The ECOSOC resolution adopted in September 2013 begins to break down this lack of direct government-to-government contact between UN bodies. And, as different inter-governmental bodies draw representatives from different national ministries, it begins to break down the lack of communication between foreign affairs ministries and other national ministries.
The resolution instructs ECOSOC to invite the governing bodies of the funds, programmes and specialized agencies to contribute to the global effort to focus attention on their annual key theme. One implication is that ECOSOC will be encouraging independent intergovernmental bodies to add ECOSOC's major annual theme to their working agenda and let them know the outcome of their deliberations. Another example of promoting cross-ministerial engagement un-hindered by a staff intermediation role is that the resolution gives ECOSOC the ability to engage directly with international and regional forums, organizations, and groupings “that make policy recommendations or take policy decisions with global implications.”
The major developed countries that prefer a weak ECOSOC introduced two very effective constraints in the 2013 reform process. The working time for ECOSOC and the working time for ECOSOC staff are not to change. In fact, the fourth paragraph makes this very clear: “No arrangements set forth in the present annex should lead to an increase in the number of meeting days currently provided” for ECOSOC.
This ECOSOC reform, prodded by the Rio+20 outcome, has opened some crucial doors for re-defining the role of ECOSOC in the UN system. During the UN's early years, external military threats were the front and center concern of governments. Now, globalization, international debt burdens, exploitative multinationals and climate change are the central external threats to countries. Hopefully, these first steps will eventually create an ECOSOC where governments can expect the UN to provide a platform for dealing with such external environmental, social and economic threats in a similar manner to that which it has developed to address external military threats. What remains to be seen is if ECOSOC itself can make the cultural transformation necessary to move from a soft “coordination” role to a “management” role of the UN system and globalization.
 Adopted by this General Assembly as resolution A/68/L.2.
This guest article was written for and published on IISD’s Sustainable Development Policy & Practice.