Frontal Attack on the UN

Linked with , and with Torild Skard – Norway.

By Torild Skard, in Dagbladet of April 28, 2006 – The UN is to be reformed. An international panel is requested to elaborate reform proposals and the Norwegian Prime Minister is one of the co-chairs. The focus is on development, humanitarian assistance and environment. The aim is a more rational and effective UN. Tighter management and closer coordination shall provide better results, it is said.

There is no doubt that the UN needs reform and the headings are tempting. But proposals that are now being pushed may very well in practice lead to a weakening in stead of a strengthening of the UN.

The first problem is the time pressure. The panel has been given an extremely short period of time to deal with a tremendously ambitious agenda. The reform proposals are to be presented already by August. The reason is probably that Kofi Annan wants the proposals to be adopted before he leaves his post as Secretary-General by the end of the year. But we are faced with very complex questions. It is not easy to find good answers and the panel is supposed to deal with both the country level and headquarters, normative and operational functions, organisation and financing. Haste may very easily make waste. And the process can be fundamentally biased. European countries have rapidly presented comprehensive and radical reform proposals, while developing countries are struggling to take an active part in the debates.

The process is above all being driven by countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and UK and a core proposal is the merger of a number of UN organisations into three pillars for development, humanitarian assistance and environment respectively. This implies that organisations such as for example the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF, the Population Fund UNFPA, the Women’s Fund UNIFEM, the AIDS-organisation UNAIDS and the trade organisation UNCTAD will disappear into larger units. On the other hand, the activities of the UN Environment Fund UNEP will be expanded and strengthened by the establishment of a World Environment Organisation.

The proposals appear to be primarily the result of desk research, based on little knowledge of the field and the realities of the UN system and little appreciation of the efforts of the system. The numerous UN organisations create administrative problems, but they have not been created without a reason. They are mandated to solve specific tasks, ensure technical competence, bring in perspectives and promote interests which otherwise would be overseen or neglected. Some might usefully be merged into larger units, but if this is done with organisations such as UNAIDS, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNIFEM and UNCTAD weak and marginalised groups (children, women, poor countries) risk losing both a voice and means of action. They can easily be devoured and overrun by stronger interests in a large common organisation with one UN team, one UN programme and one UN representative at country level. What is primarily presented as an administrative coordination may rapidly become a coordination – or rather unification – of development policies. The G 77 group (of developing countries) and China have also protested against the dismantling of UNIFEM and UNCTAD.

The idea of three pillar-organisations might appear enticing, but it risks dividing development from humanitarian action and environment from development, while experience in the field is that these questions are closely interlinked. In spite of problems of implementation, a strength of the UN system lies in its holistic approach with normative and analytical, political and operational aspects, its capacity to be multi-functional and take up cross-cutting issues – roles that should be strengthened and not weakened, as the G-77 countries also underline.

The European proposals entail that the UN development work mainly will comprise technical assistance to poor countries in so-called ”niche areas” such as conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction, democratic governance, gender and environment, while macroeconomic policies, development strategies, trade and finance will be given less prominence. Here the World Bank, IMF and WTO are considered to have a ”comparative advantage”. But development policies are exactly this – policies, where different views and interests must be weighed against each other. It is not only about “comparative advantages”, but different opinions. What kind of development do we want? Which interests shall be promoted? With one country one voice the UN system is able to represent developing countries in a completely different manner than other multilateral organisations and the system has played an extremely important role during recent years challenging the restricted economic approaches of the financial institutions and gaining acceptance of a more social development agenda. The Millennium Goals are a result of these efforts and have gained unique support.

In the present reform agenda “coherence” is defined at a main problem for the work of the UN. But the concept is ambiguous and it is not made clear why this is key to a more effective performance. To improve results and reduce the administrative burden of recipient countries it is important to achieve better coordination of the many development actors at country level. Here different kinds of rationalisation are needed. But in a UN context the debate in this area easily gets it wrong. Coordination becomes an aim in itself instead of a means to make efforts more effective. Administrative processes often become central in stead of the desired development results. In many cases the focus is on the UN system in an isolated way in stead of the total situation at country level with bilateral donors, international funds, private organisations etc in addition to the authorities. The UN organisations are just part of the picture and often a relatively small part. My experience from the field is that it is often difficult to achieve a constructive coordination of UN organisations in general, because the areas of work are so different. However, sector coordination with UN organisations, bilateral donors, private organisations etc together with the relevant authorities can be both targeted and effective. It should be kept in mind that the national authorities to a large extent are organised by sectors as the UN system is, so different ministries and UN organisations go together.

In stead of taking an organisational chart and starting to merge boxes a UN reform should take as the point of departure the objectives that are to be achieved and the tasks that need to be solved. Using the Millennium Goals as the basis, it becomes imperative to strengthen the role of the UN system in areas such as macroeconomic policies and environment and to promote the interests of poor countries, women and children in a better way. This may mean that the reforms among others must entail a strengthening of UNICEF, UNFPA and UNCTAD and the creation of a full-fledged multilateral agency for women.

About the Author: Torild Skard: Researcher Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, former MP, President of the Upper Chamber and ass. Secretary-General of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Director of UNESCO and UNICEF.

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