Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 27 March 2006

UN reform process hots up

The United Nations reform process is moving ahead, driven mainly by the developed countries which many believe want to see a diminished role for the UN in development issues.   Developing countries are worried, and have to put forward their views forcefully or risk being overwhelmed.


The process of reforming the United Nations is hotting 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. 

The process is motivated and largely driven by the developed countries, with the UN secretariat leadership seen as playing a facilitating role. 

Diplomats from many developing countries are concerned as they believe the developed countries want to re-shape the UN in ways that erode its already marginalized development role.

“Under the guise of achieving greater efficiency, the rich 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.

“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 one aspect of the process, management reform, the UN staff in general are up in arms, and in an unprecedented move, the 5000-strong UN Staff Union issued a vote of no-confidence in the Secretary General Kofi Annan in February.  Its president criticised the process for being driven by a single country, the United States. 

Among the aspects of the UN reform process are the following:

  • Secretariat Management Reform:  On 7 March, Kofi 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 of UN departments and agencies.  The aim is to review whether there is duplication of mandates and if this can be cut down.  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. 
  • Development and ECOSOC reform: Two draft resolutions are being negotiated on development and on Ecosoc reform, setting out measures to improve on development efforts, including the follow up to major UN conferences and summits.  
  • Security Council reform:  There has not been progress on the issue of reforming the membership of the Council, with several proposals on the table.  Recently, a proposal was tabled by a group (including Switzerland and Singapore) on reforming the Council’s working methods.
  • System-Wide Coherence:  Kofi Annan established a high-level panel on UN system-wide coherence, aimed at “fundamental restructuring of the UN’s operational work” in development, humanitarian assistance and the environment.  

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 panel was prompted by the developed countries, with the aim of restructuring of UN departments and agencies and with the possibility of the closure of several of them 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. 

The Dutch Development Minister, Agnes van Ardenne, said it makes no sense for the UN to have 38 organisations and the solution is to reorganize them into three operational agencies, dealing with development, humanitarian affairs and the environment. 

Barely two weeks later, on 16 February, the UN Secretary General was to announce the formation of the panel, which will be co-chaired by the Prime Ministers of Pakistan, Mozambique and Norway.

The panel will look at organizational and funding issues, including the overlap of work across UN agencies.

The developed countries are evidently quite prepared, with several papers floating around. 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.

Meanwhile, senior staff at various UN organs are worried.  For some, this could mean closure or being taken over by others, or dilution of mandate and resources.