Another United Nations summit convenes on 20-22 September 2010 to launch the organisation’s 192 member-states into the final five-year lap in the race to meet the eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015. This is the third stage of a fifteen-year effort. The MDGs emerged from the Millennium Declaration adopted at the global summit of September 2000, the largest gathering of heads of state in history. Its agreement was a huge symbolic triumph. A unique gathering of individuals best able to improve the lives of the world’s entire population had agreed to a long statement on good governance, respect for human rights and the achievement of several key human-development goals.
After such a moment, the hard work should have begun. But almost nothing happened for six months. In February 2001 (when the “MDG” initials were first used), the United Nations slowly began to awaken to the understanding that world leaders had approved the most meaningful development agenda it could ever have asked for. But it still took several more years - a period when the dominating global issue was 9/11 and the fractures it opened in the post-cold-war international order - before all parts of the UN “development system” signed up to it.
Once the commitment had spread, it was clear that the system was not fully capable of helping countries to achieve the goals. In health, agriculture and other domains, competent non-UN entities have emerged instead. During the financial crisis of 2007-10, the UN’s existence was scarcely acknowledged.
Why was it that the UN was so slow and deficient in leading implementation of the major project it had itself overseen and hosted?
The agency jungle
A primary reason lies in the very nature of the United Nations’s work in the field of development. For although development is one of the two main functional pillars of the UN, and despite references to a “system”, UN development has no centre and no coherent sense of direction. This very institutional architecture makes it near-impossible to achieve the ambitions it sets itself.
The thirty or so agencies, organisations and programmes that can claim to be part of the “development” pillar have come under the UN umbrella through a process of accretion. The oldest member of the system, the International Telegraph [later "Telecommunication"] Union (ITU) was created in 1865. It was followed by the Universal Postal Union (UPU, 1874) and - after four decades of empire, war, and revolution - by the International Labour Organisation (ILO, 1919). These, along with several other agencies set up in the 1940s, became UN “specialised agencies” in 1945. A number of other entities was created, and joined the agglomeration, in subsequent years. The latest adherent, with no clear rationale, was the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in 2003.
The system as it has emerged has lacked any blueprint and is thus more an accident than a design. There was concern about this in the early stages of the UN’s life; in 1948, for example, John (Lord) Boyd Orr - the first director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) - was appealing to the secretary-general to “bring the heads of the specialised agencies together, and try to get a coordinated drive”. But nothing was done. A few years later, Dag Hammarskjöld - the successor to Trygve Lie as UN secretary-general - was calling the development system a “Picasso abstraction”, which is what it remained.
Since that time, the calls for fundamental change from within the system have diminished. A proposal drawn up in 1959 by an individual, Robert Jackson, working for the secretary-general was an exception. This called for an International Development Agency (IDA) to bring coherence to all the UN programmes of technical assistance - and the World Bank; in addition, there would be a soft-loan facility to coordinate assistance to developing countries on the basis of their own national programmes. The specialised agencies would have acted as research centres and promoters of standards. Again, there was no result. But in 1960, the World Bank adopted the name and took the acronym on its own by forming the International Development Association - and this allowed it to become a much larger alternative source of development assistance to the ever more disparate United Nations.
A decade later, in 1969, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) invited the author of the original IDA to undertake a study of the “capacity” of the UN development system. The passing of another ten years of institutional retrenchment meant that by this time the prospects of forging an effective new model for UN development had retreated further. But Robert Jackson did design the architecture for an integrating solution to the “jungle of proliferating agencies” (as the head of the UNDP described it at the time). But the UN blinked and its governments balked at even these more modest reforms. In 1970, a “consensus” emerged which represented the lowest common denominator of inter-governmental consultations. Its main outcome was the delineation of the relationship between UNDP (as funder) and the agencies (as implementers).
The agencies continued to grow in number and autonomy, and even the UNDP was to establish its own areas of specialisation. All the while the relative importance of a collectivity which had comprised most of the early pioneers of development thinking was fading in size and influence.
The pull of disunity
Yet the clamour for change persisted. In 1995, the Commission on Global Governance - headed by Ingvar Carlsson (Swedish prime minister) and Shridath Ramphal (secretary-general of the Commonwealth) - proposed another set of reforms. These included the consolidation of the UN development system under an economic security council, the appointment of a deputy UN secretary-general of development, and the closure of seven of the UN’s organisations. Again, little occurred aside from some aggravated introspection within the bodies targeted for extinction. All have since seen healthy bureaucratic expansion.
Today, the system comprises 50,000 bureaucrats in fifteen different locations, and commands total annual budgets of nearly $20 billion; but it still has neither a single head nor (as Jackson put it in 1969) a “brain” to put in it. Each of the specialised agencies has its own director and governance arrangements. UN secretaries-general are titular heads of parts of the network, but their main preoccupation is peace and security. Twice a year, the secretary-general and the agency leaders convene, agree to the proliferating coordination arrangements, and disperse.
There is little incentive to change an operating model that is overseen by national governments whose representatives aspire to influence the thirty or more respective secretariats of the UN development system – in self-interested, yet sometimes conflicting ways. Thus the agencies will continue on their own path, occasionally implementing their own internal reforms, but largely indifferent to the rest of the “family”.
The continuation of the same basic architecture guarantees more duplication and inter-agency competition, which in turn make inevitable ever more elaborate and expensive mechanisms of consultation. This is a system that seems impervious to integrating efforts (a classic case was the early 1990s, when the UN secretary-general established fifteen fully unified offices in the former Soviet Union which fell victim to turf-wars after two years). Yet the reform efforts continue, with the focus since 2007 being on "delivering as one"; that is, creating a “One UN” at country level.
The reform imperative
The lesson of this history - in which many commissions, high-level panels and taskforces have come and gone without making the change they promise - is that effective reform will not come from incremental and partisan thinking. An imaginative leap needs to be made: beyond the system, well into the future, and in consultation with the intended beneficiaries of reform - “we, the peoples”, in whose name the United Nations exists.
If the UN’s development work is to meet public needs, its must be audited by those best placed to judge its relevance and impact. This requires a process that includes those most familiar with the UN development system and those for whom it was created - including farmers, small enterprises, people from local communities, as well as NGOs and academics. All opinions about the UN’s future should be enlisted and shared, then linked through networks of independent national and international development organisations.
The change agents within the UN development system and its governing bodies who recognise the nature of the crisis should draw up and debate scenarios for 2025 and beyond, laying down the markers that can lead to a new architecture. The greatest challenges will be in harnessing and channelling these tides of change, and in persuading system insiders to accept its necessity.
A global-perception survey conducted by the “FutureUN” project has received views on the UN system from 3,200 people across the world (90% of them in the global south), with many areas of work (private sector, NGOs, academics and governments) represented. These participants agreed that the strongest elements of the UN were its neutrality and objectivity. They also rated the effectiveness and relevance of the system’s functions and agencies, in ways that revealed a striking consensus.
When asked about how the UN should look in 2025, over 70% of respondents agreed that there should be fewer UN agencies and changes in the mandates and functions of the system as a whole. There was strong support for NGO and private-sector representation in governance; and almost 70% thought that an overall global head of the UN development system should be appointed. There was also very strong support for a single development-system representative (79%) and for a single UN programme (77%) in each country.
The UN - its development goals, norms, standards, conventions, practices and unifying idealism - still matters. But its effectiveness and capacity for good influence are undermined by fragmentation, incoherence and lethargy. Without change, those who want the UN development system to succeed will be overcome by those indifferent to its failure.
There are many possible ways forward. But all begin by acknowledging that there is a crisis. The participants in the Millennium Development Goals summit should do so.
Get our weekly email