Five Ways to Make the United Nations Even More Effective

Posted by Sheba Crocker
January 17, 2017
A placard for the United States’ delegation sits atop a table, as Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the UN General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York. [State Department photo]

On January 1, António Guterres of Portugal began his five-year term as UN Secretary-General, replacing Ban Ki-moon. If you followed the Secretary-General race or Guterres’ previous tenures as Prime Minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, you know that UN member states picked a superbly qualified leader for the Secretary-General position -- a job that comes with the potential to spearhead global efforts to address major international challenges and, if seized, is an unmatched position of moral authority.

Guterres has assumed leadership of a network of multilateral organizations and agencies vital to global peace, stability, and prosperity. This network complements U.S. global leadership, creates international cooperation that diminishes the space for conflict and terrorism, harmonizes international development objectives, and upholds universal norms and values that narrow the operating space for dictators and those wishing to do harm and ensures equality of rights for all citizens around the world.

From day one, the Obama Administration has recognized the importance of multilateralism to achieving U.S. foreign policy objectives and solving global problems. At a time when increasingly complex international challenges demand truly international solutions, relying on bilateral relations alone to achieve U.S. objectives is not enough. This recognition fueled a sustained reengagement with the multilateral system that has put the United States back at the center of the diplomatic universe, strengthened important international institutions, and fostered a series of landmark deals and agreements. As Secretary Kerry has pointed out, the United States is more respected in the world than we were eight years ago, in part because of our unprecedented leadership in strengthening and modernizing the United Nations and other institutions.

Assistant Secretary of State Sheba Crocker (right) and Ambassador Samantha Power (left) listen as Secretary Kerry addresses the UN Security Council. [State Department photo]

For instance, this Administration’s multilateral approach created a path toward the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program and produced real momentum toward the Paris Agreement on climate change and the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. By re-joining the UN Human Rights Council, we were able to bring attention to some of the world’s worse human rights violators and protect LGBTI rights and the rights of women and girls around the world. We turned to the United Nations to complement our bilateral efforts to help prevent violence and encourage peaceful political transitions in countries ranging from Cyprus to Yemen, Colombia to Cote d’Ivoire, and many others. And we worked with the United Nations to tackle the Ebola crisis in West Africa, make UN peacekeeping more effective, and address the global refugee and migrant crisis.

Yet, despite all of these achievements -- many of which benefitted from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s leadership, and all of which demonstrate the continued necessity of the United Nations and broader multilateral system to achieving U.S. objectives -- we must be clear-eyed about the United Nations’ shortcomings. The UN system suffers from outdated practices and structures that, when combined with strains not seen before in its 71 year history, are preventing the organization from being even more effective.

The United Nations faces rightful criticism over its handling of controversies involving sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers and its failure, until recently, to acknowledge its role in the cholera outbreak in Haiti. Struggling UN peacekeeping missions, such as in South Sudan, face huge challenges but also have failed to take effective action to protect civilians. When scandals in the UN system are unearthed, rarely are senior officials held accountable. The organization employs many outdated human resources, management, and budget practices that are not reflective of a 21st century institution, and some corners of the United Nations still try to silence whistleblowers or bury critical reports rather than resolve internal problems. On top of all of this, many elements of the UN system --  and certainly many of its members -- still harbor an anti-Israel bias that only delegitimizes and distracts the organization more broadly.

Perhaps most disheartening of all, and despite all the UN Security Council is able to accomplish on a regular basis, the Council increasingly is unable to agree to meaningful action on some of the gravest threats to international peace and security. Syria is the most galling and obvious example, but we also have seen deadlock in recent years on South Sudan, Burundi, and other crises. In addition, UN member states increasingly feel free to flout international norms and law -- whether in their use of chemical weapons, failure to protect civilians in conflict, active targeting of humanitarian actors, or any number of other measures -- and the multilateral system and its many member states often seem incapable of responding to these existential tests.

These may seem like insurmountable challenges to overcome -- in fact, to some naysayers, the United Nations’ shortcomings are reason to scale back U.S. engagement with the organization, or de-fund it entirely. But we need the United Nations too much to walk away. Just like other large organizations, reform comes slowly to the United Nations. However, especially in the context of strong U.S. engagement, we have seen that the organization can be reformed. UN member states have agreed to a number of major changes throughout the organization’s history, including expanding the number of Security Council members and creating new UN agencies and structures, such as the 2006 creation of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Most importantly, Secretary-General Guterres is the right person to lead the United Nations’ reform efforts. He possesses both the gravitas and experience to drive serious change, and the moral authority to, when needed, use his office as a “bully pulpit” to stand-up to member states that are skirting international law.

Guterres went out of his way between his October 2016 Secretary-General appointment by the UN General Assembly and the start this month of his Secretary-General term to build goodwill by consulting widely with UN member states. The world now needs to mobilize behind Mr. Guterres as he puts together a targeted reform agenda and begins to implement it in the months and years ahead. Guterres is not wasting any time. On January 3, he announced the establishment of an Executive Committee that will meet on issues of strategic consequence, structural changes to his own office, and the launch of a high-level review effort on reforming the UN’s peace and security architecture, among other welcome initiatives.

The Secretary-General will need all of the help he can get from UN members to get this work done -- we all have to play our part in reforming the organization so that it remains relevant for the future, and remains focused on the key issues of our time. For his part, Guterres should prioritize and move out early in his tenure to take advantage of the goodwill he has built up, and he should look to build new coalitions of member states around his reform agenda and to break out of the traditional north vs. south and regional divides.

What reforms should the Secretary-General’s agenda include? No matter how well intentioned and effective, Guterres will not be able to implement all of the needed reforms across the UN system -- there are too many, and he will face pushback at each turn from various actors. Below are five suggestions of reform areas he should prioritize, each of which is in desperate need of change, and each of which will require member state support to achieve. Accomplishing even just some of the below would go a long way in making the UN system more effective:

1. Make high-impact management, human resources, and accountability changes.

To most, these are not “sexy” topics. But certain administrative changes are critical if the United Nations is to maximize its potential. For starters, how the organization fills its senior-most positions needs serious attention. The United Nations can and should fill its senior ranks through merit-based appointments, and it can do this in a way that achieves gender parity and a balance of individuals from different regions. The organization should require that all Under- and Assistant-Secretary-General level positions be advertised, and the job announcements should list the duties and qualifications for the job and effectively increase the pool of qualified women candidates.

The United Nations also needs to do a lot more to improve its culture of accountability and ensure that all UN staff adhere to the highest ethical standards and that wrong-doing is not tolerated; even a small number of allegations of wrong-doing or retaliation against whistleblowers can undermine all of the organization’s excellent work. One way to do this is to conduct independent audits of agency and senior manager performance, and more closely tie promotions and terminations with results.

In addition, more administrative functions should be moved away from expensive UN cities, such as New York and Geneva, to less expensive locations. This would help address the United Nations’ personnel costs in a significant way -- costs that have ballooned over time to, by some reports, account for at least 70 percent of the organization’s total assessed budget. And completing the management and human resources reforms begun by Ban Ki-moon should be a top priority, including seeing “Umoja” implementation through. (Umoja is the United Nations’ initiative to modernize its personnel, procurement, and financial systems.)

2. Transform the United Nations’ development and humanitarian assistance architectures.

The UN development system must reprioritize its work to focus on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals within existing budget resources. As part of this effort, the United Nations should eliminate duplication among its various entities, enhance partnerships with the private sector and civil society, and improve transparency and accountability by publishing data and performance results online.

The organization also must improve coherence among development and humanitarian assistance efforts to respond more effectively to protracted and recurrent crises and enhance emergency prevention and preparedness efforts. The world now has more forcibly displaced people than at any time since the Second World War. Former Secretary-General Ban convened the first World Humanitarian Summit last year to establish an ambitious reform agenda for creating a more strategic and effective humanitarian response system to, among other objectives, address this unprecedented displacement. The United Nations must lead in implementing this agenda, a key element of which is the “Grand Bargain,” a voluntary set of commitments from a broad cross-section of leading donors, UN agencies, and NGOs.

These commitments have the potential to fundamentally change the way in which the international community responds to humanitarian crises by incentivizing cost efficiencies and increased transparency that will allow more aid dollars to go directly to people in need. At the same time, we must remember that two-thirds of the world’s displaced people are not refugees, but rather internally displaced people within their own national borders.

The United Nations needs to sharpen its focus on this group, including by appointing a Special Representative of the Secretary-General to advocate for their needs. But until UN member states can look beyond tired tropes about national sovereignty, the United Nations will remain hampered in its ability to address the needs of the more than 40 million people displaced in their own countries by conflict and other crises.

3. Continue badly needed peacekeeping reforms.

There are over 100,000 UN peacekeepers deployed in uniform and thousands of civilian personnel serving in 16 missions around the world. These brave men and women are on the frontlines of protecting civilians and contributing to sustainable peace, often in austere environments and with insufficient equipment and training. The United Nations and its member states have not done enough to improve the design and capabilities of these operations.

The peacekeeping summit that President Obama co-hosted in 2015 generated pledges of over 50,000 new military, police, and enablers for these missions. The United Nations needs to deploy these troops more urgently to missions based on need and quality control, swapping out units that have underperformed or are not fit for where they are deployed. The United Nations also should move more quickly to wind down operations that have outlived their usefulness, improve mission assessment and planning, shorten the time it takes to deploy personnel and assets to the field, and ensure the safety and security of UN mission personnel, including through adequate medical services. Lastly, and perhaps most important, senior UN leadership in New York, mission leaders in the field, and individual units need to be held accountable more uniformly for failure to carry out their mandated tasks and for conduct and discipline issues, particularly sexual exploitation and abuse of the very people UN peacekeepers are supposed to protect.

4. Strengthen the United Nations’ conflict prevention, mediation, and peacebuilding capabilities.

While UN peacekeeping missions are critical tools in the maintenance of international peace and security, they are expensive and should not be treated as substitutes for long-term solutions (as, unfortunately, some of them have become). The United Nations’ efforts to prevent conflict through analysis and early warning, mediation, and peacebuilding are equally important to global peace and security efforts.

Unfortunately, while the organization has attempted to bring greater coherence and resources to these capabilities through its “sustaining peace” approach, the United Nations’ efforts in these areas still are fragmented, understaffed, and underfunded. Efforts to address these deficiencies over the years too often have been met with resistance by some member states who see funding in support of these lines of effort as taking away from funding in support of development and other needs, leading to stalemates in UN budget discussions that hamper the organization’s ability to be effective.

Secretary-General Guterres’ announcement earlier this month that he will co-locate regional staff from the United Nations’ Departments of Political Affairs and Peacekeeping and augmenting the policy planning staff in his Executive Office are welcome changes that could produce immediate results. But think tanks and outside experts have floated more expansive proposals for how greater coherence and increased resources can be realized, such as by formally merging different UN departments and providing more predictable funding for some of these efforts. All of these proposals, and others, should be on the table as part of the high-level peace and security review that Secretary-General Guterres announced.

5. Create a high-level UN coordinator for counterterrorism and countering violent extremism.

The United Nations has made strides over the past decade in ramping up its counterterrorism and countering violent extremism work. But this has resulted in 37 entities across the UN system focused on these issues, with no single focal point to coordinate activities, shift resources, or plan strategically. The United Nations needs to create an Under-Secretary-General position to provide dedicated leadership on coordinating and implementing the organization’s work to counter terrorism and violent extremism. Making the UN system more efficient and effective on these issues is critical to building member states’ capacities to counter today’s threats and prevent future ones from emerging.

Like any great organization, the United Nations must continually analyze its performance and make structural and operational changes to improve its results. As President Obama said during his 2014 UN General Assembly address, the United States “welcome[s] the scrutiny of the world -- because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect…and we are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short.” This sort of tough love approach also applies to the United Nations -- an organization that is more indispensable than ever, but one that also needs to address the significant challenges that are preventing it from being even more effective.

I am proud of what this Administration has accomplished through the United Nations and broader multilateral system over the past eight years, and passionate about the changes that this system should make to become more fit for purpose in addressing tomorrow’s challenges. Even though my time as Assistant Secretary is coming to an end, I look forward to remaining engaged in conversations around these issues and to contributing to solutions.

About the Author: Sheba Crocker serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

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