Reforming the United Nations: Fit for Purpose at 75?

Joachim Müller
February 22, 2022

In September 2020, world leaders marked the UN´s 75th anniversary with the General Assembly adopting a renewed vision for collective global action. This included a focus on the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, armed conflict, and extreme poverty, among others. Is the UN prepared to take on this challenge?

Upon taking office in 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres set out to reform the aging organization of 22,500 staff stationed across 463 duty stations with an annual budget of US$5.5 billion. In addition, there are 12 peacekeeping operations made up of 85,000 (mainly uniformed) personnel and an annual budget of US$6.5 billion.

Initial reform priorities centered on combatting sexual abuse during peacekeeping operations and achieving gender parity among the UN’s senior management. This was followed by a comprehensive reform agenda composed of three parallel pillars: development, peace and security, and management.

The promise to be the most ambitious and comprehensive transformation in decades did not materialize. Rather, this was a respectable effort in the tradition of previous reforms within the narrow confines of member states’ interests. Political disagreement about the role and power of the UN has prevented addressing broader and more substantive needs of the world organization, such as the reform of the Security Council and the human rights system.

Reform agenda, negotiations, and approval

The reform agenda was developed in 2017 based on informal consultations with member states and suggestions from internal and external study groups. The reform process was not uncontroversial. Some worried that the Secretary-General was simply looking for ways to deliver cost savings to the main contributors. Many UN staff were worried about pay cuts and lay-offs in the name of reform.

Negotiations at the UN took place among major groups in which member states organize. The United States played a key role and was supported by likeminded donor countries (US/donors). From the outset, Guterres formed a strong working relationship with US Ambassador Niki Haley by actively engaging in reform and seeking President Donald Trump´s approval. The ‘Group of 77 plus China’ represents 134 developing countries that make up two-thirds of UN membership. The European Union, with its 28 countries, often searches for a compromise between the US/donors and G77/China. There are other groups, sometimes overlapping, as well as members acting individually, such as Russia.

The reform agenda was presented to the entire membership in a series of briefings held by the Secretary-General through regular bilateral engagements held at the UN Headquarters or at the national capital level. Heated debate took place among member states during intergovernmental consultations. Far reaching reforms were hard to achieve, as all 193 UN member states had to reach consensus on all aspects of the reform. This opened the door for national interests and moved the negotiations towards the lowest common denominator.

Development pillar

The UN development system is a complex network of 34 entities, including the Secretariat and the specialized agencies. Together the system is the biggest multilateral development actor with an annual budget of over US$30 billion.

The development system was repositioned to better assist developing countries in achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. Essentially, control over the UN Resident Coordinators, heading the over 130 UN Country Teams in more than 160 developing countries, was moved from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to the office of the Deputy Secretary-General supported by the new Development Coordination Office (DCO). The role of the Resident Coordinator for overseeing and coordinating the UN development work around the world was upgraded.

Key proposals on expanding the responsibility of the Resident Coordinator did not find consensus support. G77/China and Russia blocked attempts to introduce a human rights perspective and to build a stronger nexus between development, conflict prevention, and humanitarian causes. It was argued that Resident Coordinator was transformed into a political actor which would weaken member states’ control over the development system and violate state sovereignty. Primary responsibilities of the Resident Coordinator therefore remained poverty reduction and service delivery. In contrast, donors regarded a more authoritative Resident Coordinator system as essential for an effective UN development system.

The reform was cost-neutral regarding mandatory government funding, an important precondition for gaining US support. In contrast to the US, the G77/China did not support any proposals which involved budget cuts. In the end, requirements for the upgraded UN Country Teams increased from US$175 million a year to US$281 million. The requirements were covered through a compromise arrangement, including funding through cost-sharing among UN system entities, a fee on project implementation, and anticipated voluntary contributions of around US$150 million. Actual voluntary contributions, however, fell well short of expectations.

A number of related reform initiatives of the development pillar did not live up to expectations. This included the new Funding Compact which only represented a non-binding instrument for voluntary adherence by member states and did not contain binding funding commitments. No progress was achieved in reforming the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the Regional Commissions. Merging of executive boards of New York-based major programs was opposed by the G77/China, as well as the US, and judged to constitute excessive centralization. G77/China also expressed opposition to promote the vision of an open UN development system that would operate as a hub for non-state actors, since this would dilute the voices of governments.

With the reform effort in its 3rd year in 2021, there has already been progress in many of the central transformation areas. Problems persist, such as larger UN entities’ resistance to coordination. The fragmented UN system of specialized agencies and semi-independent programs gives considerable autonomy to heads of organizations and limits decision-making by the Secretary-General. This favored institutional resistance. It also prohibited the streamlining of the over 1,500 regional and national representative offices of the UN development system – a Herculean task at best. Although it might be early to conclude, the observation by the German Development Institute that the reform has not resulted so far in a big push on delivering better for the 2030 Agenda is a cause for concern.

Peace and security pillar

There was a sense of crisis in peacekeeping due to high fatalities among peacekeepers, failure to protect civilians, mandates that lacked clear priority, budgetary pressure from the United States, and the sexual abuse scandals. Secretary-General Guterres focused on strengthening conflict prevention and sustaining peace. This was seen to be more effective and reduce the need for large scale peacekeeping operations in the future. In the end, the reform was limited to rearranging the headquarters departments by shifting organizational boxes and moving staff. The new architecture became effective as of January 1, 2019, and included the Department of Peace Operations (DPO), responsible for backstopping peacekeeping missions, and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), with a focus on policy issues. The control by the five permanent members of the Security Council over key departments and positions was not challenged.

The Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) was launched by the Secretary-General calling on member states to join him in developing a set of commitments to create peacekeeping operations fit for the future. This included developing realistic expectations, making peacekeeping missions stronger and safer, and improving equipment and training of forces.

Very little scope was given to develop more far-reaching proposals by integrating sustainable peace with development and human rights. Indeed, China and Russia opposed an expansive interpretation of the concept of sustainable peace.

The transition to the new organizational structure was difficult with overloading of key offices in the new structure and the need to engage in re-engineering of administrative processes. Evidence of the reform benefits were reported, including a more integrated, politically driven approach to peacekeeping and closer alignment with development actors.

Management pillar

The United States strongly supported initiatives to improve organizational efficiency, streamline processes, and reduce costs. The Secretary-General promised less bureaucracy, focus on results, field-orientation, transparency, and accountability.

As is the case for the peace and security pillar, the reform focused on building a stronger organizational architecture by restructuring two departments, separating policy and operation. The new set up came into effect as of January 1, 2019, and included the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance (DMSPC) and the Department of Operational Support (DOS). It was expected that the structural changes would generate efficiency of US$300 million annually––a promise which did not materialize.

The shift to a more decentralized Secretariat, a centerpiece of the management reform, is anchored in a new system of delegated authority. The change from biennial to annual budget cycle is a major step towards more realistic budgeting.

G77/China as well as US/donors were reluctant to approve additional discretion to redeploy budgetary resources as requested by the Secretary-General.

Several major issues remained delayed or unaddressed, for instance, human resources management, or the accountability system. Member states could also not agree on establishing a global shared center for administrative services, to be located in a lower cost duty station. This would have promised considerable savings when compared to high-cost locations such as New York and Geneva.

Way forward

A fundamental repositioning of the UN has not taken place in the last 75 years. The basic structure of commissions, agencies, programs, and funds was inherited from its early years. New reflections on a more fundamental change have been launched by the 75th anniversary. In response, the Secretary-General submitted his report “Our Common Agenda,” which looks ahead to the next 25 years and represents his vision of global cooperation and reinvigorated multilateralism fit for the future. Now is the time, as emphasized in the report, for a new global consensus.

About the Author

Joachim Müller, D.Phil. (1988), Oxford University, is a former senior official of the United Nations system. He has also been with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Müller has published extensively on change management in international organizations, including the series on Reforming the United Nations (Brill, 1997, 2001, 2006, 2010, 2016, 2021), and is co-editor of the Annual Review of United Nations Affairs (Oxford University Press). This post is based on the author’s new book “Reforming the United Nations. Fit for purpose at 75?” (Brill, 2021).

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.