Our Perspective


Fit for life? Transforming the UN to keep up with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

by

While UN reform is arguably a more complicated topic, many, including UN staff, will have a view. And good ideas, ranging from how to break down internal hierarchies and improve gender parity to streamlining operational procedures. Photo: Getty Images

Yesterday I exercised for the first time in five years. I used to be an avid runner until I got pregnant and was too nauseated and tired to lift a foot. Needless to say I am anything but fit.

Someone else who is not fit? The UN. Or at least that is what the so-called fit for purpose discussions imply. The slogan got traction during the early discussions of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2013, when the international community realized that a new development agenda might have implications for the workings of the UN itself; that it has to transform itself to become “fit” for this new purpose.

Now that the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs have been adopted, countries are getting started on their implementation. Many are setting up coordination mechanisms and inter-ministerial working groups in recognition of the fact that tackling issues such as poverty reduction, gender equality and climate change requires a multi-faceted approach that cuts across policy silos. Some are also thinking about further governance reforms. And many are looking at the UN with the expectation to do the same.

Even without the Agenda 2030, most people would agree that the UN needs some reform. But they might also know that any big changes are extremely difficult to realize with the competing interests of Member States who would need to approve such changes. The UN is better known for taking small incremental steps, but these might not lead to the complete makeover that is needed to address its shortcomings.

That said, the selection process for the next UN Secretary-General has undergone a surprising transformation. Pressure from civil society campaigns combined with leadership from selected countries have made a difference. While the Permanent Members of the Security Council are still expected to have the final say, the run-up to their recommendation has been opened up remarkably: the informal dialogues organized by the President of the General Assembly with the publicly announced candidates are interesting to watch and questions about improving the UN are asked by all political groupings.

Could there be a window for change?

If anything, this improved selection process has put the question of UN reform in the public sphere. Recently, there have been a number of articles from ex-UN staff lamenting its bureaucracy and offering recommendations for such things as an overhaul of its personnel system and capping administrative expenses (see here and here). Some more positive noises have been made as well, including from a former UNDP Administrator. Even the Economist has weighed in listing internal UN reform as the first one of the ‘grave problems to be tackled’ by a new Secretary-General.

This is good. We need more openness and we need more discussions. In fact, this would be a good initiative for the new Secretary-General: to do an open consultation on the future structure and procedures of the UN. The UN led consultations that fed into the design of the SDGs are a good example: more than 10 million people chose their priorities for the new development agenda, about “the world we want”. While UN reform is arguably a more complicated topic, many, including UN staff, will have a view. And good ideas, ranging from how to break down internal hierarchies and improve gender parity to streamlining operational procedures.

At the respectable age of 70 it is about time the UN gets back into shape. With all our help and a good training plan, it might be able to run the marathon. Of which the 2030 Agenda is only the beginning.

Blog post Sustainable development Agenda 2030 Institutional reform