Bringing multilateralism back to the future

Lisa Orrenius argues that the world is in need of a multilateralism that builds on the past but is fit for the future.

Let’s travel back in time for a moment. Back to the summer of 1944, to the small town of Bretton Woods in the green hills of New Hampshire. Together 730 representatives from 44 countries gathered in the small town, and they were on a mission. Fuelled by determination to set a new course for the world, based on mutual trust and cooperation, their task was none less than to reconstruct the global economic order.

This was a defining moment for multilateralism as we know it. The meeting in Bretton Woods directly led to the creation of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and its multilateral approach, with the belief that broad global interest and joint solutions tops unilateralism and self-interest, also laid the ground work for the creation of United Nations a year later.

Multilateralism needs to evolve to be an effective and preferred tool

Multilateralism is a tool based on the principle that peace, security and development flow from joint action and collective solutions to collective problems. That more together is stronger than few. Like all tools, it needs regular sharpening and updating. As our world is ever changing, so must multilateral systems if they are to be effective and a preferred choice for countries.

So from 1944, let’s jump forward to 2015 – a great year for multilateralism when it comes to agreeing on global agendas. Two things stand out: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris Climate Agreement. In terms of success in implementation, the jury is still out. The next 10 to 20 years will be a big test for the multilateral development institutions, like the UN. They will have to step it up, sharpen their toolkit and clarify their comparative advantages, proving they are agile, effective and modern organisations well able to deliver on the agreed agendas.

Shortcomings of the current multilateral development system

As the authors of a new paper “Toward a New Multilateralism” note, the defining elements of the 2030 Agenda point to a number of shortcomings of the current multilateral development system (MDS):

  • Agenda 2030 is universal in scope and vision, while the MDS is still mostly organised with a frame that divides the world into developed and developing countries.
  • Agenda 2030 is ambitious and requires solutions at scale, while the MDS today is fragmented and project-oriented.
  • Agenda 2030 argues for integrated solutions extending across development, peace, environment, and humanitarian realms, while the MDS is siloed in its approach.
  • Agenda 2030 calls for contributions from a range of actors, while the MDS, at its core, remains largely intergovernmental.
  • Agenda 2030 requires the mobilisation of substantially greater resources from all sources, while the MDS has focused largely on aid and budgetary contributions from member states.

These shortcomings require attention. If left unaddressed, the multilateral development system will risk being side tracked by other mechanisms and systems more fit to deliver on the promises of the 2030 Agenda. Indeed, the multilateral development system is only one of several options available for tackling development challenges, and that’s how it should be.

It is not a panacea to all global problems, but should be an option of choice by governments because it is seen as the best vehicle for the issue at hand. Or, as articulated in the same paper: “The ultimate test of the effectiveness of the multilateral development system is that it enables a collective response to solving a particular problem that is preferred to individual country responses.”

Opportunity to create a strong, evolving multilateralism

With the new ambitious development agenda and new leadership, the UN has a great opportunity to further position itself as a multilateral actor fit and ready for addressing and providing solutions to todays and tomorrow’s challenges. A key role for the UN is responding to emerging threats to global public goods – the big-ticket items – such as climate change, inequality and global pandemics. For many of these issues, a grand collective response is needed if success is to be achieved. The convening power of the UN to bring a wide range of actors together, including business, civil society, academia, and science, is an absolute must.

Many tests lie ahead for the entire multilateral development system; some we can guess, others we cannot. I don’t know if it’s true that the world is changing faster than ever before; perhaps every generation feels that way. It sure seems like it. The global economy is changing at rapid speeds, the demographic of global poverty is significantly shifting, the world suffers extremely complex conflicts and crises. We today live in a hyper-connected world, for good and bad.

In the words of Martin Luther King: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” How true. The world, together, will need to respond to these changes and challenges. A strong, evolving multilateralism that builds on the past but is fit for the future should be at the heart of those efforts.