What’s in a word?

Bold reform and new thinking is needed if the UN wants to stay on top as the world’s premier global institution.

“Make changes in order to improve”. This is the dictionary’s definition of reform and who could possibly object to its pursuit? Well, depending on the object of reform, lots of people for lots of reasons. In the UN, the word reform is highly charged and often avoided at all costs. All sorts of creative substitutions are used instead: revitalize, revive, amend, tailor, transform, renew, and, for the brave, change.

Reform and change in the UN is politics, and the views on what represents improvements are as diverse as the General Assembly. When I first started to work with the UN in 2005, the reform-like darling was coordination, and the coordination flag, followed closely by coherence, has been raised high at the UN over the last decade. “If we cannot agree on deeper change, let’s at least agree to talk to each other” seems to have been the sentiment. A start at least.

And yes, lots of efforts of coordination – aimed at improved efficiency – and, even better, coherence, which targets effectiveness in the UN system, have been quite successful, such as the evolution of the Delivering as One initiative which has reinforced the team aspect of the UN country teams. This despite the often two steps forward- one step back dance these efforts often are. “Herding cats” was actually the expression often used during my first UN job, which involved coordinating the close to 30 different UN entities making up the UN development group. It’s a fitting description.

Coordination and coherence is not enough

But today coordination and coherence is not enough. They only reach so far; for example, the Delivering as One initiative is targeted at country level only. Change at a deeper level is needed, starting with a serious discussion on WHAT the UN should do and not do. This is more about doing the right thing than doing things right.

Currently, an ambitious reform process – although this is not what it’s called of course – is taking place within the UN, focusing on the big and wonderful yet fragmented development system. The main question is this: over the next 15 years – what are the roles and functions the organisation should perform and how should it be financed, governed and structured to lead and deliver on those roles?

The discussion – among member states and the UN entities – is premised on the two facts that i) the world has changed significantly in the past 10 years with geopolitical dynamics, a trebling of the economy and the rise of global challenges requiring global solutions to mention a few shifts, and ii) with the 2030 Agenda, there is a new and very ambitious global vision, with corresponding expectations and demands to live up to.

Bold reform and new thinking

Enter: reform. Bold reform and new thinking. This is not the time to tinker around the margins, not if the UN wants to stay on top as the world’s premier global institution, uncontested in legitimacy by countries and people.

I believe without hesitation in the value of the UN, more than ever in today’s volatile and increasingly inter-connected world. And I’m happy to note that across political and power divides at the UN, there seems to be consensus that the UN, 70+ years old, is indeed in need of deeper change, a more fundamental makeover. The deep mismatches between structure, governance, funding flows, and tasks of the UN must be corrected. The how is however still very much under discussion.

Key components of this discussion must be integration, as the next level up from coordination and coherence, as well as differentiation. We have presented these components, along with others, more in depth in a paper, but in short:

  • Integration would mean seeking synergies and addressing trade offs for truly joint up solutions and responses, as well as daring to selectively merge (another word best avoided in the UN) some of the entities, functions and processes to reduce duplication and competition, as well as increase value and impact. The new 2030 Agenda sets the tone with its all-encompassing vision. Delivering on this agenda requires integration.
  • Differentiation in the sense of offering more of an à la carte approach in the many very different country contexts where the UN is present. The UN should not do everything everywhere. The unique construct that the UN is, with its 193 member states, needs to focus on its comparative advantages and leave other functions to other actors.

It’s time to up your game, UN. Time for new hardware, not just to keep updating the software in an old machine.