In the World We Want, What UN Do We Want?

On 29-30 May, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, together with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (ECOSOC), organised a high-level meeting outside New York on the subject of UN reform. The meeting marked the culmination of the first phase of an intensive dialogue process among the UN member states and the UN development system on the future of the UN development system in light of the imminent post-2015 development agenda.

The dialogue process, which began in December 2015, consists of formal and informal sessions over an 18-month period, with the outcome of these discussions serving to inform practical decisions on how the UN development system will need to change in order to remain a preferred partner of governments in the realization of the new development agenda. The Foundation has been supporting the process both as a convener and as a provider of analytical input.

The Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson opened the meeting with a strong message to both member states and UN representatives that the current global context demands change faster and more responsive than ever:

“It’s about the basic question about what the UN should do and not do. We owe it to present and future generations to achieve significant reform.”

Jan Eliasson also emphasised that such real change will require visionary leadership from all sides and that the UN development system need to assess and rethink its functions based on the evolving and different needs of countries.

The 2-day meeting allowed for constructive discussions in plenum and in groups on all the seven inter-linked issues that have been identified as critical for the desired transformative change: functions, funding practices, governance structures, organisational arrangements, capacity and impact and partnership approaches, as well as on the umbrella question of what kind of UN system the member states want.

There was a clear recognition that the post-2015 development agenda and other drivers of change pose significantly different challenges and higher level of ambition for the UN than the earlier MDGs agenda. Ultimately, the UN development system will be judged in the post-2015 era by its continued ability to deliver concrete results in programme countries.

“It is critical to keep our eye firmly on the far horizon as Dag Hammarskjöld so aptly put it some sixty years ago, namely what we would like to achieve with this process” – ECOSOC Vice-President H.E. Mejía Vélez, Chair or the meeting.

The objective with the meeting was to identify the first set of strategic priority issues that would be thoroughly examined during the second phase of the reform dialogue, expected to commence in October following the Post-2015 High-level Summit in September.

“One thing is certain, if the UN development system fails to respond to the new development challenges, or “comes late” to this moment of major change, the Organisation faces a risk of marginalisation. Business-as-usual or tinkering on the margins is not an option if the UN development system is to become the preferred partner of governments in the realisation of the post-2015 development agenda.” – ECOSOC VP Mejía Vélez


 Six strategic priority issues

Based on the discussions undertaken during the first phase of the Reform Dialogue, culminating with this high-level meeting, the following six strategic priority issues (in abbreviated form) emerge, which could serve as a starting point for deliberations of Member States during the second phase of this process:

1. Form follows function and functions will continue to evolve

Clarity on the emerging functions of the UN development system in the post-2015 era is critical for ensuring alignment with the other areas. The UN development system can be expected to continue to provide comprehensive support across a wide range of country contexts. The universal nature of the agenda will also have implications for the functions in high-income countries. Support to developing countries to address global development challenges can also be expected to grow in importance. In addition, several new functions are emerging in the UN development system which reflect both growing demand from Member States themselves as well as the requirements of the new agenda. The UN should focus on the functions that it is best qualified to perform in support of Member States as they implement the post-2015 development agenda.

2. Different functions require different funding modalities

The current UN funding architecture has become too unbalanced and not conducive to the strengthening of the normative, leveraging and convening role of the UN development system that is called for in the post-2015 era. There is therefore need to explore more systematically innovative models to improve the volume and predictability of stable funding for UN operational activities, such as negotiated voluntary pledges and indicative scale of voluntary core funding. At the same time, there is need to improve the quality of non-core resources and use more innovative ways for funding the UN development system.

3. Need to rethink governance arrangements guiding and overseeing the UN at all levels

There is need to improve the effectiveness of system-wide governance in the UN development system. There is also recognition that improving the equity, representation and effectiveness of participation of Member States and non-state constituencies in governance, as well as the capacity and working methods of governing bodies in the UN development system, should be reviewed further.

4. No cookie-cutter approaches in countries

The UN development system will require widely differentiated country presence models in order to effectively meet the needs of programme countries at different levels of development. It will also be important to further strengthen regional platforms.

5. More tailored and flexible use of available capacities

Cost-effective measurement of agency and system-wide results in programme countries will require the UN development system to adopt a coherent results-based management system across entities. The system will also require a work force that is well-trained, equipped, mobile and driven to work for one UN. Moreover, the UN development system will need to fully utilize national capacities, systems and institutions in the delivery of the post-2015 development agenda.

6. Rethinking partnerships and UN’s role in these

Successful realisation of the post-2015 development agenda will require strengthening of partnerships between governments, civil society, private sector, international organisations and other relevant actors. The UN development system is well placed to serve as convener of such multi-stakeholder partnerships. The UN development system will need to possess strong capacity to convene multi-sector, issue-based partnerships, aligned to normative values and standards and good governance principles and with strong accountability for results, to facilitate collective responses to national and global development challenges.

The first phase of the Dialogue process has focused on building a solid understanding among Member States of the current state of play in the UN development system in the context of the post-2015 development agenda and other drivers of change. However, even more is needed if indeed real change will happen. A strong injection of political momentum at the Post-2015 Summit outcome in September will be very important as the second phase of the Reform Dialogue begins.