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Reforming the UN

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:00


Gareth Thomas MP - Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State


Simon Maxwell - Director, ODI

1. The fifth meeting in the series was addressed by Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at DFID. Simon Maxwell was in the Chair.

2. Gareth Thomas reminded the audience of the many virtues and achievements of the UN. The UN had an important normative function, as evidenced, for example, by the Millennium Declaration, which provided a framework for international development, and had been endorsed by 140 countries. It had a challenge function, as evidenced, for example, by UNICEF's work on adjustment with a human face in the 1980s, and by Geoffrey Sachs' current project on financing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It was also very active on the ground, for example in the field of HIV/AIDS. Significant achievements could be identified in the development, humanitarian and transition spheres. Gareth Thomas singled out particularly UNICEF's work in India, the work of World Food Programme in Haiti, and the work of a variety of organisations in Afghanistan.

3. There had been improvements, but the challenge to the UN was to go further. There were still many problems of co-ordination, difficulties with over-lapping mandates, rivalry between UN organisations, and problems with protocol. Harmonisation remained a real problem, sometimes handicapped by the fact that the different UN agencies had their own boards and mandates.

4. Kofi Anan had recognised the challenge to the UN and had instituted various reform programmes. Some of these had been very successful (work in the AIDS field was again an example). The strengthening of UN country teams was commendable, for example through the introduction of the Resident Co-ordinator system and through the establishment of shared 'UN House' facilities. The preparation of common humanitarian action plans was a good step forward. There was evidence of successful co-ordination in countries like Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. This needed to be main-streamed.

5. In terms of the UK position, the Government strongly supported UN reform efforts. It was working with like-minded partners, including the Nordic countries, to develop further proposals. Specifically, DfID was strongly supportive of field-level co-ordination efforts. It was funding the Office of the UN Development Group, as a way of improving co-ordination. It was insisting on better criteria and greater transparency in the recruitment of senior management. And it was emphasising output orientation and performance in programming and evaluation. DfID was deliberately rewarding agencies that embraced reform, as recent increases in funding for UNAIDS and UNDP both demonstrated.

6. In conclusion, Gareth Thomas said that the Government was well aware of the importance of the UN. We needed the UN to help reach the MDGs, but we needed to go further in pursuit of social justice.

7. A number of points were raised in discussion:

·         There was an extended discussion about the best way to approach reform of the specialised agency system. Was this best achieved by following a strategy which focused on country-level co-ordination and rewards centrally for results-oriented performance - or was it necessary to address directly the issues of constitutional change, mandate overlap, forms of funding, and overall co-ordination through ECOSOC? In general, Gareth Thomas felt that the UN reform process needed to embrace both approaches. However, as a number of participants pointed out, the political and constitutional changes were extremely difficult to achieve in a UN system of 190 countries.

·         The issue of the relationship between development and political perspectives on the UN was raised, especially in the context of poorly-performing countries, or those at risk of conflict. There was clearly a need for joined-up thinking on these topics in all member countries. The UK was making some progress in this direction.

·         The priorities for reform were raised by various speakers: a greater focus on results was suggested; more attention to appointment procedures; a focus on intervention in armed conflicts; reform of the Bretton Woods Institutions.

·         Finally, a sharp contrast was drawn between the kind of discourse that took place around the World Bank, compared to that around the UN. No-one ever accused the World Bank of lacking a sense of purpose or of not co-ordinating well with itself. Was there not a question of why the UN could not be more like the World Bank? In the competitive market model described in Andrew Rogerson's work on aid architecture, there was clearly some advantage in having a number of successful players in each separated aid 'market'. The challenge was to strengthen the UN as a whole so that it could take on this role.


This meeting, the fifth in the UN reform: Why? What? How? series, saw Gareth Thomas, Under-Secretary of state, discuss the UN's successes and where the need for reform and improvement may lie. He outlined the UK Government's position in relation to this.