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UN Reform - A UK Perspective

Time (GMT +00) 00:00 23:59


Rosalind Marsden, Head of the FCO's United Nations Department.

Greg Toulmin, Head, UN & Commonwealth Department, DFID.

The speakers were Rosalind Marsden, Head of the UN Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Greg Toulmin, Head of the UN and Commonwealth Department at DFID. The discussion was chaired by Sheila Page.

Ros Marsden outlined the reform process currently being undertaken within the UN, largely as a result of initiatives by the Secretary General. Reforms were of two kinds, (a) internal/structural and (b) substantive. Internal/structural reform had been governed by the Secretary General's track 1 & 2 proposals and covered such areas as improved efficiency, financial reform, and the proposed enlargement of the Security Council. Although certain reforms had been implemented, such as improved financial accountability and better co-ordination through regular UN 'cabinet meetings', Dr. Marsden felt that there had been a recent loss of momentum. The cause of this reform fatigue lay with the member states and not with the Secretary General, whom Dr. Marsden felt was an excellent leader. The USA's role as a UN leader had been compromised by their payment arrears which had led in turn to a lack of respect by the other UN nations. The consequent break-down in trust had made Congress reluctant to authorise overdue payments: a classic vicious circle.

On the second issue of substantive reform, Dr. Marsden felt that despite some progress, it was difficult to be optimistic. There exists amongst the G77 nations a desire for reform and an increased focus on the effects of globalisation on the South, but political will for such reform was lacking. She thought that perhaps the Millenium General Assembly, to be held in 2000, might provide a focus for refocusing the global aspirations of the UN.

Dr. Marsden outlined the UK's (favourable) position on the UN reform process. The UK had recently been involving itself much more with the UN through increased political representation at meetings and an increased budget provision, and felt that other nations needed to take a similar more serious stance within the UN. UK priorities were: a qualitative improvement in the performance of the UN's activities; financial reform which will restore the UN financial system to a stable and equitable base; enlargement of the Security Council to include permanent seats for developing countries, Japan, and Germany; improvements in co-ordination and accountability; pro-active advocacy work; closer involvement with other Bretton Woods institutions, and results based budgeting. The success of reform within UNIDO and the WHO provided good examples of success stories; and indeed one way of going about UN reform might well be to tackle each institution one at a time, rather than aim at a comprehensive overhaul. ECOSOC was a priority for reform: it needed a more practical focus, a more realistic outlook, and to become more in tune with today's global needs.

On the issue of substantial reform of the UN, Dr. Marsden felt that the UN's future focus should be on five key areas: poverty eradication (which was left for DFID to comment on as this is their direct remit), conflict prevention, peacekeeping, human rights and the environment. In the area of conflict prevention there needed to be better co-ordination of international agencies and more money made available for training in conflict prevention. On peacekeeping, the UN needed to improve its rapid reaction capabilities and the Strategic Defence Review should help this process. On human rights and the environment, Dr. Marsden felt that activities in both these areas needed to be streamlined and to become more focused. Momentum needed to be maintained on the good work of UN agencies in both of these areas.

Greg Toulmin discussed three key issues: the DFID and UN as partners, the reform process initiated by the Secretary General, and the UN's role in poverty elimination. The partnership relationship was central. DFID was attempting to replace the somewhat supervisory stance of the past with more constructive engagement. It was seeking joint action, for example around the targets adopted by UN Conferences, and reflected in the DFID White paper.

On UN reform, DFID felt that the lines of authority needed to be clarified in order to make the UN more effective and efficient. Three key elements of this process were highlighted: the introduction of results-based budgeting; co-ordination of UN agencies through country-specific Development Assistance Frameworks (UNDAF); and refocusing on the role of inter-governmental processes. Mr. Toulmin supported the Secretary-General's attempts to rejuvenate ECOSOC but felt that it would required a major political effort and cost increases.

The role of the UN in poverty reduction was threefold, argued Mr. Toulmin. Firstly, an effective UN helped create global political stability; secondly, the UN was a forceful advocate of development (a role which DFID saw as key, especially to build on the series of summits in the 1990s); and thirdly, UN agencies helped to realise poverty reduction directly through programmes and projects of their own. Mr. Toulmin felt that there needed to be regular reviews by the UN of progress by nations in implementing agreed commitments, such as the environmental targets discussed at the recent "Rio plus 5" conference. All these issues woiuld be discussed further in DFID's forthcoming policy paper which should be available by Christmas.

Questions from the floor came in the areas of how to make the UN Security Council more representative of developing countries in practice; the possible conflicts the UK may have in being a member of the EU, the Commonwealth and the UN; the role of ethnic groupings other than nation states within the UN; raising public awareness and public support for the UN system; and, how to gain agreement on an international set of poverty reduction targets to be used by all international development agencies. There was general consensus that UN reform to make the organisation more efficient and effective was in the interests of the UN itself and the member nations. Whilst there was also agreement on the need to make the UN democratic, and especially more representative of developing nations, how this process might work in practice was a cause for debate.


This event outlined the reform process currently being undertaken within the UN, largely as a result of initiatives by the Secretary General.