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Diplomats and NGOs to blame for UN Summit failure – send them all to boot camp

Written by Simon Maxwell


Two main groups carry the blame for the relative failure of the UN Summit in New York last week. The first group are the NGOs, whose error was to focus on the wrong priorities. They should be sent back to campaigning school. The second group are the diplomats, whose collective error was to mismanage a year’s worth of negotiation. Diplomacy school would be too generous. Boot camp seems more appropriate: long hours and scant rations until re-education is complete on how to create the right incentives for reform.

When the NGOs arrive back at campaigning school, they should be told that their single-minded focus on poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals was misplaced and distracting. This summit was never going to produce a breakthrough on aid or debt relief. That job was largely completed at the G8 meeting in Gleneagles – and successfully, too. If pledges are met, which mostly they will be, development aid will increase from $50bn a year at the beginning of the decade to about $130bn at its end. Nor was the summit ever going to deliver an agreement on trade. That will not happen until the Hong Kong ministerial meeting of the WTO in December, if then. So why did the NGOs focus so much on those parts of the document, about 85% of the total text, that were largely concerned with generic policy and long-term aspirations? They would have done better to recommend ditching the lot.

Instead, the NGOs – and the diplomats - should have focused on the ten paragraphs of the 150 in the document that contained ‘doing’ words - words like ‘decide’, ‘agree’, ‘instruct’ or ‘mandate’. Those paragraphs were concerned with practical issues, like reform of the UN human rights apparatus, setting up a peace-building commission, and improving management of the UN. They have mostly survived, in one way or another, but in a much weaker form than originally hoped, with many details left undecided, and with some notable omissions, especially enlargement of the Security Council. This could have been a moment of transformation for the UN. Instead, with Kofi Annan weakened by the Oil for Food scandal and anyway due to stand down within a year, reform has been put back for the immediate future.

The first topic at the boot camp therefore needs to be ‘what went wrong?’ The right answer is that the main question about UN reform has never been ‘Why?’ or ‘What?’, but rather ‘How?’ In other words, there is a surfeit of high-minded principle and a great shortage of hard-headed thinking about change management. John Bolton, the new US ambassador, upset the last minute deal-making with his raft of 750 amendments to the 50 page final text, but he is not the only culprit. The ambassadors as a group failed to heed three key rules about how to manage collective action.

First, the negotiating group was too large – 191 countries, grouped erratically into overlapping regional or interest groups. The experience of the World Trade organisation (WTO) shows that it can’t be done that way. The Security Council should have taken the lead, perhaps with a few additions from among the larger developing countries. The UN needs a strong leadership group, locked in a WTO-style Green Room until the essence of an agreement has been reached.

Second, the possibility of failure should never have been allowed. Negotiators needed to create an expectation that reform proposals would be agreed. In this, they needed to be backed up by civil society pressure. There’s an interesting piece of research on collective action which asks why it is that people don’t steal the tea bags in the office kitchen. The reason is that the shame of being caught stuffing tea bags into handbag or trouser pocket would outweigh any gain. In New York, tea bags were disappearing from the cupboard. Where were the public demonstrations? Where was the opprobrium? Where is it?

Third, and most important, diplomats failed to balance the incentives for change. The leadership group needed to reward compliance and punish defection. Countries do this when their own interests are at stake – witness the use of aid as a sweetener to gain allies for the assault on Iraq. That is not surprising. Collective action only ever works when the incentives are right, whether the collective is a group of villagers managing grazing land or forest, a group of business people managing transactions, or, in the natural world, guppy fish cooperating to minimise the number of them who get eaten. Was it beyond the diplomats in New York to put together stronger rewards and stronger punishments?

Incentives are about power, and the wariness of the most powerful fish in the pond, the US, has certainly been a factor in the negotiations. Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, the Convention on the Rights of the Child – there is much evidence for US recalcitrance. Not all John Bolton’s amendments served to water down ambitions for a larger UN role, but some did. The lesson is obvious: provide more incentives for the US to become more multilateral. What does the US want in the world? Security? The war on terror? A new world trade deal? Access to natural resources? An efficient UN? Friends? Of course, friends, as well as everything else. It is just not the case that the US is on one side and everyone else on the other; nor that all the cards are in one hand. Successful collective action means building trust and balancing incentives: a ruthless mixture of culture and calculus.

We Europeans tend to be multilateralist. We see the value of shared ideals, shared rules, shared accountability, sometimes shared sovereignty. We should be leading the process of UN reform as we have led on aid and debt. Ruthlessly.