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Four steps governments can take to support the UN 'sustaining peace' agenda

Written by Sara Pantuliano


This week I will be at the UN General Assembly, where talk of change is in the air. The Secretary General António Guterres’s focus is on the prevention of crises and delivering newly adopted UN resolutions on ‘sustaining peace’.

Although peace is ultimately a matter for governments and their people, empowering the UN to deliver this new strategy politically and financially, both globally and at country level, could help reverse the dismal record of international players on tackling major crises.

‘Sustaining peace’ pulls the UN’s many bodies, country offices, secretariats, funds and programmes together to collaborate on research, planning and partnerships to prevent conflict and build and maintain peace. It’s a long-term, holistic approach that encompasses political mediation, human rights and sustainable development.

Our new paper, published today, outlines four steps governments can take to support this agenda.

1. Build trust, give clear direction, and ensure accountability

Trust between governments and the UN has weakened, yet the strategic partnerships this agenda needs depend on trust. States set the UN competing or un-prioritised tasks and are inconsistent in giving direction, which can result in mission drift. There is also too little accountability on UN funding and outcomes – just as governments are not held accountable for their lack of support for the UN’s peace work.

To tackle this, states should demand and enable a highly skilled and more accountable UN senior leadership. This means professionalising recruitment and fixed-term contracts with renewal linked to performance – including delivery of the sustaining peace agenda. Above all, for Member States, it also means refraining from influencing appointments with undue political pressure. To ensure coherent policy and action across the UN, states should also reinvigorate the Peacebuilding Commission charged with overseeing this agenda to build consensus on what ‘sustaining peace’ means and how it should be integrated with the SDGs.

2. Give the UN time and space to do its job

Governments call on the UN to resolve conflict, then interfere or obstruct its work on the ground. Sustaining peace requires inclusive national processes; host governments should encourage, not hamper UN efforts to support active civil society. The World Bank says peacebuilding takes 20-40 years, yet markers of success are invariably short-term and unrealistic. States must recognise that sustaining peace is a decades-long process and respect UN expertise and country strategies over domestic or geopolitical pressures.

Conflicts are increasingly complex and drawn out, in part due to rising inequality, social exclusion and authoritarianism, and greater competition over resources. The UN needs to innovate to meet these new challenges, but governments are reluctant to fund ‘riskier’ projects. They should take this risk on and stimulate innovative thinking by supporting pilot projects, taking new ideas to scale, where successful and applicable.

3. Properly resource the UN with pooled and unearmarked funds

In today’s aid-funding climate, the UN needs smarter, not necessarily more money. The UN’s peace budget is substantial. Frontline programmes received $28 billion in 2015, but most of this funding was short-term, piecemeal, or ring-fenced. The UN’s procurement process is time consuming and results in a multitude of small projects, which cannot achieve scale and are difficult to coordinate. Projects also tend to reflect what donors want, rather than what works.

Evidence shows that properly managed pooled funds can yield better results from the UN system. They act as a platform for strategic coordination, lower transaction costs, promote country ownership, align funding with strategy, and encourage mutual accountability. Governments should expand the use of common funds, such as the Peacebuilding Fund, increase multi-year, unearmarked funding and targeted funding for priority programmes, and enhance accountability through streamlined reporting.

4. Politically empower the UN to act

A lack of consistent leadership and failure to find political solutions to major crises has constrained the UN’s peace work. UN crisis management has come to replace political action by governments. The UN has the credibility and skills to mediate conflict, but is rarely called upon. Political squabbles lead to inaction, putting the UN in an impossible position; it is blamed for the political failings of governments and is accused of lacking ambition or moral authority, undermining its very legitimacy.

States must lend political authority to the UN, so it can effectively work with governments and others to build peace and mediate conflict. Priority should be given to constructive dialogue and investment in the UN good offices and mediation capacities, ensuring they are used as a key tool for political mediation and dialogue aimed at preventing escalation of violence and bringing about lasting peace.

Having created this rather convoluted system, governments must now get behind the Secretary General’s vision to reform the UN – culture, structure and processes alike – and provide the political, financial and operational backing it needs to deliver its ambitious vision for sustaining peace.