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Reform of the International System: the momentum is building

Written by Simon Maxwell

The Commonwealth mini-Summit in London is the latest sign that reform of the international system is moving rapidly up the agenda. The Summit discussed reform of the UN, the Bretton Woods Institutions and global environmental governance. On all these, there is enthusiasm among Heads of Government for faster and better coordinated change. We can expect to see this translated into specific proposals at the EU Council, the UN MDG Summit, and the Doha meeting on Financing for Development, and in discussions leading up to the Copenhagen conference on climate change.

ODI has a long-standing interest in this topic. We’ve had programmes of work on global governance, UN reform, Bretton Woods Reform and climate change. We’ve been tracking UK Government proposals on our blog, including the series of speeches on the topic by Gordon Brown, most recently at the Kennedy Library in Boston.

A number of papers were prepared for the Commonwealth meeting:

 The papers are on the Commonwealth website, along with the final declaration. This is worth noting mainly because there will now be a coordinated programme of follow-up, some of it on Gordon Brown’s system change agenda and some not, with the next major milestone being the summit of Commonwealth Heads of Government the day before the MDG Summit in New York on 25 September. Specific proposals which will be interesting to development people include intensification of one-UN reform, work on a new environmental organization for energy and climate change, and a new Bretton Woods Conference on the reform of the BWI. Gordon Brown developed the idea of having the ‘World Bank as an environment bank’. He also brought up his proposals on post-conflict and fragile states and the new humanitarianism.

My own paper summarized the current raft of UN proposals, and reviewed progress, especially with regard to One UN. The main theme, however, was the importance of building an international consensus for change, a theme we have developed previously at ODI, under the banner ‘Not Why? Not What? But How?’.
In my paper, I argued that:
“The pace of change is really the nub of the issue. There is already quite a substantial reform agenda on the table, with progress being made, but very slowly and in a sometimes fraught political atmosphere. Anecdotally, reasons for slow progress include:

  • A lack of trust between the G77 and the rich countries; fear by the G77 that attempts to introduce new doctrine (Responsibility to Protect - R2P), or work towards greater coherence, threaten sovereignty.
  • Too many issues being linked together, so that, for example, progress on one-UN is linked to the outcome of the Doha Round.
  • Paradoxically, the opposite problem in some cases. For example, the G77 is nervous about human rights issues being brought up outside the remit of the Human Rights Commission.
  • A 'chicken and egg' problem, in which donor countries are unwilling to tackle core financing issues until efficiency improves, but efficiency remains seriously constrained by poor funding arrangements.
  • The lack of authority of the Secretary General, in the sense that Specialised Agencies are governed by their own Boards or Councils.
  • Lack of coherence by UN members in actions taken in New York and in the Boards and Councils of Specialised Agencies.
  • In some cases (e.g. Security Council reform) difficulty in adjudicating between the claims of different developing countries.”

I am enthusiastic about the Commonwealth initiative, because a North-South Club, with shared values, a high degree of trust and strong personal networks looks like exactly the kind of arrangement that might generate faster progress.

If anyone would like to read the papers and/or the communiqué, I'd be glad of comments, and so, I’m sure, would the Commonwealth Secretariat.