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UN Summit: Getting the structures right and securing effective collective action

Written by Simon Maxwell

There are two big agendas at the UN MDG Summit in mid-September. One matters and one does not. Keeping this thought in mind helps greatly in sorting through the Bolton amendments and in helping to focus debate during the last days before the meeting.

The agenda which does not matter is the one on which most NGO attention has focused: the MDGs themselves. The draft outcome document, named for Ambassador Ping, the President of the General Assembly, reiterates the principles underlying the MDGs and lays out sectoral priorities. This is done with due reference to the Millennium Declaration, agreed at the last big UN review in 2000, and with careful mention of all current priorities and fashions, from human security to HIV/AIDS. This may be necessary deck-clearing, but careful reading of the Ping report reveals hardly any uses of what used at school to be called ‘doing words’: ‘decide’, ‘agree’, instruct’, ‘mandate’. John Bolton can propose as many amendments as he likes in this area, and nobody much should lose any sleep. For example, and oddly, the US doesn’t like the term ‘Millennium Development Goals’, even though they accept the goals themselves, which are in the Millennium Declaration. Eccentric, but life is too short to make this an issue. The important decisions on aid and trade have either already been made (for example at the G8) or will be taken elsewhere (for example at the WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong).

On the other hand, ten of the 159 paragraphs of the 10 August version of the Ping report do matter. For the record, these are paras 29, 76, 86, 104, 134-6, 137, 139 and 152. Here, there are substantive issues and stake and some substantive proposed amendments.

Paras 29 and 152 have to do with the lead role of the UN in development and the overall coherence of the UN system. This points to an important discussion about the overall aid architecture. As aid increases, who is going to get all the extra money? Is it all going to go to the World Bank, which is probably the default position? Will the very high share of bilateral aid be preserved? Or are we going to be able to create a genuine and democratic multilateral system? The Ping text has useful paragraphs in efficiency, but is otherwise largely aspirational, but the Bolton amendments weaken it further. That’s a real pity.

Paragraphs 76 and 86 are about the peace building commission and the peace building fund. The US broadly supports these initiatives but has proposed amendments which weaken especially the financial aspects. The precise role and working of these institutions does, at least to this observer, remain a puzzle.

Paragraphs 104 and 139 deal with the human rights apparatus, strengthening the office and funding base of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and creating a more broadly-based Human Rights Council. The US is traditionally enthusiastic about civil and political rights, but much less so about economic, social and cultural rights. The amendments proposed here support the changes, but with less structure to the financial arrangements than in the Ping draft. Never mind, human rights matter, and these reforms are worthwhile.

Paras 134-6 deal with Security Council Reform. Here, an already empty text has been further weakened, by removing any discussion of accountability. Security Council Reform looks to be off the agenda in New York, with or without Bolton.

Finally, para 137 deals with ECOSOC, proposing an enlargement of its mandate to make it the premier forum on development cooperation. Most observers are sceptical about ECOSOC’s ability to deliver, but the text remains largely unchanged.

Put all this together and it looks as though the best that can be hoped for from New York is a modest advance on administration and some reconfiguring of basic institutions. That is not quite the major reform package originally envisaged. Where is the debate about whether we want a genuinely multilateral system or not? Where is the debate about how power is distributed in the world? Where the debate about how the UN should be configured in order to take things forward?

The issue, I think, reflects a genuine difference between the US and Europe about how to manage the international system. One theory about this, associated with Robert Kagan, is that the US doesn’t need multi-national institutions because it is strong, whereas the Europeans, who are weaker, traditionally like institutions, like rules, and want to take the discretion out of some of these issues and put them into a more formal structure.

If that is the case, that is also where the debate should be between now and the week after next. It is a question of how to improve collective action in managing reform within international organisations: about trying to understand why it is that some issues move and some issues don’t, how to build a consensuses for change, how to win allies, what are the incentives for different players. How can the US be incentivised to be more enthusiastic about the UN? Perhaps that needs a last-minute discussion.

UN reform is an endless discussion and it is always easy to say that we take one step forward and two steps backwards. However, an enormous amount of effort has gone in this time to producing an agenda which should generate movement, but presently it doesn’t seem that likely to happen. That is a great pity, because momentum will be lost. Kofi Annan is embroiled in other crises and his term comes to an end anyway next year. This will put further change on the back burner for several years.

What this means is that if there is to be pressure from civil society NGOs, they should not be around the details of the MDGs, but about getting the structures right and securing effective collective action.