17 May 2007

We are pleased to open a special corner for an evaluation of proposed U.N. reform and honoured that the first headline is by Nitin Desai, a pioneer in sustainable development issues and a leading figure in international gatherings that aimed to draw a consensus framework for human development. Mr. Desai has been a U.N. Under-Secretary General for over a decade when the Department he headed became a reference for active, practical and updated approaches to reform and development. Following is his initial contribution:

An Insider Perspective on U.N. Reform: by Nitin Desai

The United Nations has been the subject of reform exercises for at least the past 25 years. Most of these reforms have focused on managerial improvements and tinkering with the Secretariat machinery. Occasionally some change is made in the intergovernmental machinery but that too from a cost-reduction perspective. The underlying power structure has been left untouched.

This has to change. If the United Nations is to retain its relevance it needs a more fundamental constitutional reform that secures a better balance between legitimacy, power and consent. However the realities of power are such that any agenda for the political reform of the UN has to be modest.

In the political arena the focus has to be on three things: first, Security Council reform, second, a more structured and formal role for regional actors and troop providers in peace-keeping and third, more active advocacy for disarmament measures by the SG. But I will leave it to former colleagues from the political side to comment and elaborate on this.

On the development side the need to strengthen the UN voice on global environment issues is urgent. There is talk of a World Environment Organisation on the analogy with the WTO. But the WTO was set up after securing agreement on substantive commitments not before. At present what we need is a stronger voice for the moral case. That is why a High Commissioner for the Environment may make more sense, though the analogy with human rights and refugees suggests that he/she too would need more by way of agreed commitments than what we have now.

When it comes to economic and social issues the standard reform proposal; is to strengthen Ecosoc. The Coherence Panel proposals do move in this direction. But are they getting any attention in New York?

The field organization of development work by the UN funds, programmes and agencies seems sometimes to be an employment programme for well-paid professionals who write reports and attend seminars. The size of the field organization also seems rather large relative to the amounts they spend. Reform here has to go beyond better coordination to more basic questions about the utility of what is being done in the name of the Millennium Development Goals.

The main point that I would stress is that improving the management of the UN (transparency, accountability, efficiency and all that) may well be important. But it may not mean anything if the UN's political processes and constitutional structures are not reformed to make the organization more relevant to today's world. My fear is that we are losing the game to regional or limited membership entities in the political sphere and to the World Bank and some large NGOs in the development sphere.