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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 November 2006, 12:58 GMT
Some way but not all way on UN reform
By Felix Dodds, Jennifer Peer and Richard Sherman

Shaukat Aziz, Kofi Annan and Jens Stoltenberg. Image: AFP/Getty
Kofi Annan receives the report from Shaukat Aziz and Jens Stoltenberg
The United Nations, created more than 60 years ago, has outdated institutional frameworks and needs reform; that much is widely acknowledged, not least in the secretary general's office.

The current systems of global governance and management exhibit political and institutional weaknesses that have diminished the prospects for achieving sustainable development, a core purpose of the UN.

The proliferation of multilateral institutions and bureaucracies, often with overlapping or conflicting mandates, has not been matched with mechanisms to ensure effective co-ordination and coherence in pursuing common sustainable development goals.

Politically, problems still exist in integrating the three pillars of sustainable development - environmental protection and social and economic development - both within the international system, and among governments.

The Panel has dodged the all important question of country level support for sustainable development
The UN Secretary General's High Level Panel, co-chaired by three serving prime ministers and with UK Chancellor Gordon Brown among its members, has made numerous recommendations to strengthen performance and efficiency in the areas of humanitarian assistance, environment and development.

Significant reforms

The Panel's report, released on the 17th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, should not be lost on UN pundits.

It recognises that the UN has outgrown its original structure, and has gone a long way to proposing solutions to address the associated problems.

At the country level, it has called for a single country programme under a new sustainable development board.

Lebanese refugees. Image: Getty

It has proposed the clustering of UN environment conventions, which now number more than 700, and the upgrading of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) with a renewed mandate and improved resources.

It has called for a strengthened Global Environment Facility as the major financial mechanism for global environmental initiatives.

It has supported strengthening the voice of women through the merging of three bodies on gender and establishing an under-secretary general to ensure the stronger pursuit of gender equity and women's empowerment in the UN.

These recommendations are all to be applauded. Where the report falls short, however, is in the areas of the environment and strengthening the sustainable development system.

Country miles

Of the reforms being suggested, one of the most interesting is the reform at the country level.

Mr Annan's term has inspired a much needed discourse on development and the role of the UN system
Over the last 60 years, the UN system and member states have built walls between UN agencies, programmes and funds, particularly at the level of operations in countries; finding a way to work together has been a key challenge.

The Panel recommends one UN country programme, not 10 or 20 as we have at the moment, and greater ties to the country programmes of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

This would require a new oversight body, and it is suggested that would be a UN Sustainable Development Board, elected from governments and answerable to the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc).

The reform partly addresses what a number of NGOs have been advocating, but mixing the role of UNDP with a further role of coordinating all UN programmes and agencies is likely to cause friction.

Despite the Panel's emphasis on strengthening the UN's environment pillar, the recommendations tend to reinforce historical tendencies to limit Unep's activities in countries, and to separate core responsibilities among several bodies.

London protest about Darfur. Image: PA
Operations in countries such as Sudan would be unified
Similarly, the Panel has dodged the all important question of country level support for sustainable development.

As Koichiro Matsuura, Executive Director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), has said, the separation of actual operations from analytical and policy matters is a "false dichotomy and a recipe for incoherence, not coherence."

In July 2006, the UN's special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa Stephen Lewis cautioned the Panel "not to take the path of least resistance". But their recommendations on strengthening the sustainable development system have not headed this bold advice.

While sustainable development has become a priority of the intergovernmental system, including the General Assembly, the two key bodies tasked with overseeing and mobilising action - Ecosoc and the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) - are failing to oversee co-ordination across the whole system, as well as the balanced integration of economic, social and environmental aspects of United Nations policies and programmes.

To a certain extent, the Panel's recommendations could be described as "management by re-labelling"; a bolder suggestion by NGOs, of a Council in the General Assembly for sustainable development similar to what is now in place for human rights, was not taken up.

Last act

Despite its shortcomings, the High Level Panel's report may indeed provide a meaningful end to Kofi Annan's 10-year tenure as head of the UN.

Incoming UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Implementing reforms falls to Mr Annan's successor, Ban Ki-moon
During his term, Mr Annan initiated several such panels that produced significant intellectual outputs for a strengthening of the UN, ranging from areas such as peace and security, civil society, organisational development and management reform.

Though his proposals have not been openly welcomed by member states, this last High Level Panel may have the political weight behind it to ensure its recommendations gain traction.

Without a doubt, Mr Annan's term has inspired a much needed, highly spirited intellectual discourse on development and the role of the UN system.

The challenge is now for his successor and member states to build on these recommendations and translate them into the meaningful reforms that the UN so desperately needs.

Felix Dodds, Jennifer Peer and Richard Sherman work for the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future which supports the involvement of stakeholders in national and international governance processes

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