2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Like all anniversaries, this is an occasion for profound reflection.
To put it politely, the list of global challenges that the UN confronts shows no signs of shrinking. In the past year, it has added Ebola, terrorist recruitment, Gaza, Ukraine, and the new Sustainable Development Goals to an already daunting list of problems.
But is the UN up to the task of dealing with these issues? Global problem solving is never easy. How the UN addresses our list of specific challenges below will determine, we believe, whether it is still in its prime or over the hill.
Make progress on coordinated fundraising
One of the rationales for why international organizations are necessary is that they act as force multipliers. Solving problems that cross international borders requires coordinated action, and international organizations like the UN orchestrate a global response.
When it comes to fundraising to support these responses, however, however, aspirations come crashing to earth. In the case of the World Food Programme, for example, food aid to nearly two million Syrian refugees was suspended because of a lack of financial support. Only after the suspension did the money flow in.
Similar problems bedevil the Ebola Multipartner Trust Fund, to which Volvo has contributed more than New Zealand and Ireland. Developing countries such as China and India are punching above their weight, contributing more than many developed countries. The US has not made a contribution to this fund, preferring to make its contributions bilaterally to the affected countries.
As the international community begins to raise money to support Gaza reconstruction and Syrian aid in the coming years, the UN needs to avoid becoming a global collections agency. These contributions are all voluntary, and countries can promise but not follow through on their aid pledges.
The World Food Programme’s problems came about because many donor commitments were unfilled. In order to make progress, the UN needs to demonstrate to countries exactly how their individual contributions make a difference, and it needs to show the courage to single out those countries that are lagging.
Use civil society outreach effectively
The emergence of an online world poses tremendous opportunities for the UN to communicate directly to citizens across the globe.
There have been some enormous successes in the UN’s outreach efforts in the past year: the most watched UN video ever (with over 2.3 million views) is a Bollywood music video on LGBT rights that was released by UN Free and Equal, and the MyWorld 2015 campaign, which asks citizens to rank pressing global priorities, has received over 7 million votes from more than 190 countries. The top priority of respondents across all country income groups, by the way,was ensuring a good education.
As the world moves toward the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals, outreach to civil society becomes essential. But caution is the order of the day here.
Too much outreach can induce a backlash. Governments are extremely adept at pushing back against the UN if they perceive it to be interfering in their internal affairs. They can obstruct UN investigations, as in the recent case of North Korea. They can create government-sponsored NGOs that defend the country’s human rights record, as Cuba has done. They can even block access to the UN broadcast website, as officials in Bahrain did in September 2012 during a discussion of that country’s human rights record.
Moreover, public opinion can help shape debates by pressuring governments so long as the message is simple. The MyWorld2015 campaign was adept at this. While families might want a better education, that might not translate into government support for educating girls. Whether complex matters such as a climate change agreement can be boiled down to basic talking points is an open question.
Learn to embrace flexibility
There was a great deal of criticism of the recently concluded Lima Call for Climate Action as being too weak and unable to meet the goal of reducing global temperatures.
What was overlooked is that the world has learned the lessons of the Kyoto protocol. Kyoto’s problems were two-fold: it didn’t include developing country emitters of greenhouse gases, and it treated all developed countries as equally able to reduce emissions.
The Lima Accord has globalized climate change and added further flexibility, so that individual countries will propose how each will reduce carbon emissions. This bottom-up approach is certainly more likely to keep countries committed than the top-down Kyoto model, which had only mixed success, inspiring the Canadians to leave the treaty and the US never to even submit it to the Senate. A treaty may be ideal from an international legal standpoint (as Kyoto was) but it cannot succeed if countries refuse to ratify it.
Engage Capitol Hill
The UN will need to better engage Congress in the coming year. With the Republicans taking control of both chambers, the UN is running out of allies, putting the White House and Congress on a collision course over spending on international organizations.
While the recent omnibus continuing spending resolution offered an increase in the US contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget, Congress continues to use its oversight mandate in order make recommendations about UN policy. This time, for example, the Secretary of State has been asked to perform an audit of UN agencies, submitting a report to the Committee on Appropriations on each agency’s efforts to reduce unnecessary costs. It is likely that the information from this report will be used by Congress to propose cuts in US support for international organizations, as recently happened with the Organization of American States.
Without significant efforts to remind Congress how the UN supports US national interests, relations between Capitol Hill and the UN are likely to enter a precarious phase.
Don’t let 2016 overshadow 2015
The other election in 2016 that will capture global attention is the race for UN Secretary General.
The selection of a Secretary General is an opaque process. Since the decision is effectively made by the Permanent five members of the Security Council, there are no formal job criteria and no public vetting. Among the many reforms proposed by the 1 for 7 billion campaignare simple ideas such as developing a list of job qualifications, disseminating the advertisement, and requiring all candidates to make their policy priorities publicly available.
It is important to consider reforms to the selection process, but we should not allow this to overshadow the rest of the UN’s agenda. The prospect of deep reform is remote, since it would require an agreement by Russia, China, France, Great Britain, and the US. At most we can hope for marginal changes to make the selection process appear more competitive.
A unique mandate
As globalization’s impacts have grown, so the UN’s mandate has grown: it is uniquely positioned to be a problem-solver.
A Pew Research Global Attitudes survey in 2012 compared the favorability ratings of the US and the UN. In 11 of the 19 countries, the UN had higher favorability ratings than the US. Transforming that advantage into results, however, requires attention to some of the specific institutional challenges noted above. If that can happen the UN will be well positioned to make 2015 a very successful year.