United Nations’ Own Reformation

Paul James Crook
17 min readNov 30, 2023

To prompt structured dialogue and commensurate actions

To make substantial change a reality

From a UN movement facility — MOP is not for cleaning in this case but a Movement Of Personnel order

A bureaucracy will not change unless required to change by external factors.

The application of Newton’s physics laws to organisational development is apposite as we witness further talk of ‘transformational change’ with AI (artificial intelligence) and the ‘new multipolar’ political power system now impacting global relations against the all-pervading climate change.

An organisation, especially something with as many stakeholders as the United Nations, UN, will seek stability and what is currently happening are the chief stakeholders to this, and other, institutions are seeking to keep an equilibrium serving short-termism and (starting?) to lose the very ethos of the UN founders. We are in a new age of multipolar powers as we leave behind the shaping of the UN, and the other multilateral institutions, direct colonial exploitation was overtaken by the bipolar Cold War environment. The UN gathered credibility post World War II. Then came post Berlin Wall era, China achieving critical mass, United States waking to global supply chains and Europe realising climate change is more than shutting nuclear power plants.

The UN with its agencies, funds and programmes, AFPs, has become the pinnacle of the aid and development industry where so many of us individuals have aspired to make a career if not a difference on this World. The present Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has shown his political skills translate to the UN stage with work leading the United Nations High Commission for Refugees at a critical time of organisational and mandate development. Others have, seemingly, not been so astute devex wfp loses more goodwill over gaza. The crises of the last 3 years have been unprecedented in the UN’s lifetime. These external challenges have not been foreseen and the responses proven lacklustre or simply reflected the priorities with individual AFPs making their calls to action. The UN has great tests internally as the World looks at the far-reaching challenges set out to achieve the 2030 agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, given wider issues of inequality and popularism, to name two further current and apposite themes.

- Is the UN, able to meet these challenges?

- Or is the UN, with its constituent entities, becoming anachronistic in numerous respects with changes in the political, legal enforcement, cultural, economic and social aspects of poverty reduction, environmental consciousness?

- Are the realisation of Rights to be delivered in new ways through different mediums?

- As balances of power and influence change with the shifts to World order, critically in terms of economically and environmentally, with disruptive technology being mirrored by new forms of activism and engagement, is there need to review the manner of doing business for the development of institutions fit for purpose into the next decade with all its challenges; known and unknown?

The functionality of the UN’s core should now be redefined.

1. The Security Council[1], the bringing together of the member states is a critical element. Note the manner discussion and dialogue developed over Syria, now a seeming staple for bureaucratic reporting alongside missions in Congo, Iraq, Somalia, Western Sahara, as the World political order moved on to SARS-CoV-2, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And now, last quarter 2023, the Hamas attack in southern Israel with the Israeli response into the Gaza Strip. UNRWA — “united nations relief and works agency for palestine refugees in the neat east” (from official website, noting the deliberate absence of capital letters) has been thrust back into the mainstream as UN AFPs make other profile appeals on various aspects of needs for the People in the Gaza Strip.

Back to the Security Council, UNSC — how does this function into the future? A ‘parliament’ of governments? Some learning from popularist politics to come to the fore in recent times highlighted with the UK’s ‘BREXIT’ campaigning to ‘regain sovereignty’ from powers in the European Union structures? For the UNSC, the move beyond the sitting members and reflect the relative power of different states through weighted voting? By population, GNP (as measured by Bretton Woods institutions), possibly a formulation looking at contribution to development among peers (people and support as well as financial resources). What cannot happen is more of defending the inertia whilst rhetoric regarding the SDGs, equality of opportunity and addressing the poverty resultant from inequity, exacerbates the consequences of climate change and continuing changes in the world of work impacting people’s rights and, increasingly, their fundamental Rights.

2. Is the Secretary General of the United Nations a World Leader or a person heading an organization offering opportunity for elected, and otherwise, Heads of State to meet and resolve issues, set process and forestall problems? What is the UNSC’s role in enforcement of norms and how to ensure sanctions are taken when member states do not comply plus capability to offer fillips when they step up to lead positively? Let us also reinforce, the UN could be compared to an overarching brand under which the AFPs are marketing themselves. The nomenclature of ‘the UN’ is both a torsion and a tension in being able to deliver with multifarious overlaps of mandate and a gaping hole as well.

3. Ask the fundamental question as to what is the function of the UN? What do the AFPs contribute to the function of the UN (and/or the realisation of Rights within the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals)?

Peacekeeping? Or preventive diplomacy and delegation of powers to reinforce accountability. Accountability and fit for purpose; particularly given the shifts in World politics and how the UN operations have, probably, lost the neutrality they once enjoyed as peacekeeping has become peace enforcement and perceptions of bias have crept in with regional conflict dynamics ascendant alongside questions of impartiality. The use of UN mandates in the 1990s and 2000s reflected power plays, the interpretation of words or, more regularly, the impotence still apparent in the UN system with the majority of states simply pawns in how the UNSC would make declarations.

So what?

4. Commence timetabled re-organisation of all the departments working on the common theme of peacekeeping missions? When were these reviewed? Brahimi Report?

5. Security Council to re-investigate all peacekeeping missions critically evaluating their effectiveness against mandate and efficiency against alternates noting the manner regional engagement is now working in scenarios of complex interactions of stakeholders and actors (to be fully mapped and contextualised given the mission drifts and changing nature of interactions over time [define periods]).

6. Member States to pick peacekeeping back up and with the onus, in all respects, on them since impartiality has long since disappeared. The need is to look at how the whole approach to peace making and keeping is taken forward acknowledging how Global agendas manifest in inter-state/regional conflicts. Then in how these two, higher level, sets of disputes are used to manipulate local, sub-state, or national issues across (colonial? And post Cold War) borders. Peacekeeping must be placed back with the people who suffer the consequences of the procrastination and distance from the daily realities of conflict peace making has taken on.

Raison d’Etre of AFPs — Agencies Funds and Programmes

As resources become tighter and the accountability frameworks further develop, then the need to look at value for money, fit for purpose and ensuring entities deliver outcomes toward the outputs becoming defined with a number of global agendas. If entities decide to opt away from the system — so be it, they have every right to track their progress; against what? With who? In an increasingly competitive arena where (commercial) forces drive value for money and better use of all resources (thinking along the lines of a stakeholder analysis)

7. The UN to sponsor a revisit of Rights based programming given the role of state (distinct from nation) in changed, changing, economic dynamics with public — private relationships in a new era.

8. Such an approach will look at the SDGs, afresh as has been done by several AFPs — not removing but prioritising and removing some of the ‘fat’ turning a thoroughbred racehorse idea into a pack camel with a hump so everyone gets a piece.

The SDGs are muddled even before starting to look at the 168 targets in the 17 SDGs. Streamline, place higher-level goals with others flowing into these. Show the inter-linkage and how achieving one goal contributes to others. And how certain ones are simply political manifestations to keep vested interests content. Such an approach raises issues of complementarity and working together; these can be addressed in a more constructive fashion along the SDG lines, SDG 17?, than in the present fight for mandate. Again, note back to the gaping hole in the UN AFP names and mandates.

9. Follow guidance offered by the European Commission regarding remodelling along functional lines and allowing this to rationalise the SDGs, grouping the goals into linked missions and mandates.

Here is the hole — Why is there no water agency in the UN make-up? For example, a few food and rural development entities treading in each other’s fields spawning layers of coordination without commensurate delivery of results and impact?

9.1. Why not streamline into Water, Health, Food, Education, Employment, and Governance/Human Rights? Then work accordingly to look at the inter-linkages with regard women, children and specific interest groups — notably the current topic of the displaced/migrants; be they refugees or internally displaced persons given the changing nature of conflict.

10. A structured evaluation of all AFPs against OECD DAC criteria of:

Relevance (are organisations self referencing and self reverential? What influence do they have on actions of member states in terms of normative advancements and practical delivery?), Efficiency (comparing different entities working on same agendas for example).

Effectiveness (as with academic institutions, quoted and referenced work and capability to set agendas of action; for example, key elements of Climate and Environmental action over the last decade and the World of Work going forward).

Sustainability: can the work be done more effectively and efficiently and with greater impact on underlying considerations for localisation, gender and social inclusion? Is the organisation value for money in the present? What is its future during the coming decade (The new Secretary General’s optimum tenure to lead meaningful change)?

10.1. Initiatives are happening to use business approaches to internal analysis and this can go further regarding functionality of organisations. As we enter a new age of working, we can look to reinvigorate shared values and how any, and all, of us are delivering within structures and systems. AFPs have looked at their roles and remits individually, regularly looking at their effectiveness in competing for dwindling resources when other entities have shown themselves adept at delivering basic results in what is now a mature humanitarian and development industry. Now is the time to move from systematic review to systemic positive change given the delivery of intent underpinning the SDGs.

11. Review, with clear time-lined actions, for the changing nature of employment within the UN systems (Deliberate plural as the different AFPs have very different recruiting and subsequent terms and conditions).

11.1. The power lies with Member States, reinforce this. The United Nations is a building block allowing people to develop and return to Member State set ups as means to truly impact on the phrase ‘capacity development, building good governance’.

A full review of capacity development over the last fifty years and whether there are parallel systems (to Member State systems) as the critical element in the perpetuation, rather than added value, of the UN. The first rule of a bureaucracy is preserving its own existence is not fully acknowledged in how we are now working in individual AFPs and across the UN system (if not the humanitarian and development industry). Fragility, variety and variation in the operating conditions, is exacerbated given the different pulls and pushes on the people and institutions individually and collectively.

11.2. As practice is emergent, make more systematic, Member States contribute personnel to specific elements of work within the SDGs (in-kind resources rather than financial, non tied, contributions perpetuating lethargy in the systems).

11.3. Reinforce HR systems for the assessment and development of people and structures and systems in operation.

11.4. Full review into the nature of recruitment looking at charges of nepotism and cronyism within systems and structures removed from direct accountability to those contributing financial resources to the UN. Taxpayers are how many steps removed from international civil servants?

11.5. Review of structures and functionality of job roles noting duality and overlap in a number of key areas — noteworthy, referenced by a Member States, resident coordinator, representative functions alongside the mandates of Secretary General special representatives and agencies claiming coordination roles. Direct line management and accountability reinforced — Who is responsible for what? What outputs and outcomes expected? Greatly improved impact evaluation. Reference the calls for humanitarian response needed across Africa because of Covid-19 ‘because there was not capacity in health systems’. The question is this the case after half a century of ‘capacity building’?

12. All UN entities to be fully open to public inspection. No denial of public access to all processes possibly impairing the delivery of (revised) UN, and AFP, mandate

12.1. Procurement processes fully open (as has become practice with several key agencies)

12.2. Accounts open for immediate public scrutiny

12.3. Communications, non security related, open for stakeholder analysis.

Look again at alternative means of working further — as per UNOPS (UN’s Office for Project Services) and IOM (International Organisation for Migration) for example. Cutting core staffing and working through Member States held accountable to Rights and signed agreements?

This relates to Member States using elements of the UN as places to second people (on their state salaries and terms and conditions and not as a new but part of their Member State diplomatic career). Removal of the ambiguities and paradoxes as people purportedly dispense with their Member State agendas to be UN impartial.

13. Review, with commensurate actions, on the functionality of AFPs as previously referenced (noting the set-up of UNWomen being a noteworthy consolidation; what of other areas of working in, for example, health, education, food and the gaping hole that is water).

This is not ‘simply’ to subcontract work out since this is a major reason UN supporters are now of the view to shorten the procurement and supply chains. By going straight to these subcontractors or using for-profit organizations with a greater clarity of financial efficiency and delivery effectiveness than the UN, then states can report back to taxpayers with greater clarity.

Digitalisation must change the manner of working making layers within, if not whole entities, redundant. Capability to develop leaner structures and systems reinforcing the totemic call for inclusion, localisation and shifting the power very apparent with the future of work in semi-public entities made opaque by their complexity adding nothing to their mandate delivery.

§ Support functions — Procurement and HR systems can be set to the functional areas with common approaches and systems supported by specialist/technical personnel. To an extent this is already happening with UNOPS and IOM offering contracting services to other AFPs and the UN’s missions. The rise of private sector HR companies is a conundrum for AFPs with certain companies now employing more people than the UN entities themselves (notably in fragile, conflict impacted, settings). Issues of career path and loss of technical skills could be argued; the same as in any industry or organisational setting — given portents set a working generation ago. Why not a development of Member States’ public sectors with accountability set in state functions (where this is not questioned)? Reinforce the trend to fewer, core, functions the better for accountability, functionality and value for money.

§ Security is also a common function where Member States should offer greater engagement. Again, the UN has commenced subcontracting; in essence already the de facto situation is one of handing over to a private sector without acknowledging this. Make it an organizational wide, structural, change and remove the duplicity now apparent in how the UN is viewed as partisan. This is particularly apparent in fragile settings where the UN present system is not suited to working effectively given the variety and variation, turbulence, of operating conditions and the lack of accountable governance structures (The rise of fragile and conflict affected states, FCAS, and the growing inequity from voting systems not reflecting challenges in accountability — TheEconomist 2024 will be stressful-for those who care about liberal democracy?). The UN and AFPs have coped by offsetting risk with subcontracting and installing other checks and balances to monitor delivery. Such approaches set in-place the present settings undermining the developmental role of the UN regarding building structures and systems locally accountable for basic services and accompanying socio-economic development as the basis for good governance.

References of note and background

China has lifted more people out of absolute poverty through economic growth and some strong, some say Draconian, leadership — How does the UN compare? The announcement of a fifth of all children in developing countries are in absolute, abject?, poverty hardly inspires since it is not set in context as UNICEF and the World Bank Group ‘call on governments to do more’ http://www.bbc.com/news/world-37548563. Given a large proportion of the countries they talk about are also being used as marketing calls for more money because they are failed, failing or fragile and conflict affected states and require support, then is this just another call to perpetuate these organisations rather than address fragility and resultant FCAS? Yes, progress has been made.

Future prospects will not rely on the past (especially with interpretation and misinterpretation of history?) as we, humankind, reach further key decision points in how we go forward because of what are now clear existential threats from climate related problems. Reference in the changing nature of work, beyond the public arrival of artificial intelligence, and its relation to primary production of food, the key elements enabling a green, circular, renewable energy driven economy and we have further challenges without fully acknowledging the inertia in now mature systems and structures.

Recent work by the United Nations University offering advice to the next Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres. https://cpr.unu.edu/new-ideas-for-a-new-secretary-general-reforming-the-governance-of-the-united-nations-development-system.html This piece links, as with work by an external organisation — Linklaters, http://www.linklaters.com/ClientServices/Practices/International-Governance-Development/Pages/Index.aspx; it is a piece looking at governance and not the functionality of the whole to achieve governance through concerted actions.

This further piece from the UN University tends to show a process of thinking inside the UN system rather than look at the changed nature of operation impacting on how the internal must evolve or even make major shifts ahead of trends in working — https://cpr.unu.edu/new-ideas-for-a-new-secretary-general-fixing-the-uns-human-resources-system.html. The advice is well meaning and apposite; but thin and not fully contextualised. It reinforces systematic change reflecting the powers inside the existing structures and not fully acknowledging the influences apparent and witnessed in certain AFPs become ever more dominant within business models owing a tremendous amount to the marketing of solutions to incumbent problems in present settings. This is to say, losing the belief in achieving universal rights, social justice, reinforcing short-termism and, possibly, a certain parochialism in how to identify causes and effects of problems now being exacerbated by the step changes in external conditionalities as fragility reaches points at which it becomes self-perpetuating.

If further affirmation of the breadth of opinion, then a further piece foreignpolicy.com how-to-fix-the-united-nations, talks long on the why we need to see the UN evolve; nevertheless it is short on the how this is going to happen.

It could be argued, and possibly this is the rational of the Linklater review, the UN is pulling in very different directions as the political level continues to offer a meeting place for dialogue on key policy issues engulfing us now:

Climate change; note how the Montreal Accord is coming back to be used as a basis for developments given other elements of environmental protocols have stalled — epa.gov/ozone-layer-protection/recent-international-developments-under-montreal-protocol and TheEconomist extending-old-treaty-saved-ozone-layer-could-improve-cooling-technologyand-slow — note also latest posts from UNDP Somalia — and the post showing all the individual air conditioning units undpsom/photos/ reflecting the disjointed nature of working policy to practice, practice to policy. Discussion on politics of the present and near future. Syria and commensurate migration being a major headline alongside Afghanistan, and other countries, highlighting other extended/protracted settings where new view of what can be achieved could be useful — TheEconomist development-aid-best-spent-poor-well-governed-countries). Interestingly, as the Gaza Strip conflict continues, no talk of people movements beyond Gaza itself or Egypt.

Following, more probably in parallel, Habitat III, Arab States came together in Abu Dhabi to talk of sustainable development and plan, plan not strategize, the future of urbanisation. Note the write-ups have no mention of Habitat III or the UN’s specialist agency for urban settlement.

The false equilibrium is being challenged when ‘accepted practices and protocols’ are being abused — The Economist.com jim-yong-kims-term-president-world-bank-short-sighted, reported how the Bretton Woods institutions are putting forward people for positions they are not able to take up with a surety to offer confidence in the capability of the institutions to operate strategically.

Note the call issued by UNICEF and World Bank Group on the number of children in abject poverty — http://www.bbc.com/news/world-37548563 and their call for governments to do more. Yet, go past the marketing and question the related, contradictory messaging, stating states are failed or failing and must be supported to deliver basic services.

The BBC have consistently brought forward views, opinions and insightful, academically viable, work on the Middle East, the Near East and the Levant (even the geographic terms change given statecraft, politics and power and influence global socioeconomics. Here are a number of links worth watching, listening to and gaining a sense of how perspectives change noting where we come from and how we challenge ourselves:-

the-holy-land-and-us-our-untold-stories, the-fifty-years-war-israel-and-the-arabs, the-birth-of-israel — All on the BBC IPlayer and reflective of the BBC marque of quality.

Note the newsfeeds during the November ceasefire in Gaza where the Red Cross of ICRC is seen as the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement reinforces its core mandate and role — The ICRC Mission Statement. Events of 2018 in Syria where twenty people were killed seeking to deliver food and other aid to Aleppo. The people killed were Red Crescent/Red Cross people whilst all the banners on the lorries were UNICEF and WFP. People felt the need to tie banners on trucks where, possibly, the ethos of the International Red Cross/Crescent, ICRC, could well have been better served without such (high) profiling. The press reported ‘the food and supplies were UN’. Surely the food and supplies were for the people stuck in Aleppo and, possibly, this is where the onus should have been placed rather than source of largesse.

The UN says it is now a target and so has to spend inordinately in protecting itself and its people — rightly. Sometimes this is manifesting itself in ‘hiding’ behind mandates. The Guardian has continued to report on the unwillingness of UN Peacekeepers to come to the assistance of aid workers or locals suffering in the present South Sudan rounds of conflict — https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/06/un-peacekeepers-refused-to-help-south-sudan-rebels-raped-aid-workers-report. Moon sacks the (Kenyan) head of the peacekeeping mission to South Sudan. But what of the political elements who’s job it was to see these situations coming? Listen to any old Sudanese hand and the words ‘I told them this would happen’ reverberate.

This last sentence is critical. The responding, some would argue resulting in making ‘do and mending’ of the UN system has reached a set of breaking points. An apposite analogy is the Austin-Morris engine designed in the 1930s and the basis of generations of subsequent cars. Added to, re-vamped but not challenged. Rivals learnt and went past the various companies who took on ownership of the engine, the cars. The lack of questioning and the relative complacency, allied with various wider cultural issues, led to the demise of so much of the car industry in the United Kingdom. Is the United Nations in danger of following Austin Morris?

The need to look, again, at why and how the UN formed and the setting at the time. Time has moved on and possibly left the functionality of the UN behind as vested interests take precedence over the reasons for the original set up of the organisation. We now need a set of scenarios for the future to revitalise the structures and systems. We must allow people to re-engage and re-invigorate proactive diplomacy. Notable successes have been made; but only a foolish CEO dwells on last year’s profits; now is the time to invest for future prosperity and realisation of Rights.

The need is for a proactive change to a system delivering for the people who rarely have voice. Get past the marketing and let us look at substance and how we are geared to deliver with the World under our feet having moved on.

[1] Permanent seats based on Bretton Woods massive stumbling block; while change is needed, would any of the permanent members want it? Questions of power politics, again very evident as the World order continues to shift with balances of social, economic and environmental power. Where, for example, would the UK be now? Alongside Pakistan as a nuclear state? A lower order member of the G10? A place seeking to emulate Singapore in adding value when it has expended the natural resources and is struggling to plunder as per bygone years?

http://www.history.com/topics/reformation Reformation, challenging the orthodoxy of power; originally the political and religious challenge to powers in 16th century Europe. Do we now have the grounds for a shift from the 20th century middle years to a new modernism where orthodoxy takes on fresh meaning in societies grown inert when it comes to social movement?



Paul James Crook

Possibilities in mind, body & spirit opened by being in Fragile States: countries & inside my own head. Exploring one’s self & community Challenging boundaries