New Ideas for a New Secretary-General: Implementing Agenda 2030 and the Question of Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

Development in Fragile Contexts UN Reform | December 7, 2016 | ,

UN Photo/Cia Pak
UN Photo/Cia Pak

The UN’s budgetary and administrative committee recently expressed its clear displeasure with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s proposals for implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The committee called for “a comprehensive proposal addressing the effective and efficient delivery of mandates in support of [Agenda 2030] and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development.”

How can Secretary-General-designate António Guterres respond to this demand?

A complex process; some basic principles

Agenda 2030 does not exist on a continuum from the Millennium Development Goals – it is an entirely different order of magnitude. Rather than implementing the SDGs, the UN will play four different roles: champion, catalyst, connector and crisis manager (as we argued here).

The Agenda is incredibly complex. It contains common threads (climate change) and agreed norms (leave no-one behind), but its stated scope – to move the world onto a path to sustainability – is vast.

How can Mr Guterres transform an unwieldy, fractious family to make it capable of delivering on such a task? Creating a single, monolithic United Nations is both politically impossible and operationally undesirable. Maintaining the status quo would  both be ignoring the wishes of Member States who have recognised the need for reform, and failing to live up to the demands of Agenda 2030.

Mr Guterres should work with the Member States to answer three basic questions and create a common understanding of what must be done:

  1. How do States want the UN to support them with Agenda 2030?
  2. What is the right structure for the UN to enable it to deliver differentiated services in response to multiple needs and demands?
  3. What is the normative basis for the UN’s interaction with Member States?

There are partial answers in existing work. The universality of Agenda 2030 makes it a source of norms. But the Secretary-General must engage Member States substantively, and support them in articulating what they want and need from the UN, while guided by the principle of form following function.

This is a multi-year process. While he seeks answers Mr Guterres could take concrete steps to improve the effectiveness of the UN by:

  1. Rationalising mandates on the basis of comparative advantage. The Secretary-General cannot (and should not) discard mandates. But he is able to tell the membership if he feels the UN is not the right institution for a particular task, and to offer ideas for partnerships that might better serve Member States’ needs.
  2. Creating an environment in which staff feel comfortable experimenting and learning in the service of the membership. One good example in this area is the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation framework, which is focused on local problems, feedback loops, and knowledge diffusion in ways that match the challenge of Agenda 2030.
  3. Strengthening core expertise. The UN needs to be smaller, smarter and a better partner. To do this, the UN will need expertise that aligns with both its comparative advantages and demand for its services. Peace and security, for example, will always remain key areas of expertise that the UN will require.
  4. Increasing the adaptive capacity of the organisation. The UN will always remain a provider of last resort. The response to the Ebola epidemic showed that this role remains necessary, but also highlighted that the UN’s systems remains unsuited to delivery. A careful, transparent series of evidence-based steps to increase the capacity of the organisation to respond to Member States’ mandates, whatever they may be, will help.

Agenda 2030, peace and security

The one area where there remains a clear consensus on the role of the UN is as a crisis manager.  It has both a mandate and moral obligation is to serve peace, and Agenda 2030 recognises that there is no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.[1] Since the 2015 Review of the Peacebuilding Architecture and the report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, the Security Council and the General Assembly have repeated their rhetorical commitments to a more efficient, coherent and empowered UN that is capable of delivering a sustainable peace.

There are some risks. Mr Guterres must remain conscious of Member States’ desire not to ‘securitise development.’ But he can, and should, be upfront about the fact that the majority of the UN’s operational work and political relevance is in fragile states. He should equally be clear that addressing fragility is critical to advancing the battle against chronic poverty and fulfilling his task of leaving no-one behind.

UNU-CPR has explored how the UN System can respond to the challenge of building peaceful, just and inclusive societies at the request of the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination. While the paper is for internal use, our conversations with UN entities during its preparation identified three key areas of opportunity:

  1. People: The UN needs staff who are capable of:
    1. Using policy and planning tools to understand how to differentiate response;
    2. Understanding the entire system, and how it can contribute to countries with differing levels of conflict, and differing priorities in Agenda 2030;
    3. Engaging with humility, and understanding where the UN does not have a comparative advantage and should not engage (see our work on governance, which relates to this, here)
    4. Supporting national counterparts during their planning processes, with attention to the norms of the United Nations and the ability to advocate for, for example, women and excluded groups with conviction.
  1. Norms: The UN needs to ensure that all staff in the field:
    1. Grasp the collective nature of the organisation’s normative principles;
    2. Understand how these principles should inform individual staff members’ engagement with Member States’ planning processes in support of Agenda 2030, with specific reference to supporting peaceful, just and inclusive societies.
  1. Knowledge: At the same time, the tremendous knowledge gap must begin to be filled. Specifically
    1. Over the next five years, the UN needs to build a substantial, open and transparent, and independently validated body of knowledge on how it can, as a whole, contribute to building peaceful, just and inclusive societies.
    2. Within this body of knowledge, UN needs to explore the trade-offs encountered as countries find their own pathways to sustainable peace.
    3. Finally, the UN needs a deeper understanding of what decisions it makes that might have an actual impact on the achievement of the SDGs (e.g. allocations of resources in peacekeeping operations) and how it could improve those decisions.

Embracing these shifts will require a cultural shift within the organisation, a common theme that is emerging from our exploration of new ideas for a new Secretary-General.

[1] General Assembly resolution 70/1, “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” A/RES/70/1 (21 October 2015), Accessed at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E.

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