No.27 - March 2015

by Stephen Browne and Thomas G. Weiss

What's the UN's Future in Peacebuilding? Results of the December 2014 Survey


Identifying the UN's peacebuilding weaknesses and strengths in the pivotal 2015 year.

In preparation for our March 2015 workshop in Geneva—“Pulling Together the UN System in Conflict-Prone States: Problems and Prospects?”—the Future United Nations Development System (FUNDS) Project devoted its latest expert survey to soliciting views about the perceived performance of the UN system in fragile and conflict-prone states.

The goal of the survey was to learn lessons for the post-2015 era in order to help identify the UN’s comparative operational advantages and disadvantages. A common theme in much of the Project’s previous research and surveys was the need to reflect on the past and future roles (political, security, and humanitarian as well as social and economic development) of the organization in transitions from armed conflict to development.

Perceptions are perceptions, but the extensive exposure of this elite set of voices is hard to dismiss in identifying weaknesses and strengths in the pivotal 2015 year.

Respondents were asked to both assess the UN’s peacebuilding record and recommend changes that could strengthen its role in the future. More details and a selection of graphs reflecting the responses are presented in the full version of this briefing paper (available in pdf here), below is a summary and key recommendations:

Overall Perceptions of UN Effectiveness
The United Nations was found to be effective by 57 percent of the sample taken. There was little variation in these perceptions among those with greater or lesser work experience of the UN in conflict-prone states. The former’s views, however, were far more positive—over two-thirds—than those who had no work experience (39 percent).

The Effectiveness of Delivering as One (DAO)
Since 2006, the UN has been experimenting with and promoting the Delivering as One initiative to encourage various organizations within the system to work more closely together in the field. The initiative took place, however, essentially in more stable developing countries. The eight initial pilot countries have now been joined in the initiative by an additional 36 countries. Only a striking minority (27 percent) of respondents found the DaO to be effective, while far more (38 percent) found it ineffective, including 10 percent very ineffective. Perceptions differed little between those with and without UN experience; but those with more experience in fragile and conflict-prone states were actually more negative about the DaO initiative than those with less.

These are some representative comments received:

“Where the UN has strong resident coordinators, the joint work is much better than it was. However, still too much my-agency-first thinking.”

“Many employees do important work, but it is too individualized; fragmentation, overlap and lack of strategic coherence among UN actors in peacebuilding hampers impact.”

“DaO has to be more than just an exercise in efficiencies, but about ensuring a more coherent policy and operational approach.”

UN Effectiveness in Different Peacebuilding Phases
Survey respondents were asked to identify the UN’s three most effective peacebuilding functions: fully three-quarters put protecting and supporting refugees and internally displaced people at the top of the list, which was followed by promoting respect for human rights (55 percent) and strengthening the participation and protection of women (52 percent). The least effective functions were seen to be preventing the outbreak of new conflict (18 percent) and eradicating such illicit activities as drugs, smuggling, and arms dealing (8 percent).

The UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC)
Like perceptions of DaO, the survey reveals very negative views about the PBC’s performance, which was found to be ineffective or very ineffective by 38 percent of respondents and effective by a mere 20 percent (almost half of the respondents were neutral). Significantly, no one judged the decade-long experiment to be “very effective.”

Representative comments include:

“Its major contribution has been to allow for additional support in cases where major international investments had ceased, following a peace agreement and the conclusion of a peacekeeping phase, or where no peacekeeping presence took place.”

 “The political reality is that the main show in NY is the Security Council (SC). Unless the SC devolves the peacebuilding portfolio fully to the PBC more resources will not add value.”

 “The problem is operational and the PBC does not have an operational capacity, so why give it more resources?”

“If it is going to be the chosen vehicle, it needs serious leadership in New York and really good people on the ground. Not clear it has either.”

Recommendations from the Survey
 In light of the work of the two high-level panels (on peace operations and peacebuilding) and the ongoing conversations about the shape of the post-2015 UN development system, the survey makes clear the following recommendations for operations in fragile and conflict-prone states:
1. The UN should, as an absolute priority, re-examine its field presence, including the nature and composition of a more unified country presence, leadership, the selection and training of suitable staff, provision of resources, and clear and unified delegation of authority from New York and Geneva.

2. The operational United Nations requires a far more in-depth understanding of the potential and actual causes of conflict; ways to engage more effectively with local actors, and women’s groups in particular; and more effective and unitary communications strategies.

3. The PBC is far less effective than it should be. Continued PBC operation necessitates the clarification of its mandate and role, relationship to the Security Council, and position among the many New York-and Geneva-based UN organizations.

4. If it is to be maintained, the Peacebuilding Fund should have additional and more reliable resources for both emergencies and prolonged crises.

5. If the UN development system increasingly concentrates on fragile and conflict-prone countries, there will be a requirement for more staff with familiarity with symptoms of instability and the causes of armed conflicts.

6. To be successful, the DaO initiative should foster more policy harmonization rather than merely joint programming; special efforts and modalities will be required for UN operations in such countries.

Representative recommendations include:

“Closer cooperation among different UN actors at local level if a strong Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) is in place.”

“In the effort to have closer UN collaboration, we must maintain space for independent humanitarian action.”

“More use of local capacities in staffing UN presences. Greater delegation of authority combined with robust oversight and accountability mechanisms. Increased openness to ongoing ‘client’ feedback and quality improvements.”

“The UN should address short-term need for building local leadership committed to national interest as well as long-term need for building governance systems based on democratic values and rule of law.”


Download the full briefing paper 'What's the UN's Future in Peacebuilding?' in pdf here.

Stephen Browne is Co-director of the Future of the UN Development System (FUNDS) and Senior Fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York and former Deputy Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, Geneva. He is the author of several books on development and the UN, including United Nations Industrial Development Organization (2012), The United Nations Development Program me and System (2011), and co-editor with Thomas G. Weiss of Post-2015 UN Development: Making Change Happen? (2014).

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center; he also is Co-director of the FUNDS Project and of the Wartime History and the Future UN Project. Past President of the International Studies Association (2009-10) and chair of the Academic Council on the UN System (2006-9), his most recent single-authored books include Governing the World? Addressing “Problems without Passports” (2014); Global Governance: Why? What? Whither? (2013); Humanitarian Business (2013); What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (2012); and Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action (2012).

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