No.20 - August 2014

by Stephen Browne and Thomas G. Weiss

UN Fit, or Unfit, for Post-2015 Purpose? Views of the Global Public


How is the UN’s development machinery perceived? Does anyone care?

One year ago, the report of a high-level panel of world leaders and renowned development specialists proposed 12 goals and 50 indicators for the UN’s post-2015 agenda. These were already unwieldy numbers, but after a year-and-a-half of juggling and negotiations, member-states in New York on the Open Working Group (OWG) decided by acclamation after a non-stop, 29-hour marathon session late in July a supposedly “concise” list of 17 development goals and some 169 indicators. They will forward the text as recommendations to the General Assembly for decision in September 2015.

The final shape of the agenda is likely to include most of the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—“only” 8 goals and 60 indicators—in some form. It also is likely to embrace several new areas, the expression of “the world we want.” In addition, it will constitute a major challenge to the UN development system on which successful implementation will partially depend.

While the OWG is congratulating itself on completing their job—a sadly typical criterion of UN success, staying in the same room and agreeing upon a laundry-list—there has been precious little thought given to the really critical  indicators of development progress, which could have formed a core agenda.

Perhaps as importantly, no thought has been given to the shape of the UN system itself and whether it is fit for whatever purpose is decided. Thus, this FUNDS Briefing provides pointers to “the UN we want” for the new era of development goals. As a guide to a desirable future configuration of the UN development system, it draws on FUNDS' 2014 global survey that indicates how the world organization is perceived, and how it needs to change. Combined with the results of similar surveys in 2010 and 2012, a total of some 10,000 informed, independently-gathered responses are now available. The complete results of the survey are available here.

Four views emerge across the survey:
1.The UN’s development functions are less crucial than such other functions as security, humanitarian action, and setting global norms with teeth.

2. The UN’s development organizations are still mostly relevant, but some are not particularly effective.

3. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF consistently receive the highest rankings among operational agencies; regional commissions receive the lowest rankings.

4. The UN faces two major institutional challenges: poor internal organization and the predominance of earmarked funding.

One of the survey’s central findings is that the UN is seen to have its greatest impact in functions other than development. Respondents ranked the world organization highest in its humanitarian and peacekeeping roles, followed by its efforts to formulate global development conventions, human rights and crisis recovery, and ahead of most of the functions associated with the development system, including technical assistance, research and analysis, global standards, advocacy, and global negotiations.

The most marked differences were for technical assistance and research and information, which were markedly lower for those in high-income countries. So donor countries continue to generously fund UN technical assistance, but their publics have doubts about its value.

The survey asked for opinions on desirable future changes in the UN development system. More than 90 percent of respondents favored greater use of technology for at least three purposes: to cut costs and improve efficiency; to ensure a common technology platform for administration across the system; and to provide a  single gateway for all UN research and publications. A similar majority called for updated mandates and activities of UN development organizations, and two-thirds wanted greater consolidation, particularly at country level through single system country representatives, single programs, and fewer organizations.

Answers to open-ended questions on future change confirmed these results and provided additional insights on the future orientation of the UN agenda and the ways in which the system still needs to adapt.

Is the system capable of change? A large majority (77 percent were thus “optimists”) maintained that the system could change, but almost a quarter remained pessimistic (23 percent). The proportion of pessimists was smaller among emerging powers (15 percent) and larger among developed countries (31 percent).

Whether the UN’s development glass is half-full or half-empty, clearly there is much room for improvement to get the UN we want for the world we want.

Download the full briefing paper 'UN-fit or Unfit for 2015 Purpose? Views of the Global Public' in pdf here.

Stephen Browne is a Fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and co-Director of FUNDS.

Thomas G. Weiss is the Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, Presidential Professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center, and co-Director of FUNDS.

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