This post argues that a coalition of interests around economic and demographic growth has not only created significant inequalities across the world, but has also been the main factor driving global environmental degradation. It is demographic growth in combination with a particular form of tech-led capitalist economic growth that has been the main driver of global environmental change, of which climate change is but a small part.
Economic growth has for many decades been seen by economists and international organisations alike as the key means through which poverty can be eliminated, especially in the economically poorer countries of the world. This powerful mantra lay at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015) and has more recently been central to aspirations for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015-2030). Yet, as I have frequently argued elsewhere,[i] these aspirations have never been achieved, they focus on absolute poverty rather than relative poverty, and the resultant unfettered economic growth has almost always been associated with an increase in inequalities. For those concerned with equity and who define “development” primarily as the reduction of inequalities, policies designed to increase growth alone are doomed to failure and need to be replaced.
National policies and international frameworks focused on growth primarily support the interests of those private sector companies and global corporations that have worked so assiduously to shape the UN rhetoric around economic growth and innovation. Digital tech companies have long been at the forefront of this, not only driving growth, but also reaping the benefits of so doing.[ii] Economic growth is deemed to be essential both to expand markets and also to increase labour productivity, whereby owners of the means of production can extract surplus value.
In trying to consider alternative models of socio-economic activity, I have often used the notion a “no-growth” economy as a heuristic device, encouraging audiences to consider how economic activity might be organised if growth was somehow prohibited. Although there are many potential outcomes, one of the most interesting is the thought that the pressures to achieve a reduction in inequalities might increase under such conditions, thus leading to a fairer and more equitable society. I have also found the work of the Post-Autistic Economics Network to be a helpful source of inspiration, challenging as it does many of the usually taken for granted assumptions of neo-classical (and indeed neo-liberal) economics.[iii]
Recent debates about the balance between the positive and negative impacts of demographic growth on the economy have highlighted their inextricable intertwining with the rhetorics of economic growth.[iv] On the one hand there are those who argue that ageing populations with few young and economically productive people are deeply problematic for economic growth, and that policies to encourage higher birth rates or immigration are essential to enable economic viability. Years ago, I thus well remember the French advertising campaign to encourage families to have more children, beautifully encapsulated in this postcard:
On the other, are those who point to a demographic dividend in Africa, through which increasing numbers of young people are going to drive the economy forward, fuelled especially by the potential of digital tech. See for example, this image below from Invest Africa in an article entitled How can Africa harness its demographic dividend (and note its emphasis on digital tech).
Both arguments are deeply problematic. In the African case, this naïve dream is only going to be possible if young people are well educated and jobs are available for them; it seems more likely that this will actually be a demographic millstone rather than a dividend. The “problem” of an ageing population likewise only becomes serious if systems are put in place to extend human life at high cost for long periods of time, or if labour productivity stagnates or declines.[v]
Much of the international debate concerning demographic change has been articulated around its interconnectedness with economic growth. Put simply, the interests underlying the continued drive for economic growth are frequently the same as those that advocate for population increase as being positive and that technology can continue to ensure a healthy lifestyle for a very much larger human population. Rather less interest has surprisingly been devoted to what human experiences of such changes might be. This is especially so when the twin mantras of economic growth and demographic growth are confronted by their combined impact on the environment. This is particularly evident in the reactions over the last 50 years to The Club of Rome’s 1972 report on Limits to Growth,[vi] and to the much more recent and controversial film Planet of the Humans, produced by Michael Moore in 2019.
Limits to Growth, Planet of the Humans and the legacy of Thomas Malthus
In 1972, the Club of Rome published its prescient report entitled Limits to Growth, which argued that if the then growth trends in population, industrialisation, resource use and pollution continued unchecked, then the carrying capacity of the earth would be reached some time within the following century.[vii] I remember distinctly the wake-up call that this provided for me as an undergraduate, and thinking back to those days have been fascinated by how its message seemed increasingly to be ignored in the ensuing decades. Few countries apart from China (see below) really responded to this message, although some such as India made tentative efforts to address it. I distinctly remember, for example, being in Sonua market in what was then South Bihar (now Jharkhand) in 1976 and seeing this painted slogan of two parents and two children that formed part of the government’s 20 point programme during the 21 month state of emergency declared by Indira Gandhi.
India’s population was then 637.45 million; in 2023 it is 1,428.63 million. The policy was not a success.
Interestingly, 30 years after the Club of Rome report, the authors published an update, in which they concluded that “it is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years in futile debates and well intentioned, but halfhearted, responses to the global ecological challenge”. This is an overly generous observation, largely because of the very specific interests that have underlain economic and demographic change in subsequent years. In essence, as noted above, the owners of the world’s major companies, supported by many economists have argued convincingly that both economic and demographic growth are essential for the future success of humanity, that the new SDGs are indeed sustainable,[viii] and that technology can continue to provide innovative solutions to the increasing problems caused by the pressure of people on the planet. I find it extraordinary to think that in my lifetime the world’s population has risen by 288% from 2.77 billion people to 8 billion people. What I find more frightening, though, is that there is nothing in the UN’s development goals really about population growth,[ix] and there was almost universal condemnation in the world’s capitalist countries when China adopted its 1 child per family policy when it was introduced in 1980.[x] Widespread criticism of the Club of Rome’s report and others who held their views was based primarily on the grounds that they were neo-Malthusian,[xi] and that the world was coping perfectly well, in large part through technological advances that were overcoming the challenges of an increasing population. Indeed, the observation that very much higher levels of population have been able to live on the planet over the last 50 years would seem to support such a view. However, this fails to recognise that very many of those people live in abject poverty and misery, and that the environmental impact of such growth has been very significant indeed. Unfortunately, much of the focus of the international community has been captured by the rhetoric around climate change, which has served to reduce emphasis on the wider environmental impact caused by the double mantra of economic and demographic growth. Climate change causes nothing; it is the factors giving rise to changes in the climate that are the ultimate cause and the real problem that needs addressing.
These issues were brought to the fore by the film Planet of the Humans produced by Michael Moore, and directed by Jeff Gibbs in 2019. This has been very widely criticised by those within the so-called environmental and green lobbies on the grounds that it was outdated and misleading, especially concerning the scientific evidence and more recent developments in renewable energy. However, many of these criticisms miss the fundamental point of the film, which was that our economic system, based on the present model of capitalist growth is fundamentally unsustainable, particularly in the context of continued demographic growth.[xii]
Many of these arguments might appear to smack of neo-Malthusianism which has been almost universally condemned from a wide range of angles, as were the criticisms of Malthus’ original works.[xiii] Engels, writing in 1844,[xiv] put it this way: technological and scientific “progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population”. Many continue to agree with Engels’ proposition, or at least hope that he was right. However, the scale of human impact on the environment today is vastly different from when Malthus first wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population at the end of the 18th century, and the world’s population is now more than twice as much as it was when Limits to Growth was first published. People are seriously talking about and investing in the colonisation of outer space to provide continued sustenance for the world; technology once again to the fore. My emphasis in this piece, though, is not so much to take issue with the many diverse arguments of those who challenge neo-Malthusianism, but rather, and much more simply, to suggest that the dominant global focus on climate alone is hugely damaging because it fails to address the wider environmental impacts of our thirst for growth.
“Climate change” has become a popular focus of concern and political protest, but as I have argued extensively elsewhere[xv] it is a deeply problematic notion conceptually, especially when abbreviated to just these two words “climate” and “change”, ignoring the words “human” and “induced”. All too often, it is used in a way that externalises it as being somehow separate from the human actions that cause weather patterns to change, while at the same time also implying that humans can somehow solve it without addressing the deeper structural problems facing the world. Likewise, all too frequently, the answer to the problem of “climate change” is naïvely deemed to be an over-simplified reduction in carbon emissions. Leaders of the digital tech sector, with their voracious appetite for growth and innovation are eager to comply with this agenda, while failing almost completely to recognise the enormous harms that they are causing to other aspects of the environment. By focusing largely on “climate change” they can feel good whilst also maintaining their life blood of economic and demographic growth that drives their creation of profit.
This is most definitely not to suggest that changes in temperature, rainfall, and wind patterns are unimportant; very far from it. But it is to argue that these are caused fundamentally by the twin mantras of economic and demographic growth that have increasingly dominated the world over the last century, rather than by some exogenous notion of climate change. More worryingly, these mantras have been fuelled still further by the unachievable and unsustainable Sustainable Development Goals that have become part of the problem rather than a solution. Contrary to much popular rhetoric, the very dramatic increases in global carbon emissions do not appear to have begun until the beginning of the 20th century, and coincide very closely with increases in world population.[xvi] Put another way, had global population not increased as dramatically as it has done over the last century, then those living here would not have been faced with the impending crisis that we now urgently need to address.
Moreover, and I would suggest more importantly, the emphasis on “climate change” has largely distracted attention from the crucial effort that must be placed on the wider environmental impacts of economic-demographic growth. Climate is but a small part of the physical environment, which includes the lithosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere, alongside the atmosphere. By focusing so heavily on climate, and ways that digital tech can be used to reduce carbon emissions, activists, academics, politicians, business leaders, civil society organisations and citizens alike are missing the bigger picture. The design and use of digital tech is causing significant environmental harms that tend to be ignored in the search for a solution to climate change.[xvii]
In conclusion: a new beginning
This post has contributed to my previous body of work by articulating five main inter-related propositions:
There has been a coalition of interests between those advocating economic and demographic growth, largely reflecting the determinant structures of contemporary global capitalism.[xviii]
This is archetypically reflected in the power of the digital tech sector, which has permeated the UN system.[xix]
The dramatic impact of the digital tech sector on the wider physical environment has been largely hidden by an overwhelming global emphasis on climate change, and ways through which digital tech can reduce carbon emissions.
It is important to understand climate change as a result and not a cause, and therefore focus on doing something about the real causes of climate change (the economic-demographic growth mantra) rather than primarily addressing carbon emissions.
It is essential to understand changes to the climate as but a part of the much wider negative environmental impacts of the coalition of interests underlying the economic-demographic growth mantra.
Are we facing a new era of increasing mass-migration, famine, disease and warfare? Is the economic growth model that has dominated the last century going to consume itself in a falò delle vanità? Might there be less inequality and poverty in the world if there were fewer people and the wealth that was created was shared more equally? Can we imagine a beautiful physical environment that could be created out of the desolate and scourged world we are currently creating? How might digital tech be used to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised more than those of the rich and powerful? These questions are all inter-related, and we need to find answers to them before it is too late.
[iii] For a brief history, see http://www.paecon.net/HistoryPAE.html; see also Stiglitz, J.E. (2019) People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent, Allen Lane, and Stiglitz, J.E. (2002) Globalization and its discontents, New York: W.W. Norton & Company
[v] Efforts by the Digital Barons (leaders of major US digital corporations) to extend human life far beyond its present span, such as those by Zuckerberg (see CNET, 2013), Larry Page (founding Calico, an Alphabet subsidiary, in 2013), Jeff Bezos (with his investment in Altos Labs, MIT Technology Review in 2021) and Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle, investing in ageing research, see Time, 2017) to name it a few are deeply worrying, both because only the rich will be able to afford such treatments, but also because they will inevitably mean an even greater population load on the planet; Elon Musk’s reported criticism of such practices (The Independent) is about the only occasion I have ever agreed with him about something!
[xi] See further below on Thomas Malthus; in essence, critics of neo-Malthusianism have suggested that these arguments were overstated and premature, and that technology would enabled very much higher population levels to be sustained.
[xvii] See http://desc.global which is attempting to understand the relative balance between environmental harms and benefits of digital tech.
[xviii] In essence, demographic growth has been co-opted to serve the interests of the private sector (capitalism) in seeking to overcome the tendency towards a falling rate of profit. Put simply, population must grow to provide both an expanded market and more labour to ensure economic growth.
This is a response to my post in July 2021, which identified seven main challenges and problems facing the UN system. While it is easy to criticise, it is much more difficult to recommend and deliver change. Hence, this short piece offers a set of suggestions for fundamental reform across the UN system in response to the challenges identified in my earlier post. These are grounded in a belief that the UN needs to be smaller, leaner and fitter for purpose in serving the needs of national governments across the world. In so doing it should therefore primarily serve the interests of citizens rather than of itself and the global corporations that have subverted its high ideals.
The seven main inter-related problems and challenges identified in my previous post were:
The UN largely serves the neo-liberal political interests of the USA and its allies.
The UN does not appoint the most capable and appropriate people to senior leadership positions.
There is disagreement about the size that the UN should be; should its agencies aspire to be implementers of development interventions themselves, or should they instead mainly provide guidance and good practices for governments to implement?
The SDGs have already failed, but the UN persists in their propagation primarily in its own interests, so that UN agencies can claim they are doing something worthwhile
The UN system is beset by duplication of effort, overlap, and reinvention of the wheel between agencies, between the Secretariat and the agencies, and even in larger agencies between the various silos within them.
The UN’s ambitions go well beyond the budget available to fund them.
The SDG agenda, the lack of UN funding, and the opportunistic behaviour of many global corporations mean that the private sector has been able to subvert the UN’s global governance structures in its own interest
Responses to each of these are addressed in turn, outlining potential ways in which these problems might be overcome. As with my previous post, it draws largely on my experience in working with UN agencies over the last two decades primarily on aspects associated with the use of digital technologies in international development, and it also draws comparisons with my experiences from working with a diversity of organisations within The Commonwealth.
The UN has indeed begun to recognise the importance of some of these issues, and the Secretary General’s (SG’s) recent Our Common Agenda report in 2021[i] does emphasise two important requirements with which I largely concur:
The need to renew the social contract between governments and their people (see Section II);[ii] and
The introduction of new measures to complement GDP to assist people in understanding the impacts of business activities and the true costs of economic growth.[iii]
However, much of the SG’s report is wishful thinking, highly problematic, and not grounded sufficiently in the harsh reality of the interests underlying global geopolitics and economic systems. It also clearly represents the interests of those within the UN system, and especially in the central Secretariat, as expressed succinctly in its assertion that “now is the time for a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system, anchored within the United Nations” [my emphasis].[iv] The fundamental challenge is that the UN system and its leadership are part of the problem and not the solution.
1. Increasing diversity and changing the power relationships within the UN
The UN and its agencies have generally sought to be broadly representative of the cultural diversity of the world’s peoples. They have also recently made important strides to increase gender diversity amongst staff. Nevertheless, huge efforts still need to be made to achieve greater diversity both among the staff and in the interests that the UN promotes. Remarkably few staff within the UN system, for example, are drawn from those with recognised disabilities, and the interests of many economically poorer or smaller countries, as well as minority ethnic groups remain under-represented. Rather than serving the rich and the powerful (as well as itself), the UN truly needs to serve all of the world’s peoples, including the stateless.
The fundamental issue here, though, is the need to change the UN’s ideological balance away from the primacy that it gives to neo-liberal democracy (in large part derived from the heavy influence of the USA and its allies), towards a recognition that there are many competing political-economic ideologies currently being promoted globally. One of the UN’s roles is to help weaker countries negotiate these ideological power struggles, and if it is allied too closely with any one of them the UN is doomed either to increasing irrelevance or failure. It must above all serve its role wisely in delivering the first paragraph of Article 1 of its founding charter: “To maintain international peace and security”.[v] This is becoming an ever more pressing issue at a time when the fortunes of the USA and its previously dominant ideology are waning and those of China are waxing.[vi] It is thus crucial for the UN to have the means whereby it can retain a level of oversight, while also serving as a neutral forum where conflict can be resolved through negotiation and mediation.
Three practical recommendations could help resolve this issue:
First the UN Security Council[vii] needs to be fundamentally restructured. Its permanent membership seems anachronistic, and at the very least France and the UK should no longer be included, perhaps to be replaced by a rotating representation from countries within the European Union.[viii] There are many options: the idea of permanent membership itself should be revisited; membership could be linked to population size, whilst also providing some guarantees for small states; the more than 50 countries that have never been members could be prioritised; and better means should be found to enforce its resolutions.
Second, new locations should be identified for the headquarters of UN agencies and the central Secretariat. It would be a massive and expensive undertaking to move the entire Secretariat from New York to an alternative location. However, this is ultimately likely to be necessary for the long-term viability of the UN system, not only for symbolic reasons, but also because of the bias that a US location causes in terms of the number of US citizens employed and also the subtle ideological influences that it creates in the minds of those working there from other countries. More realistically, there should at the very least be a substantial reduction in the overall UN presence in New York. The use of new generations of digital technologies could greatly facilitate this. As experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown, it is no longer necessary to hold as many face-to-face meetings within the UN system as has heretofore been the case. A very strong argument can be made for the UN headquarters to be located in a clearly neutral country,[ix] as is already the case with those UN agencies located in Geneva. However, at the very least it would make sense for it to be situated somewhere other than in one of the major, and potentially conflicting, states such as China, the USA, Russia and India.
Third, considerably more attention and resourcing need to be given to those UN agencies concerned with reducing conflict and maintaining peace, notably the Department of Peace Operations (DPO),[x] but also those with experience of mediation, conflict reduction and peace building such as UNODA (Office for Disarmament Affairs), OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), UNODC (Office on Drugs and Crime), and possibly even UNOOSA (Office for Outer Space Affairs) as territorial and strategic interests of nations and corporations now spread beyond planet earth.
2. Improving the quality and diversity of the UN’s leadership and senior management
There are undoubtedly some capable and well qualified people in senior leadership positions[xi] within the UN system, but they are the exception. Far too many do not have the qualifications or experience to be able to deliver their roles effectively. There therefore needs to be a fundamental restructuring of the processes used to elect or appoint them.[xii]
At least two tensions make it difficult to resolve this issue: the perceived need to balance appropriate national representation with quality and expertise of leadership; and the varying challenges associated with election and/or appointment to senior roles. However, despite such challenges it is completely unacceptable that a UN Under-Secretary General on appointment to a new post within the UN should as recently as 2021 tweet that he was “a relatively newcomer to the field”.[xiii]
One way to resolve these issues would be for a small review and appointments office to be created to provide guidance to all entities within the UN system relating to senior leadership positions. Two of its key roles could be:
to review all short-listed or nominated applicants against the criteria required for the specific post, ensuring that they have the experience and expertise to fulfil the role; and
to serve as a search facility that could identify additional people who might be appropriate for upcoming appointments.
Where elections are the means of appointment to such positions, countries could nominate as at present, but all such nominations would be subject to approval by this review office. For both appointments and elections, the unit could also encourage specific countries to nominate one of their nationals highlighted in any of its searches. Furthermore, this would provide a mechanism whereby the unit could specifically seek to find people who would be suitable to fill appointments from under-represented communities and countries, thereby helping to respond to commitments to diversity.[xiv]
Additionally, it is very important that all UN officials once appointed should undergo regular and appropriate training so that they can improve their relevant expertise. Given the importance of mediation and consensus building, it is critically important that these should also feature prominently in all staff UN training. It would not be too much to suggest that all staff in any UN entity should be required to spend 5% of their time in various forms of training. Far too many UN officials are overly confident of their own abilities, and do not pay enough attention to the critical importance of staff training, either for themselves or for those who report to them. Just because someone has been a government Minister, for example, does not mean that they have any understanding of international diplomacy or subject matter expertise. It is essential that the UN as a whole including all of its agencies should become learning organisations, so that they are better fit for purpose. This will be a major undertaking and require a fundamental shift of thinking within many such agencies.
The UN System Staff College (UNSSC) might be a possible home for this unit, although the highly critical 2020 report by the Joint Inspection Unit[xv]does not inspire confidence that it has the capacity to do so. It would, though, be wise for the unit to be situated outside the central UN Secretariat so that it can be seen to have some independence from the highly politicised and some would say over-bloated headquarters operations. If, though, it was felt that it had to be in the Secretariat headquarters, it might be created as a division within the Office of Internal Oversight Services.
3. Towards a smaller, more focused UN
The UN has grown haphazardly and surreptitiously largely in its own interests so that it is now far too big and ambitious, but has neither the funding nor the capacity to deliver its agendas effectively. A central issue that must therefore be addressed concerns how big the UN and its agencies should be. I suggest that it is already far too big, in part as a result of the neo-liberal hegemony it has embraced. Its agencies seek to do too much by themselves. Instead its basic role should be as the servant of all member governments, empowering them to serve the best interests of their citizens. It should not be the servant of private sector corporations, as it increasingly seems to be becoming.
One of the main ways in which this could be achieved would simply be through eliminating most of the work that UN agencies do in trying to implement their own development initiatives, and replace this with a clearer focus on delivering appropriate training and support for governments so that they can deliver relevant development programmes within their our countries. Most UN agencies are neither well designed or appropriately staffed actually to implement effective on-the-ground development interventions, yet huge sums of money are wasted on attempts to implement their own development projects, and this situation has got far worse through the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in support of Agenda 2030 (see Section 4 below). Many other civil society organisations, bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, and private sector enterprises are already implementing high quality development programmes. There is absolutely no need for the UN to try to do so as well. Indeed, external reviews highlight the poor quality of the development work done by many (although certainly not all) UN agencies. The UK Department for International Development’s (DFID)[xvi] Multilateral Aid review in 2016 thus noted that the organisational strengths of UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNOCHA, the UN Peacebuilding Fund, UN Women, and the WHO were all weak or only adequate, and this excludes the agencies that DFID was not already funding because it did not even consider it worth so doing.[xvii]
This is not to say that the UN should cease trying to improve the important humanitarian and peacebuilding initiatives in which it is already engaged. As noted above (Section 1) the UN has a crucial role to play in global peacebuilding, and it could also do much more effectively to help co-ordinate global responses to physical disasters and humanitarian crises, providing relief assistance rapidly and efficiently where needed. However, its current implementation processes need to be considerably improved, and this requires both appropriate financial resourcing and increased global commitment to deliver them. Some will, no doubt, claim that such humanitarian interventions are often caused by wider failures in “development” and therefore that the UN must also be involved in these. However, the track record of many such interventions by UN agencies is poor and the existence of so many other agencies delivering better interventions suggests that the UN should concentrate on doing what it does best, rather than proliferating failure.
There are many other ways in which the UN could reduce its size and expenditure, such as employing fewer external consultants, producing fewer reports that have little real impact, limiting the number of wasteful meetings and events that it holds, and reducing the number of staff that it employs. The bottom line, though, is that we need to move away from a large poorly co-ordinated self-important system that is far too big, to a much smaller, leaner organisation that truly delivers effectively on the needs of governments and their citizens.
4. Abandoning the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030, and planning for a new futurefor the UN
Many of the above comments relate directly to the development agenda that the UN has embarked on, first with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and since 2015 with the SDGs. These still have their supporters, often mainly on the grounds that they are the best things we currently have to help co-ordinate global development agendas, and any criticism thereof is potentially damaging. However, the strength of criticism of the SDGs has grown considerably in recent years, reinforcing the views of those of us who were critical of them from the beginning, and were well captured by William Easterly in 2015 when he described SDGs as standing for “Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled”.[xviii]
Now is the time to recognise that the SDGs really are a failed agenda, and that, as noted in Section 3 above, the UN should replace most of its attempted practice in international development with clear, focused and high-quality support and training for governments in delivering their own interventions to improve the lives of their citizens. It will take considerable time to make this shift, but 2030 is only eight years away. We all need to be brave in acknowledging that the SDGs have failed, and start working urgently instead to create a better system that can serve the global community more fairly from 2030 onwards.
Three things are key for the success of such a new agenda: the abandonment of attempts to make neo-liberal democracy the global religion that its advocates would like to see; the replacement of the economic growth agenda with a more balanced view that places the reduction of inequalities at its heart;[xix] and a shift away from the dogma of the primacy of universal human rights to a recognition that these need to be balanced by individual and governmental responsibilities.[xx] None of these will be easy to achieve, but there are indeed at last some signs that the second of them is gaining traction. As noted in the introduction to this post, Our Common Agenda has at last signalled recognition at the highest level within the UN that there is an urgent need to redress the focus on untrammelled economic growth as a solution to poverty with one that recognises that economic growth has a propensity to cause further inequalities, and that seeks to redress this by placing primacy on redistribution and equity. This is nowhere more true than in the vast wealth accrued by the digital barons from their exploitation of the world’s poor and marginalised.
Put simply, it is time to abandon the economic growth agenda of the SDGs, and replace it with a more caring and human approach that gives primacy to redistribution, equity, and a reduction in inequalities.
5. Removing duplication, overlap and reinventing the wheel
It is widely recognised that there is enormous waste within the UN system, driven in large part by competition and a lack of co-ordination between agencies. This is further enhanced by the aspiration of senior managers to gain ever higher positions within the UN by championing their own highly visible projects, a lack of understanding about what other agencies are actually doing, and inward looking and self-serving career structures within many such agencies.
An increasingly worrying tendency in recent years, at least in the digital tech sector, has also been the growing power of the UN Secretariat and its staff in wanting to lead by creating new initiatives that overlap with other existing global initiatives, and frequently reinvent the wheel.[xxi] This is nowhere more true than in the bizarre history of the formation of the UN SG’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation,[xxii] and the subsequent development of his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation in 2020.[xxiii]
Moving towards a smaller, more focused UN will require the creation of much tighter and precise mandates for its central Secretariat and each of its agencies. This in turn will require the strengthening of existing structures designed to enable effective cooperation and collaboration, not least since many of the world’s most pressing challenges require multi-sector and holistic approaches to their resolution. However, this should most certainly not be done by the UN SG setting up new initiatives within the Secretariat that frequently serve the personal interests of the senior leadership within it. One such mechanism that seems to be undervalued and insufficiently utilised is the UN System Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination (CEB) which “provides broad guidance, co-ordination and strategic direction for the UN system in the areas under the responsibility of Executive Heads. Focus is placed on inter-agency priorities and initiatives while ensuring that the independent mandates of organizations are maintained”.[xxiv] Much of its practical work is undertaken through the High-Level Committee on Programmes (HLCP),[xxv] and based on my own experience of working with this committee I have no doubt that its mechanisms can indeed lead to the production of valuable recommendations and actions.[xxvi] The challenge is that such initiatives can easily be overtaken by events, and the creation of new priorities, either by the UN SG (representing the collective interests of the Secretariat) or by individual agencies whose leaders want to drive forward their own agendas.
Another undoubted challenge is that decision making in most UN agencies is based on the collective views of their members, and ultimately these represent the interests of individual Ministers (or equivalent) in all the member countries of the world. Hence, the WHO is meant to represent the collectivity of Health Ministries, UNESCO the Education Ministries, and the ITU the Telecommunication and/or Digital Technology Ministries. Often, the lack of co-ordination at the UN level mirrors the lack of policy integration at the national level. This implies that if real progress is to be made there need to be ambitious approaches that seek to improve internal co-ordination within both national and global systems of government and governance. Unfortunately, the ambitions and aspirations of individual Ministers as much as the senior leadership of specific UN agencies therefore conspire effectively to constrain the potential for effective co-ordination systems to be put in place.
There would also be much to be gained from more effective collaboration between the UN and existing regional organisations which often have a much better understanding of regional issues than do UN agencies. Rather than competing with them or duplicating what they are already doing, it would make far more sense to pool resources and work together to achieve desirable outcomes for specific countries and groups of people.
In summary, the senior leadership of the UN system as a whole needs to give much greater attention to delivering effective co-ordination in policy and practice, but this should be done through existing mechanisms rather than by increasing the power of the UN Secretary General and his close colleagues.[xxvii]
6. Rebalancing the budget for a leaner UN
The problem of systemic funding shortages for much of the work of the UN Secretariat and its many agencies and offices is closely related to the scale of its activities. Not least, many poorer countries cannot provide sufficient resources for delivering its remit, especially when it comes to implementing development interventions. The funding arrangements for the UN Secretariat and its many funds, programmes and specialist agencies are separate, but most consist of a combinations of assessed and voluntary combinations, that enable funding countries to choose how much they support different agencies. The core budget for the UN Secretariat in 2020 was only US$ 3.1 billion,[xxviii]excluding additional donations and peacekeeping activities for which the budget is currently around twice as much.[xxix] One third of the 2019 core budget was provided by the USA (22%) and China (12%), with Japan providing 8.5%, Germany 6%, and the UK 5.4%.[xxx] The top 25 countries contribute about 88% of the total core budget. The percentage national contributions to specific UN agencies and programmes vary considerably with respect to the funding by different countries, but they do emphasise once again the striking overall power wielded by the USA. As noted above (Section 1), this is not healthy for the UN, and it is absolutely essential for many other countries to step up to the mark and fund the UN appropriately. However, the observation that they do not provide more funding could imply that they do not see sufficient value in supporting the UN system. If that is really true then fundamental restructuring of the UN and its agencies is long overdue. Having led a small intergovernmental agency, I know only too well the crucial importance of ensuring that such entities deliver on the wishes of all of their members so that funding can be guaranteed to maintain their activities. If members see no value in an agency then it should be shut down.
Two further important observations can be made about the UN’s funding situation. The first is that a smaller UN that is able to reduce the amount of duplication and overlap in its activities, as advocated above, would require less funding, and would therefore be able to live within its means more effectively. If countries are not willing to support the work of specific agencies or activities these should be closed. However, second, the most worrying trend with respect to funding is the way in which many UN agencies have instead sought to establish closer relationships with the private sector as funders of the ambitions of their leadership for expansion of their programmes and raising their own individual profiles through eye-catching initiatives. This is extremely worrying because it changes the role of UN agencies that have embarked on this approach away from being inter-governmental agencies supporting the needs of governments and their citizens, to being vehicles through which private sector corporations seek to shape global policy and implement activities across the world in their own interests of increasing market share, corporate profits and the benefit accruing to their owners and shareholders. As UNESCO states on its short private sector partnership page, “Over these last two decades, the Private sector has become an increasingly valuable partner for UNESCO – contributing its core business expertise, creativity, innovative technological solutions, social media outreach, financial and in-kind contributions to achieve shared objectives in the area of Education, Culture, the Sciences and Communication and Information”.[xxxi] There is, though, little that is innocent or altruistic about the corporate sector’s involvement in such partnerships. The UN yet again becomes diminished to being merely a vehicle that serves the interests of neo-liberalism and the free market – or to call it by a less popular name, global capitalism.
7. The restructuring of global governance and the establishment of multi-sector partnerships on a rigorous basis
The increasing embeddedness of the private sector in UN activities (Section 6) is seriously worrying since it detracts from the core role of its agencies as inter-governmental organisations. In a richly prescient argument, Jens Martens summarised the potential dangers of such partnerships some 15 years ago,[xxxii] and most of his concerns have since come to pass. Anyone in the UN who has sought to implement such partnerships since then, and has failed to read his work, as well as some of the other detailed recommendations concerning the dos and don’ts of partnership building by other authors is directly culpable for their failure.[xxxiii]
The private sector does indeed have much to contribute to effective development interventions, bringing technical knowledge, appropriate management skills, and additional specific resources, but far too often UN agencies seek to engage with the private sector primarily for the additional funding that may be provided. Most people in UN agencies have little real idea about how to forge effective partnerships with the private sector that are built on a rigorous assessment of needs and a transparent mutual benefits framework. Far too many agencies have therefore become subverted by global corporations, and are often viewed with suspicion by those in other UN agencies who have deliberately chosen to have less direct collaboration with companies.
Many UN agencies resort to the UN’s Global Compact established in 2000 as a means through which to engage with the private sector. The Compact itself is based on CEOs’ commitments to ten principles relating to Human Rights, Labour, Environment, and Anti-Corruption; with 15,268 companies having signed up, it now claims to be the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. However, it actually has rather little to say in detail about about partnership, or with the mechanisms through which effective mutually beneficial partnerships can indeed be established between companies, governments and UN agencies, in the interests of the many rather than the few.[xxxiv] Sadly, the consequent loosely defined “partnerships” that have been constructed, often subvert the UN’s governance structures and have increasingly led it to serve the interests of the rich and powerful against the poorest and most marginalised.
Unlike some of the other recommendations above, it is relatively easy to implement effective multi-sector partnerships, with much guidance having been written on the subject.[xxxv] Key success factors for development-oriented partnerships that serve the interests of the many rather than the few include
having a clear partnership framework in place from the beginning,
ensuring that civil society is also engaged (and thus also avoiding the term Public-Private Partnerships),
recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all (partnerships work best when they are attuned to local context),
establishing an appropriately skilled partnership management office,
building in scale and sustainability at the very beginning (not as an afterthought),
ensuring the continuity of participation among key individuals,
creating a clear and coherent communication strategy, and
ensuring that they are based on mutual trust, transparency, honesty and respect.
More generally, such partnerships should become less important for UN agencies if they focus more on delivering effective training for governments to be able to implement their own development interventions, rather than the UN agencies trying to deliver such interventions themselves. At present, though, I would not recommend that governments turn to most UN agencies for advice on how to craft appropriate partnerships.
In summary, many of the current problems facing the UN (both the Secretariat and its specialist agencies) could be resolved by:
Focusing on doing a few things well, rather than taking on too many activities and failing with most of them (recognising that this will lead to a smaller, but more effective UN);
Rejecting neo-liberalism, and instead seeking to serve as a mediator and consensus builder between the many different existing global views around political economy and development;
Improving the quality of its leadership (possibly through a specialised unit with such responsibilities), and requiring significant amounts of good quality and relevant training for all of its staff;
Accepting that the SDGs were a mistake, and starting to plan now for a new framework for the UN in 2030;
Focusing primarily on serving the needs of governments through training and advice, rather than by the UN implementing its own development interventions;
Limiting its partnerships with private sectorcompanies, but where these are essential ensuring that they are based on sound partnership mechanisms;
Developing effective co-ordination mechanisms for limiting the increasing amount of replication and duplication of effort within the UN system (which could be facilitated through enhancing the roles of the CEB and HLCP); and
Ensuring that more countries commit to funding the UN appropriately, so that no country ever provides more than 10% of its budget.
Implementing such changes will not be easy, but that is no excuse for not trying to undertake them. If progress on these agendas is not made soon, the UN and its agencies will become even less significant than they are at present, and it will forever fail to deliver the ambitious intentions laid out in the four paragraphs of Article 1 of its Charter.
Two final issues require some comment: the balance between the UN Secretariat and the UN’s specialised agencies; and the involvement of governments that are unwilling to engage peacefully and constructively. On the first of these, my close engagement in various Commonwealth organisations over the last two decades has made me very aware of a tendency for the “centre” to try to take control over as many areas as possible, even when it does not have the competence to do so and there are already existing specialised agencies capable of so doing. This clearly also applies within the UN, and particularly in the field of digital tech. Competition between entities within the UN system is both wasteful and damaging (to organisations and individuals), and must be reduced. There is little within Our Common Agenda that gives rise to the hope that the present leadership of the UN is capable of achieving this. Clarity of mandates and reducing mission creep are essential for the organisation as a whole to be effective.
Second, though, I am conscious that my arguments rely on a positive view about the role of governments in serving the real needs of their citizens. In part this is based on my experience that even within governments (in the broadest sense, including civil servants as well as politicians) that some might describe (generously) as unsavoury, I have almost always been able to find people that I can like and trust. It is these people that we need to foster and support. The private sector, with its fundamental remit of generating profit, will never be able to serve the interests of the poorest and the most marginalised. Only governments (at a structural level) and civil society organisations (generally at an individual level) have this theoretically within their remit. To achieve fairer, less unequal societies, we must therefore work primarily with governments, to help them deliver a better and safer world for all of their citizens. If princes (or governments) do not serve the interests of their citizens, I follow John Locke in maintaining that they have a right and a duty to replace them.[xxxvi]
[ii] But even this is hugely problematic, grounded as it is in traditional UN understandings of human rights, and paying insufficient attention to the responsibilities that are necessary for them to be assured.
[iii] Although highlighted as the fourth main point in the summary of Our Common Agenda, it is only treated relatively briefly in paras 38 and 39 of the report.
[iv] UN (2021) Our Common Agenda – Report of the Secretary General, New York: UN, p.4.
[xiv] I am not inclined to quota systems, which are very difficult to administer and often lead to a diminution in quality of appointments if there are insufficient people with the necessary skills. However, I appreciate that there are those who see such quotas as being the only way to achive scuh goals.
[xv] Dumitriu, P. (2020) Policies and platforms in support of learning: towards more coherence, co-ordination and convergence, Report of the Joint Inspection Unit, Geneva: United Nations.
[xxi] I regret that I have found it difficult to fathom out quite what the reason for this is, and whether it reflects a strong UN Secretary General (in which case he is very often wrong) or a weak one (also not exactly good) who is being manipulated by career-minded staff in the Secretariat. Perhaps he simply has too much on his plate, and is not prioritising the right things.
[xxii] This history, some of which I know about in considerable detail, remains to be told publicly by those who really know the full murky background.
[xxvii]Innovative uses of technology could effectively support the necessary decentralised co-ordination, although as yet most such consultative and collaborative systems have tended in practice to increase rather than reduce the ultimate control of those at the centre (or top) at whatever scale is being considered.
[xxxv] See, for example, some of my own work on effective multi-sector partnership building, including Unwin, T. (2005) Partnerships in Development Practice: Evidence from Multi-Stakeholder ICT4D Partnership Practice in Africa, Paris: UNESCO for the World Summit on the Information Society, Unwin, T. and Wong, A. (2012) Global Education Initiative: Retrospective on Partnerships for Education Development 2003-2011, Geneva: World Economic Forum, and Unwin, T. (2015) MultiStakeholder Partnerships in Information and Communication for Development Interventions, in International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, Chichester: Wiley, 634-44.
[xxxvi] Locke, J. (ed. by Laslett, P. (1988) Locke: Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.