The soundbites from the widely acclaimed success of COP 27, especially around the creation of a loss and damage fund (see UNCC Introduction to loss and damage), made me look once more at the realities of global CO2 emissions to see which countries are actually generating the most CO2, which are improving their performance, and which are suffering most. Sadly, this only made me appreciate yet again that the over-simplifications that occur during so many UN gatherings such as COP appear to be more about political correctness and claiming success than they do about developing real solutions to some of the most difficult challenges facing the world.
The UN Climate Press Release on 20 November summarised the outcomes relating to the fund as follows: “Governments took the ground-breaking decision to establish new funding arrangements, as well as a dedicated fund, to assist developing countries in responding to loss and damage… Parties also agreed on the institutional arrangements to operationalize the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, to catalyze technical assistance to developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”.
Unfortunately, it is not quite as easy as it might seem to validate the claim underlying this that it is the rich countries who do most of the pollution and should therefore compensate the poor countries where the most harmful damages from CO2 occur (see, for example, ThePrint, India; UN News, noting that “Developing countries made strong and repeated appeals for the establishment of a loss and damage fund, to compensate the countries that are the most vulnerable to climate disasters, yet who have contributed little to the climate crisis”; and BBC News, “A historic deal has been struck at the UN’s COP27 summit that will see rich nations pay poorer countries for the damage and economic losses caused by climate change”). How should it be decided, for example, which countries should be donors to this fund, and which should be beneficiaries from it? Pakistan, which led much of the discussion around the need for richer countries to fund the poorer ones, was actually the 27th largest global emitter of CO2 in 2019; China was the largest contributor, and India the 3rd largest.
The Table below, drawing on World Bank data (2022), gives the various rankings of the top 30 countries in terms of CO2 emissions per capita in 2019, and CO2 total emissions in 1990 and 2019, as well as the change in ranking of the latter two columns.
CO2 metric tons per capita 2019
CO2 total emissions kt 1990
CO2 total emissions kt 2019
Change in rank 1990-2019
United Arab Emirates
Iran, Islamic Rep.
Trinidad and Tobago
Iran, Islamic Rep.
Egypt, Arab Rep.
United Arab Emirates
Iran, Islamic Rep.
Many important observations can be made from these figures, and I highlight just a few below:
Per capita emissions
The highest per capita emitters are generally those in countries with recently developed hydrocarbon-based economies, such as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Brunei Darussalam, and generally not in the old rich industrial economies of Europe.
Surprisingly, quite a few European countries such as the UK, Denmark and Spain (ranked 52nd-54th) actually lie well outside the top 30 highest emitters
The twelve lowest per capita emitters for which data are available (not shown here) are all African countries.
There are many fewer countries above the world average, at 4.47 metric tons per capita (which would rank 61st) and many more ranked beneath it, implying that the highest emitters are much higher than the lowest are low: Qatar at 32.47, has 28 metric tons per person more than the average; yet, 55 countries have emissions per capita of <1 metric ton.
60% of total CO2 emission are generated by people living in five countries (China, 31.18%, the United States 14.03%, India 7.15%, the Russian Federation 7.15%, and Japan 3.15%). Eleven further countries, all producing more than 350,000 kt CO2 annually account for a further 16.68% of emissions. More than three-quarters of emissions in 2019 were therefore from people in just 16 countries.
Those countries with the lowest total emissions are nearly all small island states (SIDS; not shown in the Table), but note that these were not necessarily the lowest per capita emitters.
The changes in total emissions since 1990 are also very interesting. The highest increases within the top 30 were Indonesia (+16) and Iran (+12), although much higher risers came into the top 30 from below, including Vietnam (+59), Malaysia (+23), UAE (+16) and Pakistan (+15).
These data do not make easy reading for policy makers, campaigners and the UN system as a whole, all of whom like to have simple answers and short soundbites. The world is unfortunately too complex and messy for these. As the world’s popultion passes 8 billion (2.8 times what it was when I was born), population growth is the dominant factor in determining total country-based emissions, but economic growth (following the US-led carbon-based capitalist mode of production) has also played a significant part. The big risers in total emissions are countries with large populations and/or with high economic growth rates over the last 30 years. Neither of these should be surprising. Poor countries, with low economic growth and relatively small populations are never likely to be amongst the largest consumers of energy. Overall, the biggest factor determining total CO2 emissions over the last century, and especially in the last 50 years, has been human population growth (see my recent post on “climate change”). Moreover, there has for long been an intricate and complex relationships between humans and carbon: the carbon cycle and the production of oxygen are essential for human life, and our economic systems have also been driven by carbon as a fuelfor centuries. These complexities make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to argue that we need to create two groups of countries: one being the recipients of funding (from a loss and damage financial facility), and the other being contributors to it. Instead, we need to work collaboratively together to transform the underying factors causing environmental change, of which CO2 emissions are actually only but a small part.
That is not, though, to say that there should not be much greater global effort to work together to resolve the environmental problems caused by our centuries old carbon-based economy (as well as those caused by so-called renewable energy). It is also completely separate from moral arguments suggesting that there should be a shift in wealth distribution from the rich to the poor. However, these should not be conflated into over-simplistic statements and assertions about responsibililty for climate change, such as those being promoted by UN agencies and mainstream media at the end of COP 27. It is also to reassert that we need to work together with renewed vigour collaboratively across sectors and disciplines to understand better the complex interactions that humans have with the environments in which we live, and then to make wise decisions how to implement them in the interests of all the world’s peoples and not just those of the rich and privileged parts of the world.
The above draft was written on 21 November 2022 (and has been revised slightly subsequently)
In response to the above, Olof Hesselmark kindly asked why I had not added further details also about the spatial distribution of CO2 emissions – something that as a geographer I care greatly about! I responded that I hadn’t wanted to complicate matters further, but also that I guess it was because I am aware in my own mind of these spatial distributions, and the country names (and sizes) are in-built into my consciousness! However, they do add an important additional element of complexity to the discussion, and I am delighted that he has agreed for me to add his slightly cropped map of CO2 emissions per sq km below:
I’m not entirely sure which projection this is, but my preference for such maps is Eckert IV, or other equal area projections such as Gall-Peters or Mollweide that place less visual emphasis on the apparent size of countries in high latitudes. This map nevertheless highlights the varying densities of emissions, with China, Europe and the USA being high, and Africa and Latin America being low. It should also be emphasised that there are enormous differences within countries, as well as between them, with urban-industrial environments generally being much higher in their CO2 emissions than sparsely settled rural ones.
A different perspective once again is thus from the Smithsonian Magazine‘s 2009s map below (carbon emissions from 1997-2010), which does indeed show how a very few areas contribute the largest amount of CO2 emissions.
COVID-19 has accelerated the restructuring of the global world order that was already underway in the late 2010s.[i] If anyone remains in doubt about this, they might ponder the differences between the ways in which China and the USA were able to respond to the pandemic. They could also reflect on the map of China’s expanding economic reach recently published by the World Government Summit.[ii] This does not mean that one regime is “right” and the other “wrong”; what it does imply, though, is that this is the reality with which individuals and states need to come to grips.
This post explores the extent to which the UN remains fit for purpose, and whether it has the capacity to adjust appropriately to this evolving political economy in the 2020s. An earlier draft was shared with people whose views on these matters I respect, and it has been revised substantially in the light of their recommendations.[iii] A second post will follow focusing on suggestions for how to resolve the issues raised here.[iv]
It is often said that if the UN didn’t exist, the world community would have to create such an organisation, but that it would be very different from the UN we have today.[v] Although established in the aftermath of the global 1939-45 war, with a commitment to maintain “international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights”,[vi] today’s UN is largely a product of the neo-liberal,[vii] free-market political and economic establishment that has sought to impose its ideologies, will, and “best practices”[viii] on the world since the 1970s. Few would agree that the (hopefully) noble ambitions of the first 50[ix] countries to sign its Charter on 26 June 1945 have been achieved. There remains an absence of peace and security in many parts of the world, numerous nations are far from friendly with their neighbours, and global inequalities remain hugely divisive.
Despite the efforts of large numbers of very committed and able individuals working within UN agencies, it is time for a fundamental rethink of the structures, agendas, practices and rationale of the UN system.[x] This needs to go well beyond the limited United to Reform agenda launched by the present Secretary General in 2017.[xi] With nine years to go until the end of the UN’s Agenda 2030, now is the time to consider putting in place very substantial structural changes that can make the UN fit for purpose for the middle of the 21st century.
This reflection addresses seven of the most important interconnected challenges facing the UN. These vary in relevance across different UN agencies, but they are especially apparent in the context of the promotion of ICTs as a solution to the world’s “development” challenges.[xii] It is written very much from the perspective of a “critical friend”.[xiii] The comments that follow apply equally to the UN system and Secretariat as a whole, as well as to the practices of its specific specialised organisations, agencies and funds.
1. Diversity and power: who runs the UN?
The problem: the UN largely serves the neo-liberal political interests of the USA and its allies.
There has long been a commitment within the UN to appointing officials and staff at all levels from as diverse a range of countries and backgrounds as possible. Nevertheless, challenges remain in the range of countries from whom senior officials are engaged.[xiv] Those with senior roles in the UN do not satisfactorily represent the existing balance of national power or population size in different countries of the world; India and China are considerably under-represented.
It is difficult to gain overall figures for the nationalities of senior officials across the UN system, but data concerning the nationality of those whose duty station is New York starkly illustrates the scale of this problem.[xv] Not only is the UN Headquarters located in the USA (New York), but the number of US citizens employed in these roles vastly overwhelms those from other countries.[xvi] The US has 6.34 places per hundred million people, whereas India has 0.72 and China 0.28. To be sure, China now has four citizens as heads of specialised organisations and agencies (FAO, ICAO, ITU, and UNIDO) and one research and training institute (ITCILO) based outside New York, but the majority of agency heads and senior staff still represent the policies and practices of the neo-liberal free-market governments that have dominated their home countries over the last 50 years. Some UN agencies have also been criticised overtly for being essentially vehicles for the implementation of US policy. The President of the World Bank has thus traditionally always been a US citizen nominated by the US government, and UNICEF has also been subject to such criticisms, [xvii] despite the crucially important work that it does, and the strong commitment of many of its staff to improving the lives of the world’s children.[xviii]
In the face of such US dominance, China has been quietly working behind the scenes to increase its representation and influence within the UN, and its contribution to the overall budget had risen to 12% of the total in 2020.[xix] Feltman has thus suggested that this growing influence of China within the UN is inevitable, and that the US needs to compete actively if it wishes to retain its position as the UN’s most powerful member. [xx] Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China makes striking reference to China’s role as a “major country” and what it needs to do to ensure that it does indeed serve in this capacity globally.[xxi]
2. Leadership: quality and diversity
The problem: the UN does not appoint the most capable and appropriate people to senior leadership positions
There are very capable and well-intentioned people working within the UN system; many of these are committed to using its reach primarily to make the world a better place. However, as in any large organisation, this is by no means true of everyone, and both the processes through which people are elected or appointed into positions of leadership, and the calibre of many of them to provide the vision, energy and management required are often lacking.
Processes of election and appointment to high-level roles in the UN vary between agencies, but when elections are involved they are often hot-beds of political intrigue and reflect the complexities of block-voting and garnering international support for candidates. Whereas some states hold lavish events to support their candidates, others consider that such activities are inappropriate. I have often felt hugely sorry for very able candidates who have worked hard to try to get elected, but fail through no fault of their own – and often in large part through the failure of their own national governments sufficiently to promote them. The net result is that the most competent candidates are not always elected or appointed to the top positions in the UN.
A second challenge is that many candidates do not have the appropriate skills or experience for the roles to which they are appointed. Many are politicians or officials who have not reached the highest positions in their own countries, and yet are still eager to be selected for UN roles so as to find an alternative lucrative way of concluding their own careers. UN posts at most levels are very well-remunerated, and for those who want the opportunity to travel internationally and build high-level personal networks they are indeed an attractive proposition. Whilst the level of scandals of the past within the UN has diminished, as when the head of WIPO was forced to step down early in 2008,[xxii] the UN appointments process still does not always get it right. A classic recent case was the appointment of the first UN tech envoy at the start of 2021. Not only did he admit in one of his first tweets after he had been appointed that he was “a relative newcomer to the field”,[xxiii] but he was placed on leave almost immediately on appointment following complaints about his personal behaviour while previously serving as a UN Under Secretary-General and Special Advisor.[xxiv] Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this specific case, it is surprising that the UN could proceed with such an appointment when it was already known within the system that unresolved complaints had been made against him.
3. Scale and role: a big UN or a small UN?
The problem(s): what size should the UN be; should its agencies aspire to be implementers of development interventions themselves, or should they instead provide guidance and good practices for governments to implement?
The UN was not originally created to “rule the world” or to be a body that implemented “international development”. It was rather intended primarily to maintain peace and security and to enhance friendly relations between nations and their governments. Over time, it has become ever larger, accreting numerous additional activities to its portfolio, and particularly taking on a very wide range of “development” activities, intended to improve living standard and to promote human rights. As its catalogue of failures has increased, particularly with respect to peace and security,[xxv] it has sought to create for itself an even greater role in implementing “development” interventions (see section 4 on the SDGs below).
As the UN continues to grow at a time of increasing financial exigency, its core role must be re-examined and justified.[xxvi] A fundamental question is whether UN agencies should be trying to implement initiatives and projects themselves at scale (a “big UN”), or instead be giving guidance, advice and support to governments so that they can better craft initiatives in the interests of their own people (a “small UN”)? To put it very simply, does the share of the taxes paid by citizens across the world to their own governments and then given to the UN represent value for money, and is it used wisely in their overall interests.[xxvii] Are the transaction costs too high in supporting development interventions through the UN system? In democracies, people can elect new governments; but global citizens cannot elect new UN officials.
A challenge, though, with recommending that the UN should primarily seek to support governments in implementing their own initiatives, rather than UN agencies delivering such initiatives themselves, is that not all governments are trusted by their citizens.[xxviii] Here, I adopt Locke’s principle that people have both a right and a duty to overthrow governments that do not serve their interests. I see the UN’s role therefore as primarily being to help governments indeed improve the services that they offer their people, because neither the private sector nor civil society theoretically have the interests of all of the citizens as their responsibility. It has to be governments who above all have the responsiblilty for reducing inequalities in the countries that they govern.
The UN and its agencies are mandated to undertake activities recommended and agreed by the governments comprising their membership. In some instances there are clear needs for global agreements between multiple countries that will hopefully provide potential benefits for all, as with the international maritime regulations (IMO), the treatment of refugees (UNHCR), managing the world’s radio-frequency spectrum (ITU) or reducing changes to the environment resulting from human activities (UNEP). However, in many other contexts there is not a strong or clear-cut argument for global agreements, and it is not always easy to justify a role for the UN, especially in terms of the implementation of “development” agendas (see section 4 below). It is fundamentally important, for example, to consider whether UN agencies should themselves design, fund and implement programmes such as teaching girls to code across the world, or should they instead use their resources to help governments to design and implement relevant programmes in their own contexts? Should UN agencies run capacity development programmes to train any- and every-one in digital skills, or should they instead use their limited resources to train governments (both politicians and civil servants) to design and implement their own such national or regional programmes more effectively? Answers to these questions are in part dependent on ideological positions, but it would seem that UN-designed and implemented approaches tend to lead to (i) greater dependency of governments and thus peoples on the UN, (ii) less contextually relevant initiatives, and (iii) less value for money than were the UN to focus primarily on helping governments develop better programmes of their own.
4. The failed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030
The problem: 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.
I have written at length since 2015 about the reasons why the SDGs have already failed, especially in the context of digital technologies,[xxix] and many others are increasingly challenging their rationale and effectiveness. Three issues are particularly important for this critique of the UN system.
First, the SDGs largely serve the interests of those organisations that have designed and promoted them, rather than the voiceless poor and marginalised. In particular, they serve to enable as many UN agencies as possible to have a clear role in their implementation, either individually or collaboratively. Since 2015, most UN agencies have thus prioritised these agendas, and have sought very clearly in their rhetoric to show how they are delivering on specific goals and targets. This has meant that in some contexts attention has shifted away from very important areas that were considered in insufficient detail, or not at all, in the SDGs. The SDGs (and SDG17 in particular) have also become a rallying call through which the private sector can contribute to, and some would say subvert, the global development sector. Once again, the neo-liberal hegemony is serving its own interests in retaining power and influence.
Second, the SDGs focus primarily on increasing economic growth rather than reducing inequalities. They have therefore served the interests of private sector companies, especially large global corporations, more than they have most of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people and communities. The recent increased attention being paid to inequalities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic is to be welcomed, but it is too little and has not led to a major realignment of the SDGs themselves. Moreover, at least half of the 10 SDG10 (inequality) targets have at best tenuous links with actually reducing inequalities.
Third, the SDGs have spawned yet another industry in terms of the data required to be able to tell whether they have succeeded or not.[xxx] The companies, organisations (including UN agencies) and individual consultants who have developed these tools, created the data, and written numerous reports thereon have certainly benefited from the SDGs. Whether the poor and marginalised in whose name this work is supposedly being done have benefited as much remains to be seen.
5. Duplication, overlap and reinventing the wheel
The problem: the UN system is beset by duplication of effort, overlap, and reinvention of the wheel between agencies, and even in larger agencies between the various silos within them.
Despite the opportunities provided by the SDGs for collaboration, all too often agencies compete with each other for “ownership” thereof, and the central UN Secretariat is also increasingly competing with the agencies mandated with specific responsibilities. In summary, the UN suffer from three man challenges around these issues: it is riven by competition and overlap of effort between agencies, in part driven by the personal agendas of their leaders; there is increasing competition in certain fields between the aspirations of the central UN Secretariat and the UN’s many separate agencies;[xxxi] and all too often these agencies themselves seek to take on activities that others outside the UN system are already doing, often actually much better than the UN could ever do in its present format.
A classic example of this was the work of the UN Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination (CEB) and the High Level Committee on Programmes in 2018 and 2019 to develop and reach agreement between agencies on system-wide strategies for the future of AI, the future of work, and the future of education. UNICEF and UNESCO brought together 21 UN agencies to develop a cogent approach to what the UN needed to do at a system-wide level to enhance the delivery of appropriate and relevant learning and education, and their report was welcomed by the CEB in May 2019.[xxxii] Very shortly thereafter, though, the relatively new DG of UNESCO launched a high-profile initiative on the Futures of Education: Learning to Become, with a “distinguished” Commission to consider inputs received from the various consultation processes.[xxxiii] This was a clear attempt to place the organisation once again very much at the centre of UN work in education, and made no mention of the recent UN system-wide efforts to co-ordinate efforts between agencies more closely. Most of the effort and good will generated in trying to reach a UN system wide approach to the future of learning was dissipated and lost. One cannot but ask “what was the point” of the HLCP and CEB’s work to this end?
Another classic case of duplication and re-inventing the wheel was the creation in 2018 by the UN Secretary General of the High-Level Panel of Digital Cooperation, co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, whose recommendations ultimately led to “his” Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.[xxxiv] The full stories of the machinations behind the creation of the panel and roadmap, as well as the subsequent bizarre appointment process of the Secretary General’s Digital Champion remain to be told (see also section 2 above). Despite the best efforts of the panel’s Secretariat, though, many of the consultations largely repeated discussions that had been held many times before by those involved and added little new to global understanding. Much of the report contains well-known platitudes, and although civil society was involved in the consultations upon which the recommendations were based, the dominant voices were largely those of governments, UN agencies and the private sector. Paradoxically, whilst its overt aim was to enhance digital co-operation, in practice it also served as a means through which different UN agencies could claim primacy in various areas of the digital agenda, not least as expressed through their roles as “Champions” in the Roundtable discussion (as with the ITU and UNICEF on global connectivity, UNICEF and UN Global Pulse on Digital Public Goods, UN Women on digital inclusion and data, or OHCHR on digital human rights). It remains to be seen whether the emerging architecture of this agenda will indeed enable greater co-operation or instead lead to greater division within the UN system on matters digital, but six months after the newly appointed technology envoy was put on administrative leave there remains little leadership and direction. Perhaps its main outcome will have been its efforts to revitalise the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as something other than merely the talking shop that it was originally designed to be.
6. Scale and Finance
The problem: the UN’s ambitions go well beyond the budget available to fund them.
The increasing aspirations of UN agencies come at a time when budgets are tight and many donors are reluctant to increase funding because they believe that other organisations can deliver better results, especially with respect to development outcomes. The UK Multilateral Development (formerly Aid) Review thus warned in 2016 that funding for the FAO, IOM and UNESCO was at risk unless their performance improved, having already ceased core funding to UNIDO, ILO, UNISDR and UN Habitat as an outcome of its previous review in 2011.[xxxv]
Consequently, UN agencies have increasingly turned to other sources of funding, particularly from private sector companies and global corporations, but also in some instances from individual donations, as with UNICEF. Some of the implications of this are addressed in section 7 on partnerships, but it is important here to note that all too often staff in UN agencies see the private sector primarily as a source of funding the initiatives that the agency wants to implement, rather than truly benefitting from a company’s specific industrial or technological expertise, their business acumen, or their management strengths. This is particularly so in initiatives linked to digital technologies. If a company’s business model is not sustainable, then it will go bust; companies therefore have much to contribute to an understanding of sustainability within the context of the SDGs. The private sector of course has immense value in driving economic activity, and can contribute hugely to appropriate development interventions. It is just that its real strengths are rarely appreciated by most of those working in and for UN agencies.
The increasing need for funding to boost the aspirations of the leadership of UN agencies, linked in part to their own personal ambitions, but also the mandates that they negotiate with their member states, gives rise to potential conflicts of interest for the UN. Many governments also see the involvement of private sector companies in their own countries that have been developed through liaison with UN agencies as a way to deliver their own agendas, which are not always exclusively in the interests of their people, and especially the poorest and most marginalised. Governments also do not always fully appreciate or account for the financial risks in taking on large loans for “development” projects be they from China, the World Bank, or the USA.
It must therefore be asked whether the UN and its specialised agencies should actively be seeking to increase funding through sources other than national government regular member contributions, or whether they should cut their coats to suit their cloth? After all most UN agencies were never intended in origin to be implementers of development interventions. A strong argument can therefore be made that if UN agencies were indeed truly serving the needs of member states, then members should indeed fund them to deliver those needs.
7. Partnerships and the restructuring of global governance
The problem: 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.
I have written much previously about the potential and challenges of partnerships with the private sector and civil society in international development,[xxxvi] and I remain committed to their positive potential. The reality, though, is all too often that they work primarily in the interests of private sector companies, despite their usual claims that they are intended to benefit the poor and marginalised.
In a comprehensive and hugely prescient 2007 review of the potential of partnerships in the context of the UN, Jens Martens highlighted seven governance concerns relating to its growing trend of partnerships with the private sector:[xxxvii]
These predictions have all come to pass to a greater or lesser extent, and what is of most concern is that few global leaders seem to consider any of them to be a real problem. The advocates of neo-liberalism and those promoting the ever-increasing role of the private sector in national and international governance, at the expense of states, seem to have achieved their objectives, subtly and surreptitiously behind the scenes. The rise to power of the private sector within the UN system over the last 20 years is quite remarkable, and this is especially so with respect to digital technologies and the pharmaceutical sectors.
The prominent emphasis on partnerships within the UN system has also had practical problems, notably the lack of transparent and effective partnership structures, and confusion over the concept of mutistakeholderism. On the first of these, it is remarkable how many, often widely-acclaimed “partnerships” or coalitions within the UN are based on at best flimsy partnerships structures. The UN Global Compact[xxxviii] can claim to provide a mechanism through which companies can support the UN, but it remains voluntary, and few individual agencies have their own internal structures and agreements about how they should engage systematically and rigorously with partners. It is well known, not least through some of the excellent work of the World Economic Forum,[xxxix] that a rigorous and comprehensive framework must be created early on for a partnership to have any chance of success. Sadly, failure to design such comprehensive frameworks beforehand means that all too often UN partnership do not achieve what they set out to do, and even sometimes what they claim to have done.
There are also fundamental problems with the notion of multistakeholderism,[xl] since different people and organisations define it in varying ways. While it is usually taken to mean partnerships that in some way involve governments, the private sector and civil society, the word itself only really means that many stakeholders are involved. Frequently, this is little more than subterfuge, moving away from the increasingly discredited notion of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), but still focusing mainly on the interactions between the private sector and governments, through co-opting favourable others (from civil society or academia)[xli] within them. Partnerships that combine civil society on equal terms with governments and companies, are much better termed “multi-sector” (reflecting the three sectors).[xlii]
Most people in the world have little if any understanding of what the UN is, have never heard of most of its agencies, and are completely unaffected by its actions.[xliii] The arguments for a small, efficient and highly focused UN system would seem to be powerful in the face of such criticisms.[xliv] The diversity of interests represented by national states and regional blocks requires a competent, and highly professional organisation for mediation and the sharing of good practices in the interests of global peace, harmony and well-being.
This reflection has highlighted seven of the most pressing and interconnected challenges affecting the ability of the UN system to function effectively, especially in serving the interests of the vast majority of the world’s people, and also particularly in the context of the use of digital technologies. In summary, these are:
The UN does not serve the interests of the majority of the world’s people, and needs to be restructured so that it does.
It has grown haphazardly and surreptitiously 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.
The SDG project and Agenda 2030 largely serve the UN’s own interests, has already failed, and will achieve little in reducing the inequalities that are all too prevalent across the world.
There is an immense amount of waste within the UN system, with an excess of duplication, overlap and reinvention of the wheel; the world’s poor can ill-afford such excess.
A large UN is living beyond its means, and has thus increasingly had to turn to other sources, and especially the private sector, for funding.
The consequent loosely defined “partnerships” that have been constructed, 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.
Finally, with some notable exceptions, the quality, experience, expertise and diversity of leadership within the UN system are not appropriate for the tasks that it has taken upon itself.
In essence, the neo-liberal hijacking of the UN system has made the UN part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It is time for change. Part Two suggests some of the radical changes that need to be made for the UN to become the sort of organisation that many of its employees hoped that it could be when they joined it, and that the 7.9 billion people of the world urgently need to avoid the many crises that continue to beset us all.
[iii] Among the many piece of helpful advice were suggestions: to shorten it; to tighten the argument around fewer key issues; to refer overtly to “corruption” (a word with which I have problems as discussed in this piece); to tone down some of the language, so that the audiences it is intended for may be more prepared to listen (my earlier suggestion that the UN was bloated did not go down too well; however, I had not even referred to the USA as being neo-imperial in the first draft); to clarify use of terms such as “neo-liberal”; and to justify the focus on governments, when many of these are seen to be problematic. I have tried to do all of these, and remain grateful for everyone’s comments.
[iv] Parts one and two will be available to download separately in.pdf format once completed.
[vii] By the term neo-liberalism, I refer to market-oriented reform intended to enhance free-market capitalism and the reduction of state influence in the economy and society. While this is a term that I deliberately continue to use to refer to changes that took place initially in the USA and Europe from the 1970s onwards, I recognise that it is less popular among many academics and politicians in the USA. I use the term explicitly to argue that neo-liberalism should be replaced by greater state control and regulation in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, so that global inequalities fostered by neo-liberalism can be reduced.
[x] I have many hugely able and committed friends who work within the UN system, and have great admiration for the work that they do. This commentary should in no way be seen as a personal criticism of them, but is rather an account of the structural challenges that they face in trying to fulfil their aspirations of a better world.
[xii] My observations are all grounded in practice, and friends and colleagues will recognise the details of some of our shared experiences, although they are presented here in a generalised form so that specific institutions or individuals can usually not be identified. I hope that they are taken in the constructive sense in which they are intended. Where relevant, references to other works that have referred to the matters addressed are also included in footnotes.
[xiii] Although, as although as Chairholder of a UNESCO Chair some might say that I have indeed been within the system since 2007!
[xiv] While some recent progress has been made with respect to gender, the UN is also poor in terms of the inclusion of people with disabilities within its constituent bodies. It was thus a very real pleasure to meet some years ago with W Aubrey Watson, who was appointed in 2014 as Antigua and Barbuda’s Permanent Representative to the UN, the first ever person with a declared disability to hold such a role. See https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/94/2/16-030216/en/.
[xvi] The scale of this problem is reinforced when countries with smaller populations are also included, and it is salient to note that many European countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Norway each have four such officials, with Sweden having five and the UK seven; Canada has ten such officials.
[xxv] Some might seek to claim otherwise, but the continuation of widespread war and violence into the 21st century, from the Gulf Wars, to Afghanistan, Syria, North Africa, Yemen, Mozambique and Ethiopia suggests that whilst there have indeed been no major global wars to compare with the 1939-45 war, the UN has failed to bring peace and security to many millions of people.
[xxviii] I dislike using the word “corruption”, which commentators on an early draft suggested I should raise here. Often, the word “corruption” seems to be used to disparage others, when actually it refers merely to a different moral framework to that of the person using the word. Many bankers and government officials in north America and Europe are in this sense as corrupt as officials in other parts of the world who believe it is right to give their family members jobs once they are in positions of power. This probably reflects my antipathy towards universalism, and my celebration of diversity and relativism.
[xxxi] This is also a notable problem within the Commonwealth, where the Commonwealth Secretariat instead of collaborating constructively with the leading Commonwealth Associated Organisations, often seeks to compete with them, frequently reflecting the personal agendas of staff in the Secretariat.
[xxxvi] See,for example, Unwin, T. (2015) Multistakeholder partnerships, in: Mansell, R, and Ang, P.H. (eds) The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, and Unwin,T. (2017) Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.
[xli] Given that most universities are now in effect businesses, I prefer to see them as falling within the private sector rather than as separate sector.
[xlii] Although within the UN system (such as UNESCO) the term sector is often used to describe the different parts of an agency and is thus deemed to be inappropriate to be used to refer to partnerships.
[xliii] With reference to the UN’s flagship SDGs for example, a 2020 survey by YouGov in the UK suggested that 56% of people in Britain were not at all aware of the targets, while 27% had heard of them but were unfamiliar with what they involve.