DSG Amina Mohammed clarifies reform plans for UN's role in 'messed up' world

United Nations deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed talks in her office ahead of Global Goals Week. Photo: Amy Lieberman / Devex

UNITED NATIONS  — The United Nations requires significant reform to help tackle multiple humanitarian crises, protracted conflicts, and serious global health and environmental risks. But the revitalization of the organization by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, while ambitious, likely won’t mirror the dramatic restructuring he laid out earlier this summer, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told Devex in an exclusive interview.

Mohammed spoke ahead of Global Goals Week, and a high-level meeting on U.N. reform on Monday, and offered a rare insight into how a reworking of the fragmented U.N. system might actually look. She also discussed why it will not signify a merging of messaging with the Trump administration’s international agenda, which seeks wholesale reforms and funding cuts, but has not specified how U.N. reform would look in practice.

Guterres' vision for UN reform to make debut during Global Goals Week

Two months after the U.N. secretary-general first rolled out his blueprint plans for reforming the U.N., global leaders will consider what a reworked system could look like.

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She also pulled back from some of the more controversial early ideas, such as unifying agency boards, that were first floated in the secretary-general’s summer report on the reform proposals.

“For me, the reform needs to be more reflective about what we want to get on the ground in terms of results,” said Mohammed, the former environment minister of Nigeria. Guterres appointed her to as DSG in December 2016, shortly before he took office.

Mohammed spoke during a Friday afternoon sitdown interview in her office on 38th floor of the U.N. Headquarters. She offered visitors colorful Starburst candies — wrapped in the colors, she joked, of the SDGs.

“We just have to put our best foot forward. We cannot afford to take less than ambitious steps for climate change, for conflict. We need to be really ahead of the curve,” she said.

“We have not been able to respond and we are behind everything. We have taken on a fire brigade approach.”

— Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed

Some experts have said the plan could centralize power at executive levels of the secretariat and compromise autonomy of individual U.N. agencies in country offices. Yet, according to Mohammed, institutional changes are likely to be not as substantial as initially assumed.

There will not be one governing board responsible for all U.N. agencies, Mohammed clarified.

And the term “reform” is not synonymous with job cuts, necessarily. It could lead to growth, Mohammed insisted.

“You want to say the best asset I’ve got are the human resources within this institution. We are not looking at a reform to cut jobs. We are looking at it to become more responsive. If we need more jobs, then we will make the case for it,” Mohammed explained. “Let’s put the agenda first, because it is the most ambitious agenda we have ever come out of this place with the SDGs in the last three, four decades and member states signed off on that.”

U.S. President Donald Trump is set to appear at a high-level meeting on U.N. reform Monday afternoon, in advance of his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. While the Trump administration is said to be supporting their own plans for U.N. reform, Mohammed questioned how this aligns with her own team’s plans.

“I have to be frank here. I have not seen the reform deal of the U.S. What is it that they are reforming?” she said. “That is not my understanding of reform. For us, we have this ambitious agenda of reform, which the U.S. is very much a part of, and we are heeding their call for more efficiency and effectiveness in results in the investments they make.”

All governments, including the U.S., signed off on both the 2030 development agenda and a framework for U.N. reform, Mohammed noted. Accountability moving forward is key.

“I see the event that will happen Monday as one where they are reinforcing the secretary-general’s ambition for all strands of the reform,” she said. “Member states asked us to do these reforms. They are just keeping their foot on the gas to say, ‘We mean it, and we want to be serious about it, so don’t go back and slip up.’”

“When I first landed in the United Nations [with the U.N. Millennium Project in the early 2000s], I thought, ‘My god, this is the most dysfunctional place I have ever been to, how does it work, I don’t understand,’” she continued.

The U.N. is now recalibrating its role in a “very messed up world,” which involves all member states, including the U.S.  

“Trump is a member of the U.N., and they must never forget that. Actions are about collective responsibility.”

— Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed

“Trump is a member of the U.N. and they must never forget that. Actions are about collective responsibility,” Mohammed said.

But, at the same time, these proposed changes are taking place in what Mohammed described as “trying times, very trying times.” Specifically, the balance is shifting between where people traditionally look for strong models of government and leadership.

“This is where it is very trying, because I think the preacher never looked in the mirror and saw the face of that nation and saw where it was disintegrating and left it behind, and that is what we are dealing with right now,” she said of the United States following the Trump election. “There is a reality, and you have to say what is right and wrong. The fact that that is blurred is of concern. Best practice today and some forms of democracy and human rights are coming from the South, which is great, but where is it disintegrating?”

U.N. reform, she says, will be something of a reflective process, thinking through the U.N.’s role, how to facilitate its work, and who best to work with to achieve the organization’s goals.

It’s also about readjusting to the 2030 agenda, which applies to all countries.

“The problem was always the South. Now we are dealing with a new context, which says the problem is universal. And it is traveling across these borders so fast, whether it’s climate change, or conflict, or migration,” Mohammed said. “We have not been able to respond and we are behind everything. We have taken on a fire brigade approach. We have to come back to the secretary-general’s approach and his vision around prevention.”

Editor's note, October 30, 2017: In this article, Devex originally reported that resident country coordinators would have certain responsibilities, but not have authority over country agency heads. U.N. country team members will, in fact, report and remain accountable to resident coordinators on "system wide activities," and the U.N. Secretary-General's office is working on the mechanisms for a dual reporting system.

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About the authors

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.
  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.