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

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addresses a press conference ahead of the general debate of the seventy-second session of the General Assembly, which begins on September 19. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General António Guterres’ plans to reform the United Nations put the 2030 development agenda center stage and are intended to jumpstart the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to lift 700 million people out of extreme poverty in less than 15 years. This investment requires trillions of dollars each year.  

Under Guterres’ plan, U.N. agencies could share a common executive board and draw from a pooled source of funding. Agencies would provide a joint system-wide annual report to host governments on the SDGs, as opposed to multiple, parallel studies.  

If fully implemented, the management reform could make the U.N. look markedly different, restructuring roles among agencies and officials at the field level, and further consolidating leadership at U.N. headquarters. Guterres’ broad vision, first released at the end of June, has been described as the “beginning of the change process.”

6 things to watch at Global Goals Week

There is plenty to discuss in New York next week as international delegations arrive for Global Goals Week: A new reform-minded U.N. chief, a unpredictable American president, and humanitarian crises worldwide. Meanwhile, emerging technologies and the private sector promise radical visions of completely new models of development.

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It’s still too soon to tell how the first draft of the plans will develop, as member states need to sign off on any type of system reform. Guterres will submit another, more detailed version of his reform plans in December, which will likely go beyond the 24-page July document, which mostly speaks in broad strokes on the need for the U.N. to unify and make “bold changes” to match the grand 2030 development agenda.

“It is a big vision in terms of governance of the system. On funding it does not say much. Actually, it does not say anything. What the report does is puts the 2030 agenda at the center,” explained Ana Maria Lebada, an expert for the 2030 agenda at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “It is extremely ambitious in terms of governance of the system, the structuring of the system, accountability. The funding issue, though, is highly sensitive and contentious and the member states really need to engage on it.”

The upcoming Global Goals Week in New York, coinciding with the opening of the 72nd session of the U.N. General Assembly, is expected to offer some indication of how governments, U.N. players, and civil society would like to see the 72-year-old organization evolve. U.S. President Donald Trump will gather with world leaders, including Guterres, on Sept. 18 to discuss U.N. reform — which Trump has, so far, gotten behind, even as he has called for cuts to the U.N. and defunded the U.N. Population Fund earlier this year.

Two months after Guterres briefed member states on his management reform plans, he is currently reviewing his peace and security proposals with regional groups, says Sarah F. Cliffe, director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, who has been monitoring the process.

“While the General Assembly high-level segment is always shaped by the crisis of the day — DPRK and Myanmar of course are worrying at present — U.N. reform will be an important underlying topic for all the heads of state and government and ministers coming next week,” said Cliffe. “The secretary-general has now put together some really serious reform proposals. We hope that countries will be talking to each other about how they can build coalitions to support him in these endeavors.”

Leading up to Global Goals Week, some U.N. and international development experts like Lebada say that, while some level of reform is necessary, talk of too much radical change could cause anxiety for donors and U.N. agencies alike as these plans could threaten their autonomy and funding sources.

For example, Guterres wants to enhance the existing role of U.N. Resident Coordinators to jointly lead and account for all U.N. agencies in operating countries. That could curtail the role of U.N. agency country heads, or raise concern about complicating dynamics in the field, says Bathsheba Crocker, a former U.S. diplomat now serving as the vice president of humanitarian programs and policy at CARE.

“There is likely to be some nervousness about that, both from the humanitarian actors' perspective and development actors' perspective, because of concern around encroaching on neutrality and making those parts of the system that function pretty well maybe less functional with this,” Crocker explained.

“I think ultimately he has the right to make the system work better in any particular given country context. And, in order to do that, he has identified that the system as it is currently functioning is not doing that."

Part of the plan to help the U.N. work better is bridging gaps that exist between work in peace and security, development and humanitarian response. Solutions could include new investments in the U.N. peacebuilding fund to support prevention of violent conflict and other development projects.

This intersection between the development agenda and peace and security is “where it really gets interesting,” said Arthur Boutellis, director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute, noting that “securing peace within the context of development reform and the 2030 agenda has been an ongoing discussion.” Those links have not been clearly elucidated in all cases.  

“Although the vision presented by the secretary-general since he took office clearly makes the link between the pillars of the U.N., the reform proposals (at least the restructuring of peace and security and the development reform) do not connect the issues as clearly. So the challenge will be for the practical reforms to effectively translate the vision,” Boutellis said. “It will indeed also require a change in mindset, both within the U.N. Secretariat, but also among member states who also largely operate in silos.”

This reform strategy has been in the works for more than three years, around the same time that the global goals were negotiated. With each new secretary-general has come plans to rework the U.N. That makes Guterres’ timing of his own push for reform a key factor in its chances of success.

“It is critical [that] the secretary-general is looking to do this at the outset of his tenure. It is instructive to look back at the big reforms that came out in 2005, which was the last time the system did a big series of reforms on a range of issues, and the way the timing worked on the implementation agreed by member states that took place in the Ban [Ki-moon] era, though the reforms were agreed at the end of the [Kofi] Annan era,” said Crocker. “Anytime you are talking about doing a large series of reforms at a big institution, the leadership of the organization needs to have ownership of the process.”

Helen Clark, the former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, came out in support for reform this week, writing in the Guardian that the secretary-general and his team need the space to “act decisively.” Without an effective U.N., the institution will “continue to diminish in relevance,” she wrote.

Shortly after the release of Guterres’ report, response letters from member states circulated, as PassBlue reported. Both the United States and the European Union expressed support for the plan, which the EU described as a “holistic approach.”

But there remain particular “sensitive areas” that will have to be addressed, such as the proposed merger of U.N. agency boards, says Lebada.

“That is ambitious and I could see a lot of resistance from U.N. agencies on that, and behalf of member states. They do not necessarily want this merger,’ she explained. “They do not want for the U.N. to deliver only one agenda on the ground, because they are probably different countries with needs and circumstances.”

Especially as countries are increasingly shifting their focus and aid toward the private sector, centralizing work at the U.N. might not be a priority, she says.

“Change is never easy. If they wanted change before, it would have happened,” she said.

Crocker described it as a something of a “chicken and an egg problem” — convincing donors that a new way of working will be worth it in the long run.  

“Over time, if the system performs better with the money that it has, both from the cost efficiency perspective, which is obviously the concern of some big donors, and also from an effectiveness standpoint,” she said. “If we are talking about a new way of working, we are talking about peace and security, then presumably over time you break down some of that concern."

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About the author

  • 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.