Inside the UN's little-known think tank

The United Nations University building in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by: UNU

TOKYO — On the 12th floor of a pyramid-shaped, 14-story building in Tokyo’s energetic Shibuya district, sit the headquarters of the United Nations University. Just a few floors down, researchers are busy at Japan-based Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability. The two organizations are linked by more than shared office space, although the ties might not be obvious to the general public. In fact, UNU’s structure and activities aren’t overtly evident to those outside its walls.

“Now, there is a sense that development is both a bundle of problems and opportunities and that studying different models pays, that studying individual cases pays.”

— David Malone, rector, United Nations University

The inner workings of the university — comprised of Japan-based IAS and 14 other research entities in 14 countries — have long been obscure, especially when compared to many more globally visible U.N. agencies, said Hillary McBride, who took over UNU communications nearly two years ago.

The U.N.’s research arm serves as a bridge between the international academic community and the U.N. system and was never meant to launch large communications campaigns to promote its projects, McBride told Devex. Still, the term “university” no longer captures the full scope of work of the institution without a traditional campus, set up in the early ‘70s to power collaborative research on the world’s most pressing problems.

“We're not big, but we're all over the world, and there are these [research projects] that bubble up that are globally applicable and globally interesting,” she said, referencing ongoing research on migration and the development of a forced labor victim identification system as two current examples.

The institution does host master’s and doctorate programs, but this handful of higher education options hasn’t been UNU’s main focus. Instead, for nearly 50 years, it has quietly built a network of research entities and aligned its studies with emerging development issues. Under a mandate to create knowledge to affect positive change, UNU counts itself lucky, today, to possess relative autonomy within a changing U.N. system, and is focused on more closely tying its research to policy payoff within and outside the U.N.

What’s happening on UNU campuses

With some 50 programming and administrative staff based in the Japanese capital, the university otherwise comprises of more than 400 active researchers and academics around the globe, delivering scientific information in a way policymakers can digest.

For instance, the ongoing research on migration examines how to better cope with shifting patterns and reduce negative impacts on developmental gains, while the identification system is looking to equip groups with smarter ways to identify and aid victims of modern slavery, McBride explained.

In the United States, New York’s UNU Centre for Policy Research, meanwhile, is building a platform for researchers and policy actors to examine their collective roles in shaping the governance of artificial intelligence

“The technological developments that are coming out of artificial intelligence are happening faster than our ability to govern them safely,” McBride said. “And so our argument is that the U.N. actually has the only sort of convening power that's needed to be able to come up with some sort of governance structure so that people are protected from these technologies … [that] have potentially very positive —  but also very negative — applications.”

Researchers at the Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany, are looking at climate risk insurance as an instrument to manage and transfer risks created by climate change, and the UNU Institute on Computing and Society in China’s autonomous region of Macau is leading a specialized group of researchers in analyzing all existing data and evidence on gender equality in digital access, skills, and leadership.

Funded by voluntary contributions from governments, agencies, foundations, and individual donors rather than tied to the interests of member countries, UNU has much more flexibility and freedom than other U.N. agencies, explained the institution’s current rector David Malone, who began his second five-year term in March 2018.

Founded on collaboration

In 2017, UNU received contributions of $31.9 million from 17 governments and 69 other contributors. Following UNU’s creation in the early ‘70s, the Japan government pledged $100 million to establish its endowment fund, which currently stands at $370 million and generates investment income to cover general operating costs.

An academic and practitioner in the fields of international development and international security, Malone has emphasized the importance of policy-relevant research throughout his leadership of UNU. He is prioritizing closer collaboration between the university and policymaking communities within the U.N. and beyond.

Malone sits on the U.N.’s Chief Executives Board for Coordination, the principle management coordination group for the U.N. system, as well as on the high-level committee on policy. This access “gives us the opportunity to see where our research can be useful,” he said. “Before I go to a U.N. policy meeting, I try to scan what we’re up to [at UNU] and see what might be relevant to that particular meeting’s agenda.”

The work of the university is governed by the Sustainable Development Goals, but the network of autonomous research bodies isn’t otherwise bound by headquarters instruction. Instead, it’s often the interests of the country hosting the institute and the expertise of the researchers it recruits that determine projects. Riyanti Djalante, a disaster risk and recovery expert and one of the authors of the recent Special Report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, originally joined UNU at its climate-focused institute in Bonn.

Now, she is working on issues around climate fragility at UNU IAS in Tokyo, where she coordinates research and policy development on climate change and resilience: “It's a place by which I can do research, capacity building in terms of being a lecturer, and also I'm contributing to the Sendai Framework [for Disaster Risk Reduction],” she told Devex of her position within UNU. “If I become [a] lecturer in a normal university, I might not be involved in the global policy, like being involved with IPCC as well.”

The quiet achiever

The same flexibility that allows for diversity in research topics also provides room for UNU to produce research for the U.N. — or to be critical of its parent organization.

Some of their work, particularly out of the New York-based think tank, includes looking at “self-inflicted” problems the U.N. might address, such as peacekeeping, humanitarian action, and the links between the two, Malone said. Center for Policy Research Senior Fellow Richard Gowan has become particularly outspoken in the media about the failings of the U.N. Security Council, and other recent papers have looked at what works in U.N. resident coordinator-led conflict prevention and examined the legitimacy of U.N. sanctions.

Still, UNU’s work is largely quiet, and broadcasting its research hasn’t historically been a priority, McBride explained. The communications expert sees room for change there and imagines UNU will undergo a process to review its vision and mission in the next few years.

But for now, UNU’s mission remains closely tied to the original idea posed in 1969 by former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, who felt the system wasn’t “particularly good at acquiring knowledge or at using knowledge in its decision-making,” Malone explained.

Today, that knowledge acquisition — and in particular its global use — is more important than ever as practitioners increasingly approach development with optimism, Malone told Devex.

“If you see development primarily as a set of problems rather than also problems that can turn into opportunities, you're going to treat them very differently,” he said.

“Now, there is a sense that development is both a bundle of problems and opportunities and that studying different models pays, that studying individual cases pays.”

Update, Dec. 13: This story was updated to clarify that the Institute for the Advanced Study for Sustainability is based in Japan.

About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.