A view of the U.N. Headquarters Secretariat and Library buildings. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations is entering 2020 with the expectation that global humanitarian — and financial — needs are set to worsen. But some experts are thinking ahead much further, planning for the complex, emerging challenges that the U.N. will likely encounter by midcentury.

As the U.N. readies to celebrate its 75th anniversary, climate change, new technologies, health pandemics, and inequality are all posing a “reality check” to the international body’s system, said Fabrizio Hochschild, U.N. special adviser on preparations for the 75th anniversary. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Hochschild in April to facilitate broad public engagement on reimagining a U.N. that is fit for the future.

“It is not for a lack of ideas that we do not make progress in improving our global system — the ideas are already out there. It's because there is no attempt to then implement those ideas.”

— Fred Carver, head of policy, United Nations Association – U.K.

“Changes are happening faster than our thought processes are keeping up with them, faster than policy and action can digest them,” Hochschild said in a recent sit-down interview with Devex.

“We are at a very particular juncture of history, where the progress we've taken for granted largely in most parts of the world over the past 75 years, it’s very unclear if we can take that for granted for the next 75 years,” Hochschild continued.

The U.N. could reflect a changing reality over the next several decades, but only if it undergoes a serious reconstruction, Hochschild and U.N observers say. The crystal ball, though, is still hazy on how some proposed changes, such as a refocusing of programmatic work and funding, could actually manifest.

“There's been a major systemic financing crisis for four years. There's been a cash flow crisis in the last few months with the U.S. and its treaty obligations. But this is more of a symptom of the issues,” said Richard Ponzio, director of the Just Security 2020 program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, which published a report in June on a new U.N. agenda. “The fundamental issue is that institutions like the U.N. aren't keeping pace with the 21st century.”

The U.N. Population Fund, for example, has had to recently rethink funding strategies after the U.S. decided to end crucial funding for its work. Reports of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment have plagued much of the U.N. system. And more than four years after the start of Yemen’s civil war, the conflict continues, contributing to the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Guterres responded to these challenges with a push for internal U.N. reform in 2018. In recent months, there has also been a push from U.N. employees to make the organization more appealing to junior-level staffers. The U.N.’s 29-year-old youth envoy and its independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity are among the leaders amplifying their own plans for change.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, meanwhile, finds itself at a critical moment, working to overcome its financial and political woes. Agencies such as the U.N. Development Programme, which recently introduced a new digital strategy and announced that internships would no longer be unpaid, have been trying new ways to bring themselves up to speed.

“It is not for a lack of ideas that we do not make progress in improving our global system — the ideas are already out there. It's because there is no attempt to then implement those ideas,” said Fred Carver, head of policy at the United Nations Association – U.K., a charity organization that closely follows the U.N. and convenes the new Together First campaign. The campaign is crowdsourcing the best ideas for global governance.

“Climate change is clearly the biggest challenge we face by far, but there are others, and they all interrelate in multiple ways,” Carver said. The other major risk factors include pandemics and antimicrobial resistance, weapons of mass destruction, and biodiversity and ecosystem collapse.

While U.N. agencies are increasingly incorporating climate change into their work, the U.N. Environment Programme remains one of the smallest U.N. agencies and had about $433 million in income in 2018. The U.N. Children’s Fund had $2.52 billion available at the end of that same year.

“It’s a little hard to say that climate does not exist as a major problem, and you would think if you looked at the U.N.'s budget and what was devoted to it, it would be more. But UNEP is derisory,” said Thomas Weiss, co-director of the Future U.N. Development System, a project of The City University of New York’s international studies institute. One of its recommendations involves narrowing the U.N.’s focus to the most vulnerable countries.

“In terms of standards and principles and agendas, the system has to be universal. But in terms of operations, which is where all the money is, the idea that the U.N. is still trying to do things in Brazil or China or Chile is just silly,” Weiss said.

Weiss and others have also proposed creating clearer pathways for civil society and public engagement in the system, or conducting more outsourcing in some cases. The U.N. will likely always be “state-centric,” Carver said.

“The question, therefore, becomes whether it is the best-placed organization to take on challenges like climate change, AI, inequality, or whether actually the organization already does far too much programming and service delivery — tasks which are performed better by other, particularly nonstate, actors,” Carver said.

U.N. leadership is also on board with the idea that change needs to happen and should reflect public opinion, Hochschild told Devex.

Hochschild’s office is working with partners including the International Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, the gaming industry, and The Pew Research Center to conduct the “most comprehensive survey on global attitudes” toward the U.N. and some major themes — climate change, emerging technologies, and others — set to gain prominence over the next 25 years. The UN75 team is also conducting its own one-minute survey.

Hochschild will present crowdsourced ideas with governments during the UN75 high-level meeting on Sept. 21 of this year in an effort to “set our sights afresh,” he said. A resurgence of political paralysis at the U.N. — evidenced in part by the organization’s ongoing liquidity crisis — makes the event’s timing challenging but important, Hochschild added.

“We're facing a fundamentally dangerous contradiction. On the one hand, there’s a growing set of mega trends that can only be dealt with by international cooperation. And at the same time, there’s a sort of retreat from international cooperation. So how do you overcome that? That's also what we're trying to find a way around or through,” Hochschild said.

Steering the global body forward will take years of effort, far beyond the September deadline of the UN75 event.

“This is a very heavy ship — a tanker. You know, it doesn't change course on a dime. But I don't think we should underestimate the possibility for change, especially if we can visibilize more real voices from across the world,” Hochschild said.

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.