UN chief Guterres calls for multilateral reform

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Photo by: International Maritime Organization / CC BY

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has said it is time to reform multilateral organizations in order to make sure globalization doesn’t leave people behind.

Guterres, who assumed his new role in January, acknowledged the importance of globalization in its ability to increase wealth and reduce poverty, particularly through technology. But he said the multilateral system is lagging behind in promoting equality, which has resulted in a loss of trust in the system and a surge in nationalism and isolationism.

“It is clear that technological progress and globalization have increased wealth, promoted trade, had a positive impact on well-being and reduced absolute poverty,” he said at a press conference Wednesday in London, where he is attending the Somalia Pledging Conference.

“At the same time, it is also true that globalization and progress have increased inequality and left people behind. To rescue multilateralism, we need to reform multilateral organizations.”

As a key part of this reform, Guterres argued that greater collaboration is needed across the pillars of U.N. work — peace and security, development, and human rights — so that resources can be used to their maximum capacity to prevent crises. He suggested there is little justification for separating the pillars: “There is no peace and security without human rights,” he said, adding that combining them “must be at the center of our strategy of reform.”

He has already launched reform initiatives within the U.N. system, he said, including management reform and a realignment of the U.N. development system to better assist member states.

Speaking to Devex at the Aid & Trade Conference in London on Thursday, Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of the Red Cross, agreed with Guterres that the multilateral system isn’t reaching its full potential in mobilizing funds and political will in order to achieve peace in protracted conflicts. But he also said it is important to make the goal explicit when talking about reforms and stressed the need to differentiate between organizations and their mandates within the multilateral system, suggesting that development, peacebuilding and humanitarian organizations might need to improve in different ways.

Using the multilateral platform “to make sure that political solutions can be found to political problems is really important,” he said, while also pointing to the lack of momentum on disaster preparedness and prevention. “Many a time we can see and predict that families will be arriving [as refugees, or] that there will be a drought,” he said. “Why do we always wait until people are on the brink of starvation? ... There absolutely is more that could be done.”

Guterres described increasing inequality arising from globalization and technological advances as one of the main challenges facing the world today, alongside the changing nature of conflict and the fragility of political, economic and ecological environments, which has been the trigger for conflict in many parts of the world.

Turning to the topic of climate change, he said that "even when governments may consider that climate change is not a problem to deal with, I'm optimistic about the capacity to mobilize civil societies, business communities, cities, regions in order to make sure that what was agreed in Paris is implemented."

President Donald Trump is expected to announce in the coming days whether he intends to keep the U.S. in the Paris Climate agreement, although Guterres did not refer to the leader specifically.

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About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.