Global Challenges
Issue no. 7 | April 2020
Global Governance in Peril?
Global Challenges
Issue no. 7 | April 2020
Global Governance in Peril? | Article 2

The United Nations at 75: Still “Resolved to Combine Our Efforts”?

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Seventy-five years after it was created, the UN survives. Just. Will the UN manage to remain “resolved to combine our efforts” while balancing power disparities?

Born from the ashes of a conflict that decimated nearly three percent of the world’s population, the UN was established in 1945 to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Recognising from the failings of the League of Nations that the UN could only survive as long as the major powers were at the table, the UN’s founding members endowed the major powers with privileges – permanent membership on the Security Council with veto rights. While the veto is lamented today for blocking the Security Council from finding solutions to conflicts such as that in Syria, it has succeeded in keeping the major powers in some level of dialogue at the UN.

Evolution of the UN ordinary budget, 2000–2019 (in French) Evolution of the UN ordinary budget, 2000–2019 (in French)
Direction générale du Trésor, Ministère de l'économie et des finances, France

Seventy-five years after it was created, the UN survives. Just. In October 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres made a desperate plea for member states to pay their outstanding dues – some USD 1.3 billion in the year 2019 alone –, liquidity levels so low that the UN risked defaulting on staff payments. This at a time when the world faces rapidly evolving challenges that require cooperative problem-solving: from new technological risks and opportunities, to shifting geopolitical tectonic plates; climate and environmental degradation and disasters tied to displacement, health, conflict and insecurity; and widening inequalities within and between countries, including inequalities of outcome such as those generated from increasing unequal access to regular travel and all of the opportunities travel affords.

A Paradox: Seeming Solutions Chip Away at Cooperative Problem-Solving

Two seeming solutions introduced to temper the UN’s woes may be undermining the capacity for UN member-states to solve problems cooperatively.

First, facing ever-increasing budget shortfalls, the UN and many of its agencies have diversified their financing. They now widely rely on earmarked voluntary contributions from states and private donors, and, increasingly, on private-individual donations made in response to public appeals, as well as fees paid for the provision of services and goods.

While this fills a short-term financing gap, it favours bi- and unilateral decision-making over collective problem-solving by introducing new lines of accountability that steer UN agencies towards fulfilling the demands of individual states, private donors and/or UN secretariats. Research conducted at the Graduate Institute’s Global Governance Centre shows that the proportion of UN agencies’ outputs/activities that focus on collective member-state given mandates is subsequently diminishing.

Dialogue with UN Secretary-General António Guterres Dialogue with UN Secretary-General António Guterres on 25 February 2020 at the Graduate Institute Geneva, to mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.
Graduate Institute/Boris Palefroy

For example, member states mandated the UN Refugee Agency to provide refugees with: (1) protection, (2) humanitarian assistance and (3) permanent solutions. Yet as the UN Refugee Agency increasingly relies on voluntary contributions and private-individual giving, its work now focuses on protection and humanitarian assistance, leaving permanent solutions – the part of its mandate that requires collective member-state problem-solving and burden-sharing – lacking. While the 770 pledges and approximately USD 10 billion in financial commitments made during the 2019 Global Refugee Forum will support protection, employment and education of refugees and host communities, they won’t produce the desperately needed resettlement visas for the 99 percent of refugees requiring them.

Second, in times of waning support for multilateralism, reaching consensus swiftly is often prioritised over meaningful debate. Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan raised this concern in 2005, stating, “consensus (often interpreted as requiring unanimity) has become an end in itself […] It prompts the Assembly to retreat into generalities, abandoning any serious effort to take action. Such real debates as there are tend to focus on process rather than substance and many so-called decisions simply reflect the lowest common denominator of widely different opinions.”

Today, disagreement amongst member states is too swiftly discredited as a failure of, or a retreat from, multilateralism rather than seen as a necessary component of it, from which innovative, brave and meaningful solutions can be crafted. Remaining “resolved to combine our efforts” while balancing power disparities is perhaps the UN’s most daunting task. But, as Dag Hammarskjöld passionately articulated in his 1960s speech, it is also the UN’s raison d’être to defend the principles of the UN Charter, while balancing the interests of large states and small states, of the South and the North, the East and the West, the faithful of one creed and the faithful of another, and the ever-evolving differences within and between regions.

Some progress has been made to foster healthy debate, such as the inclusive pre-negotiation consultative processes that led to the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN global compacts on migration and refugees, and the current Open-ended Working Group on cyber-security. But additional procedural modifications, such as redesigning the three-minute intervention format to UN proceedings utilising digital technologies, could go a long way towards fostering an environment of healthy debate and dialogue on tough, inherently political issues.

Reasons to Hope

Amidst the despondency there are reasons to hope. First, we know that UN reform is possible, from the large-scale overhauling of the Human Rights Commission in 2006 (replaced by the Human Rights Council with innovative mechanisms and procedures) to procedural reforms, such as increasing the transparency of Security Council processes. Even the tabooed Security Council membership underwent reform back in 1965, expanding its rotating members from 6 to 10. It has been done before, and it can be done again.

Second, António Guterres has opted not to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary with grand celebrations, but rather has called for a global conversation about the current and future state of global cooperation. Starting in January 2020, the UN75 campaign initiated dialogues at all levels and is conducting a mass public survey, a scientifically sampled survey in 50 countries, as well as a mapping of academic and policy research to take stock of current thinking on global cooperation.

Third, the global destruction from which the UN was born should remind us that it is precisely for times like these that the UN was created.

By Cecilia Cannon
Researcher at the Global Governance Centre
The Graduate Institute, Geneva
Academic Adviser to the United Nations for its UN75 dialogues on global cooperation

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Header image caption: United Nations stamp showing Palais des Nations, Geneva.

Info Box

Proposals to Reform the United Nations

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has made proposals to reform the United Nations since the beginning of his term in January 2017. To improve the delivery of its mandate, the United Nations has made sweeping changes in the following areas:

Development – The 2030 Agenda will require bold changes to the UN development system for the emergence of a new generation of country teams, centred on a strategic UN Development Assistance Framework and led by an impartial, independent and empowered resident coordinator.

Management – A new management paradigm for the Secretariat and a United Nations that empowers managers and staff, simplifies processes, increases transparency and improves on the delivery of its mandates.

Peace and Security – The overarching goals of the reform are to prioritize prevention and sustaining peace; enhance the effectiveness and coherence of peacekeeping operations and special political missions and move towards a single, integrated peace and security pillar.

Points represent headquarters cities.
Key dates
1960 1995 2020

Map based on the data from The Correlates of War Project, “Intergovernmental Organizations (v3)” (for FIGOs) and from Olivier Westerwinter, “Transnational Public-Private Governance Initiatives in World Politics: Introducing a New Dataset” and its electronic supplementary material, in The Review of International Organizations, 2019 (for TGIs).
The data was enriched by the Graduate Institute's Research Office in Geneva, in collaboration with whybe.ch.

VIDEO | Beatrice Weder di Mauro on the Davos Forum

© The Graduate Institute, Geneva

VIDEO | Nico Krisch on the hierarchy of norms

© The Graduate Institute, Geneva

VIDEO | Stephanie Hofmann and Erna Burai on the evolution of multilateralism

© The Graduate Institute, Geneva.

GRAPH | Overall compliance of G20 member states with 130 summit commitments from 2008 to 2013

BOX | 633 transnational governance initiatives (TGIs) classified by issue area

Environment, Agriculture, Food
  • Environment: 243 TGIs, 38,4%
  • Climate change: 145 TGIs, 22,9%
  • Food and agriculture: 115 TGIs, 18,2%
  • Energy: 106 TGIs, 16,7%
Finance, development
  • Development: 236 TGIs, 37,3%
  • Bank and finance: 25 TGIs, 3,9%
  • Regional development: 9 TGIs, 1,4%
  • Monetary policy: 1 TGI, 0,2%
Health, society, science, education, culture
  • Health: 163 TGIs, 25,8%
  • Society: 132 TGIs, 20,9%
  • Women: 63 TGIs, 10%
  • Science and technology: 60 TGIs, 9,5%
  • Technical: 44 TGIs, 0.07%
  • Labour: 38 TGIs, 6%
  • Education: 34 TGIs, 5,4%
  • Culture: 19 TGIs, 3%
Trade, exchange
  • Commerce: 90 TGIs, 14,2%
  • Trade: 45 TGIs, 7,1%
  • Transport: 35 TGIs, 5,5%
  • Tourism: 19 TGIs, 3%
Human rights and migration
  • Human rights: 74 TGIs, 11,7%
  • Migration: 6 TGIs, 0,9%
Peace and Security
  • Crime: 19 TGIs, 3%
  • Peace and stability: 15 TGIs, 2,4%
  • Soft security: 10 TGIs, 1,6%
  • Conflict: 8 TGIs, 1,3%
  • Defence: 6 TGIs, 0,9%
  • Private security: 3 TGIs, 0,5%
  • Nuclear proliferation: 3 TGIs, 0,5%
  • Counterterrorism: 1 TGI, 0,2%
  • Communication: 28 TGIs, 4,4%
  • Transparency: 25 TGIs, 3,9%
  • Legal: 22 TGIs, 3,5%

Source: Olivier Westerwinter, “Online Appendix for ‛Transnational Public-Private Governance Initiatives in World Politics: Introducing a New Dataset’”, 30 July 2019, available on https://doi.org/10.1007/s11558-019-09366-w.

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