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In the coming months, the UN General Assembly is scheduled to adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the outcome document from the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD 3).

How the resulting “new” ideas will change the world depends in part on how governments and the UN system implement the new instructions.

In the coming months, the UN General Assembly is scheduled to adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the outcome document from the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD 3). How the resulting “new” ideas will change the world depends in part on how governments and the UN system implement the new instructions. How will the UN system and national ministries and departments act differently than they did from the “old” Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) days and in the years since the second (Doha) FfD conference?

The proposals for follow-up of the SDGs that have been presented by the ECOSOC secretariat, for example in a UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) non-paper of February 2015, suggest assigning the follow-up to existing commissions and agencies, which effectively puts new global goals back into old boxes. Meanwhile, on FfD, the zero draft of the outcome text recommends using multi-stakeholder groupings, which effectively outsources the follow-up of commitments to non-governmental actors, rather than strengthening intergovernmental leadership. Consequently, both proposals fail to provide for an institutional arrangement that is commensurate with current challenges or contemporary standards of good governance.

The documents also fail to propose new ways that capitals can use the UN system to address global environmental, social, and economic threats to their countries. Any government that believes it faces a serious external military threat can ask the UN Security Council to intervene and maintain peace and security. There is no equivalent arrangement for governments that recognize a foreign threat to their environmental, social, or economic national integrity and security. The implementation of the SDGs and the outcome of the FfD conference is an opportunity to begin to treat internationally driven environmental, social, and economic matters with the same degree of urgency and importance as a security crisis. It is also an opportunity to fashion a new structural alignment at the UN system appropriate to scale of contemporary globalization and its crisis.

One of the characteristics of the UN’s specialized agencies and ECOSOC Commissions is that they permit specialized branches of national governments to meet and work with their colleagues from equivalent agencies from other countries. This arrangement creates an opportunity, for example, for agriculture and food ministry officials to work with counterparts on formulating global policies, while also sharing the best practices within their disciplines and departments. This concentration of expertize in individual ECOSOC Commissions, specialized agencies, and UN programmes over the decades has created important political bonds between experts from a wide range of capitals. Since 2002, FfD-based networking has brought the intergovernmental leadership of Bretton Woods institutions (BWIs) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), with their associated leaders from national economic ministries and central banks, into annual special intergovernmental sessions of ECOSOC.

Despite this innovation, the system does not adequately facilitate cross-national ministerial engagement, nor cross-disciplinary exchange of knowledge on tough issues arising in a globalized world. The FfD process, for example, has not brought expertise and financial resources from the major economic institutions any closer to the UN system’s major social, environmental and gender institutions. A new level of professional and ministerial engagement will be necessary to break out of old boxes and tackle all three dimensions of the SDGs and management of global economic decision-making.

The specialization of agencies, commissions, and departments, while having its benefits, has also resulted in a high degree of organizational fragmentation in the UN system. One step in overcoming this fragmentation was taken in the 1980s with the creation of the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination CEB). The CEB brings together the executive heads of the UN system organizations for a regular set of meetings to coordinate, within their power as executive directors, the work of their organizations. However, the CEB structure alone does not go far enough; each senior official in the CEB reports to his/her own specialized intergovernmental body, which is largely composed of officials from national specialized ministries.

The implementation and oversight of the SDGs and the FfD Conference could benefit from two new intergovernmental features, each of which could help transform the institutional machinery to better engage with sustainable development and macro-economic management. The first proposed change is to create an analogous body to the CEB for the chairs and presidents of governing bodies throughout the UN system. If the chairs/presidents of the intergovernmental bodies meet regularly, they could have both a direct dialogue at the international level between representatives of different national specialized ministries, and a direct exchange of views among the intergovernmental leadership of the key ECOSOC Commissions, specialized agencies, UN programmes, and the BWIs and the WTO. The central agenda for this body – let’s call it the PCC (Presidents’ Coordination Council) – would be to consider each SDG and each recommendation from the FfD conference, and identify the combination of intergovernmental bodies that should work together on its implementation and oversight.

The second and related proposal to increase intergovernmental policy coherence is to fix the way intergovernmental bodies communicate with each other. Under the current system, the heads of agencies or their designated representatives largely determine what intergovernmental bodies learn about the policy positions and priorities of other intergovernmental bodies. There is no regular, direct dialogue between intergovernmental bodies; their interaction is mediated by the staff of the respective secretariats. Secretariat staff generally perceive their role as an advocate for their organization or issue, and not as a messenger of ideas or instructions from a ‘foreign’ intergovernmental body. I was, for a number of years, one such interlocutor.

What gets lost in translation is very significant. When the representatives of intergovernmental bodies meet, they tend to stay safely within their own specialized concerns or in the specialized focus of their national ministry (i.e. in the old boxes and old second FfD order); they are not motivated to examine cross-ministerial concerns or cross-disciplinary matters. This isolationism means that governing bodies can too easily avoid looking equally at all three elements of sustainable development.

To correct this institutional tendency, the chair/president of the governing body of each intergovernmental organization should be its representative to the UN General Assembly and other high-level UN intergovernmental bodies. And a representative of the Office of the UNGA President should be the Assembly’s representative to the governing bodies of the specialized agencies and the BWIs. If the chair/president is not available, she/he could designate another member of the executive committee/board of the intergovernmental organization as the appropriate intergovernmental representative or ask her/his mission in a different UNHQ city to serve this function. In order to provide the spokesperson with a clear mandate, the executive committee or the equivalent would have to discuss the agenda of other intergovernmental bodies.

Removing the intergovernmental body’s secretariat as an intermediary would have two clear benefits for the implementation of the SDGs. First, each intergovernmental body or its executive committee would have to formulate a view on some aspects of the SDGs that they previously ignored. Second, each intergovernmental body or its executive committee would have to consider how it may align the work of its organization to provide a meaningful report to colleagues from other ministries at a subsequent intergovernmental meeting.

These changes could get off the ground within 2015 quite simply. As part of the adoption of the SDGs, the UNGA President could invite the chairs/presidents of the specialized agencies, of the ECOSOC Commissions, UN programmes, and heads of the executive bodies of the BWI to address the Assembly and attend a weekend Heads of Governing Bodies consultation on the follow-up to the SDGs, as the first session of the PPC.

These recommendations could equally be initiated by any intergovernmental Bureau/Executive Committee which asks its president/chair to invite to specific presidents/chairs of other leading intergovernmental bodies to attend “their” meeting and join them in formulating cross-disciplinary/multi-ministerial solutions to global issues.

Why will there be a reluctance to change the way that intergovernmental bodies work together? First some will argue for tradition and organizational independence. Second, others are likely to note that a new intergovernmental dialogue system would add considerably to their current long list of agenda items. Third, missions will observe that intergovernmental representation would mean additional demands on foreign affairs ministries and their UN offices to develop government-wide responses to complex global issues. And fourth, delegations would object that it would burden the presidents/chairs of intergovernmental bodies with additional diplomatic time and energy.

Governments have cheered the UN Secretariat for its efforts to carry out reforms such as ‘Delivering As One.’ It is now time for the intergovernmental processes to do the same thing.

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