An Annotated Guide to the UN Secretary-General’s Reform Proposals
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The UN Secretary-General's reform proposals for the UN development system comprise a package of seven major changes, all designed to reinforce each other.

In the area of peace and security reform, the Secretary-General has proposed the creation of a Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and a Department of Peace Operations, along with non-structural changes.

On UN management, a Change Management team is currently working on a comprehensive, costed proposal on elements of the proposed "new paradigm," for discussion in the Fifth Committee in May 2018.

One year after the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a policy instrument to align the UN development system with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review – QCPR 2017-2020), UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres advanced detailed proposals for reforms to the UN development system, in line with the QCPR mandates. This process is part of the Secretary-General’s broader reform agenda, which also includes reform of the peace and security architecture and management reform.

This policy brief summarizes the Secretary-General’s proposals for the UN development system, as outlined on 20 December 2017. It then presents highlights of his proposals for peace and security and management reform, noting their linkages with the development pillar reform, and identifies the next steps in each area of reform.

Purpose of Reforms

The Secretary-General’s reform agenda aims to enhance the UN’s contribution to sustainable development, ensure more effective capacities to tackle conflict and sustain peace, and improve the UN’s internal management and ability to deliver, as expressed in the December report. Since assuming office in January 2017, Guterres has also taken steps towards achieving gender parity, eliminating sexual exploitation and abuse, and protecting whistle-blowers.

Essentially, the three reform tracks address the fragmentation and bureaucratization of the UN system, which causes gaps, duplication of work, and resource drainage. The reform also aims at creating a more accountable and effective UN system that delivers better on the ground, by adopting a needs-based approach centered on developing country-contextual responses. The focus is on prevention and on increasing collaboration within and among the three UN pillars (development, human rights, peace and security), including through stronger integrated planning and risk management capacities and simplified procedures.

Development Pillar Reform

The Secretary-General’s December report elaborates on reform proposals outlined in his first report on the topic, released in June 2017 (and summarized in a previous Policy Brief). The report observes that the UN development system needs to move towards better cross-pillar support, building on existing frameworks, commitments and structures that cut across silos, and towards more joint risk analysis and joined-up planning, policy advice, monitoring and reporting.

The report presents a package of seven major changes, all designed to reinforce each other. These changes encompass measures across the 38 actions and recommendations presented in the June report. They include:

  • the system-wide strategic document to accelerate the alignment of UN development system support with the 2030 Agenda;
  • a new generation of UN Country Teams (UNCTs), with enhanced skill sets, optimized physical presence, and consolidated and effective back-office support;
  • an empowered and impartial Resident Coordinator (RC) system;
  • a revamped regional approach, complemented by a strengthened Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA);
  • improved strategic guidance, transparency and accountability;
  • a system-wide approach to partnerships; and
  • a new Funding Compact between Member States and the UN development system.

The system-wide strategic document, produced by the UN Development Group (UNDG), aims to chart a path for the UN development system to work collaboratively, to accelerate its alignment with the 2030 Agenda at country, regional and global levels, and it is intended ultimately to serve as an accountability instrument. The strategic document provides concrete recommendations around four guiding principles, namely: coherence and alignment in support for the 2030 Agenda across the UN Charter; system-wide functions that need to be strengthened in support of the 2030 Agenda; system-wide instruments for measuring, monitoring and reporting on collective results; and more effective funding mechanisms to underpin these efforts. It also identifies measures to re-profile and strengthen the skill sets of the UN development system to respond to the 2030 Agenda, including through a review of work programmes. More details are contained in this SDG Knowledge Hub story.

The Secretary-General also announced the launch of a set of strategic UN development system-wide global flagship initiatives in support of the SDGs. These flagship initiatives will be established in areas where existing gaps, overlaps and opportunities in SDG coverage are most effectively addressed through collective responses that bring UN entities together in support of specific SDGs. They are: ‘Action on climate change;’ ‘Action on equality’; ‘Action on eliminating violence against women and girls;’ ‘Action on the data revolution for sustainable development;’ and ‘Action on risk, resilience and prevention.’

For the new generation of UNCTs, the Secretary-General proposes changes to enable the teams to respond better to each country’s needs, providing the right set of expertise to support country priorities in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This model would rely on partnerships with local authorities, parliaments, civil society, sub-regional, regional and international institutions, academia, businesses and philanthropic organizations. The UN’s current approach relies on the country-specific UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF). In the proposed model, each country’s UNDAF will be renamed and reviewed to become a clear, action-oriented UN response to national development priorities in each country, integrating the SDGs.

Among other details related to this proposal: a wide range of partners would be engaged in designing, implementing and evaluating the UNDAFs; the host government and the UN development system would define the composition of the UNCT membership at the outset of each UNDAF cycle; and the High-Level Committee on Management and the UN Development Group (UNDG) would devise a strategy for the establishment of common back offices for all UN Country Teams by 2022. According to Guterres, the revamped UNDAF will be positioned as “the single most important UN country planning instrument” in support of the 2030 Agenda.

On the RC system, the Secretary-General’s report emphasizes that RCs must be better prepared to work across the development-humanitarian-peacebuilding continuum. To empower the RCs in this regard among other roles, he notes the need for a set of minimum authorizations. For example, in the absence of consensus within the UNCT, the Resident Coordinator will take the final decision on UNDAF strategic objectives; all interagency pooled funding in support of country-level work should be vetted by the RC; the RC will clearly define authorities in situations of humanitarian crises or peacebuilding; and UNCT members will report to RCs on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Management and oversight of the RCs will transfer from the chairs of the regional UNDGs to the UN Development Coordination Office (DOCO), establishing a direct reporting line to the Secretary-General and creating a more impartial intermediate structure, functionally detached from any specific UN entity. In executing this oversight and management role, the DOCO Director will report directly to the Deputy Secretary General as UNDG Chair. The Director of DOCO will also chair annual RC performance assessments in the six regional UNDGs, which will continue to include the regional directors of UN development system entities. Representatives of the Regional Economic Commissions and DESA will join these appraisal processes, as ex officio members, to incentivize policy-operational coherence in the work of RCs and UNCTs. The RC will appraise the performance of members of the UN Country Team, and the UNCT heads will continue to inform the performance of RCs.

To recalibrate, streamline and fully align the regional level with the 2030 Agenda, the Secretary-General proposes a two-step regional approach: optimizing existing regional arrangements by the end of 2018, including by clarifying the division of labor, aligning efforts among entities, and commencing a reprofiling process; and, longer-term, integrating the regional UNDGs and the Regional Coordination Mechanism (RCM). More detail on the longer-term restructuring will be provided to Member States as part of the Secretary-General’s annual report to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Operational Activities Segment.

Guterres will also seek changes to better leverage the Regional Sustainable Development Fora as preparatory sessions for the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) and the Financing for Development Forum (FfD Forum). Such changes include strengthening DESA’s participation in the RCMs, and the participation of UNDG entities in the Regional Sustainable Development Fora, which are organized by the Regional Economic Commissions. More detail on DESA reform is contained in this SDG Knowledge Hub story.

For improving strategic guidance, transparency and accountability, Guterres proposes that Member States institutionalize the ECOSOC Operational Activities Segment (OAS) as an accountability platform for system-wide performance on the 2030 Agenda. This could be realized through shifting to biannual sessions of the OAS, each with a distinctive focus. By another proposal, a Joint Executive Board of the New York-based funds and programmes would progressively integrate the Boards of UNDP, UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Office for Project Services (OPS), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and UN Women.

By the end of 2019, the Secretary-General proposes the launch of a monitoring and reporting system on the UN’s contributions to the SDGs.

On evaluation, Guterres plans to establish a small, independent system-wide evaluation unit, to be administered by the Department of Management and directly accountable to the ECOSOC, which will engage with him as UN Chief Administrative Officer but report directly to Member States. The office will collaborate closely with the evaluation offices of the UN system through the UN Evaluation Group (UNEG). The system-wide evaluations will be guided and informed by the system-wide strategic document, and the reports would be available to the public. By the end of 2019, the Secretary-General also proposes the launch of a system-wide online platform for monitoring and reporting on the contributions of the UN system to the SDGs.

On partnerships, at the global level the Secretary-General proposes the launch of six partnership-related work streams:

  1. Agree on system-wide approach to partnerships (the process will take place within the UNDG, and will be coordinated by senior UN leadership, with the support of DESA and the UN Global Compact)
  2. Accept the UN Global Compact’s 10 Principles as a common partnership standard for private sector entities, and create an Integrity Task Force comprising senior UN leadership to manage risks of UN-business engagement and foster a pool of “partner ready” companies.
  3. The UN Global Compact leadership will consider ways to improve governance at the global level, as well as its oversight and the impact of its Local Networks.
  4. “Firmly establish” the UN Office for Partnerships as the UN’s global gateway for partnerships, with a review of its present operations in 2018.
  5. The Secretary-General will continue to develop the UN’s partnership with the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions (IFIs).
  6. The Secretary-General will propose ways to revamp the UN structures and mechanisms in support of South-South cooperation, in time to inform the deliberations of the High-level UN conference on South-South cooperation to be held in March 2019.

At the country level, external partners (IFIs, businesses, civil society and other stakeholders, including the furthest behind) will have the RC Offices as a “one stop shop” resource for partnerships.

As part of a new Funding Compact, the Secretary-General is committing the UN to enhancing transparency on financial data, full compliance with existing cost-recovery policies, and allocating a greater share of resources to joint activities. He calls on Member States to, over the next five years: increase the share of core resources across the system from 21.7% to at least 30%; double the contributions to inter-agency pooled funds (from 8% non-core to 16% non-core) and increase agency-specific thematic funds from US$400 to US$800 million; ensure the full capitalization of the new Joint Fund for the 2030 Agenda at US$290 million per annum and a “quantum leap” in funding to the Peacebuilding Fund as immediate step; and fund the RC system through assessed budget (US $255 million, and discretionary policy fund for RCs at US$35 million). In order to operationalize the Funding Compact, Guterres intends to establish a funding dialogue with Member States during 2018, under the leadership of the Deputy Secretary-General as Chair of the UNDG.

Also in 2018, Guterres will launch a strategy to step up support for Financing for Development. Among other funding initiatives for the 2030 Agenda, the Secretary-General explains that the recently established ‘Joint Fund for the 2030 Agenda’ by UNDG aims at reaching “significant scale” to support RCs and UNCTs in accelerating progress towards the SDGs. Additionally, the UN development system will collectively explore innovative funding approaches through a ‘UN-wide Innovative Funding Lab,’ through which Member States could commit to providing seed funding for initial investments and support flexible arrangements for innovative funding solutions for the UN development system. Guterres notes that UNCTs should actively pursue the establishment of country-level pooled funding mechanisms aligned with the results architecture of the UNDAF rather than individual UN agencies, funds or programmes.

Upon Member States’ approval of the proposed reforms, a Change Management team will prepare for their full implementation within four years. The report notes that recommendations related to the new generation of UNCTs and reinvigorated RC system should be operational by the end of 2019, with other timelines to be determined in line with decisions by Member States. Guterres gathered Member States’ feedback during a briefing on 22 January 2017.

According to UNGA President Miroslav Lajcak at a briefing in early January, the Secretary-General’s proposals will be considered at ECOSOC operational activities segment in February-March 2018, after which the UNGA will “have an important role to play.” He noted that the development system repositioning is also linked to both “the alignment process and the ECOSOC review.”

Peace and Security Pillar Reform

As presented in the Secretary-General’s report titled, ‘Restructuring of the United Nations peace and security pillar,’ dated 13 October 2017, the overarching goals of this area of reform are to: prioritize prevention and sustaining peace; enhance the effectiveness and coherence of peacekeeping operations and special political missions; make the peace and security pillar more effective through a “whole-of-pillar” approach; and align the peace and security pillar more closely with the development and human rights pillars.

To that end, Guterres has proposed the creation of a Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and a Department of Peace Operations. The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs would combine the strategic, political and operational responsibilities of the Department of Political Affairs and the peacebuilding responsibilities of the Peacebuilding Support Office. It would direct resources to the prevention of conflict, mediation, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, as well as to enhanced cross-pillar cooperation. The Department would provide analytical and support capacities to the RCs and UNCTs in developing national capacities that address the drivers and root causes of conflict. The peacebuilding components of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs would act as a “hinge” between the peace and security pillar and the UN development system and humanitarian actors. This arrangement would include the participation of the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support in the coordination mechanisms of UNDG, the proposed joint steering committee for development and humanitarian coordination, and the Executive Committee.

The Department of Peace Operations would combine the strategic, political and operational responsibilities of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Political Affairs to provide direction, management and support for peacekeeping and field-based special political missions outside the purview of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.

As in the case of the development pillar reform, the Secretary-General proposes to bring coherence and strength to the regional level through centralization: the creation of a single political-operational structure under Assistant Secretaries-General with regional responsibilities, reporting to the Under-Secretaries-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and for Peace Operations. This structure would be responsible for the day-to-day management of all political and operational peace and security activities, while enhancing the understanding of specific contexts and facilitating engagement and cooperation with regional and other partners.

The Secretary-General also proposes the establishment of a Standing Principals’ Group of the Under-Secretaries-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and for Peace Operations, under his chairmanship. The Group would: ensure coordination and communication in the implementation of peace and security priorities; support managerial and leadership coherence; and support senior leadership appointments in missions. It would also provide a “high-level entry point” for the development and human rights pillars and other entities.

In order to ensure coherence and coordination across the peace and security pillar, Guterres proposes the enhancement of four priority areas: analysis; planning; partnerships; and communications. He further calls for the introduction of several non-structural changes in the way the peace and security pillar works on a daily basis.

On 20 December 2017, the UNGA adopted a resolution expressing support for the Secretary-General’s vision for reforming the UN peace and security pillar. The resolution requests a comprehensive report, to be submitted as soon as possible, that would elaborate on the proposed establishment of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and the Department of Peace Operations, including detailed information on functions, structure and staffing requirements.

Management Reform

As the Secretary-General notes in his report titled, ‘Shifting the management paradigm in the United Nations: ensuring a better future for all,’ the management reform is central to his broader reform agenda as it directly affects its delivery. The overarching objectives of this area of reform are to: decentralize by bringing decision-making closer to the point of delivery; ensure greater accountability and transparency; reduce duplicative structures and overlapping mandates; and reform the planning and budgetary processes.

Guterres has articulated, in the report of 27 September 2017, a new management paradigm that will empower managers to determine how best to use their resources to support programme delivery and mandate implementation. In that document, he proposes measures to: streamline and improve the planning and budgeting processes; delegate managerial authority to programme managers and demand greater accountability from them for mandate delivery; and change the management and support structures to better support delivery of programmes and provide managers with quality assurance and strategic policy guidance.

On 24 December 2017, the UNGA approved the proposal to change the UN budget cycle from a biennial to an annual budget period on a trial basis, beginning with the programme budget for 2020, pending a final decision at the 77th UNGA session on whether to continue that practice. The Change Management team is currently working on a comprehensive, costed proposal on the remaining elements of the management reform, which is expected to be presented to the UNGA’s Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) in May 2018.

The reforms proposed by the Secretary-General in the areas of development, peace and security, and UN management, aim to increase the UN system’s impact on the ground. To that end, the proposals emphasize the use of custom rather than standard responses to countries’ needs, and focus on creating a more effective institutional structure, to minimize duplication and gaps in the UN’s work, while increasing its accountability. Member States’ discussions over the next few months will be the test of whether the UN system will be reformed to the extent needed to meet this vision.

The SDG Knowledge Hub coverage of the UN reform discussions can be found here.

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