September 2018 Update on UN Reform Processes
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
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Numerous reforms are underway at once, which can overwhelm calendars and attract criticism of “process proliferation”.

This policy brief provides a snapshot of recent developments in the parallel but inter-related reform processes underway within the UN system.

We also identify a few concrete next steps to look out for in the coming weeks and months.

The international community will soon celebrate three years since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Since world leaders signed onto the 17 Global Goals in September 2015, the UN system has been trying to align itself with the new Agenda. This policy brief provides a snapshot of recent developments in the parallel but inter-related reform processes underway within the UN system.

Development System Repositioning

Following on a mandate developed through a series of consultations for what is known as the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR), and resulting proposals from the UN Secretary-General, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution (72/279) aimed at aligning UN development system with the 2030 Agenda through a “repositioning” process.

By the resolution adopted on 31 May 2018, the UNGA sets out decisions, requests and calls related to:

  • a “new generation” of UN country teams;
  • “reinvigorating” the role of the Resident Coordinator (RC) system;
  • revamping the regional approach;
  • strategic direction, oversight and accountability for system-wide results;
  • funding the UN development system; and
  • following up on the repositioning efforts at the global, regional and country levels.

In addition, the UNGA “looks forward to the update by the Secretary-General” on efforts to align the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) with the 2030 Agenda.

On 14 June, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres informed Member States that he was setting up a “lean” transition team that would work for 18 to 24 months, relying heavily on inputs from UN development system entities, including through dedicated working groups and overall steering by the UN Sustainable Development Group. Elaborating on these plans, Guterres announced on 26 June that the transition team will: operate under a “broader reform coordination structure” to ensure coherence with ongoing reforms in the area of UN management and peace and security; work under the oversight of UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed; and be headed by Robert Piper, who was leading the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Bureau of External Relations (BERA). On 31 July, the Secretary-General appointed a Special Adviser on Reforms to lead the broader coordination structure, Jens Wandel, currently UNDP Assistant Administrator.

On reinvigorating the RC system, Mohammed presented the preliminary outline of a 24-month implementation plan and launched a series of informal discussions with Member States in July 2018.

According to an update from the UN Secretariat in late August, Guterres’ plan will be issued in mid-September 2018. It is expected to:

  • specify the transition of staff and operational support;
  • clarify UNDP’s new role in the UN Country Teams (UNCTs) on a fee-for-service basis;
  • elaborate on the regional architecture and multi-country offices (MCOs), as well as on new models of physical presence; and
  • identify risks and contingency measures.

On funding the UN development system, Guterres is expected to soon launch a Funding Dialogue to operationalize the Funding Compact, as mandated in resolution 72/279.

On DESA reform, DESA was expected to report to the UN Secretary-General in the first quarter of 2018 on the outcome of its internal review, after which he intended to update Member States. Information on this process is still to be made public.

However, on 21 June, DESA announced the appointment of members of the UN High-Level Advisory Board (HLAB) on Economic and Social Affairs, which was established following a request from the UN Secretary-General as part of reforms to the UN development system. DESA explained that the HLAB’s establishment is part of efforts to enhance the UN’s support to Member States in implementing the 2030 Agenda. The Board will aim to help DESA in its work to strengthen the UN’s “thought leadership on sustainable development” as outlined in the December 2017 report containing the Secretary-General’s proposals for UN development system reform.

The 16 members of the HLAB include former heads of state (Mexico, Chile), former ministers (Cabo Verde, Brazil), an expert in public health, and experts in economics. The members are appointed for a two-year term. The Board held its first meeting from 9-10 July 2018.

Peacebuilding Reforms

A second major track of reforms addresses the UN’s peace and security architecture. The Secretary-General proposed creating a Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and a Department of Peace Operations in his 2017 report on ‘Restructuring of the United Nations peace and security pillar’ (A/72/525), and this was then taken up by the UNGA’s Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary).

On 5 July 2018, at the conclusion of the Committee’s resumed session, governments endorsed the establishment of these two bodies (UNGA resolution https://undocs.org/A/RES/72/262c).

Management Reform

Also via Fifth Committee negotiations concluding in July, the UNGA approved the reorganization of the current Department of Management and Department of Field Support into a new Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, and Department of Operational Support, as envisioned by Guterres in his management reform proposals. Management reforms comprise the third major reform track launched by the Secretary-General.

According to the Secretariat in presenting its report on this topic, the new management paradigm will increase the delegation of authority, accompanied by a simplification and streamlining of the rules, policies and procedures, and by the development and dissemination of administrative guidance along with training, support, monitoring and accountability mechanisms.

Aligning UN Bodies with 2030 Agenda

On the intergovernmental side, discussions are underway on aligning UN intergovernmental bodies with the 2030 Agenda. This process began in 2015 and proceeded gradually, with efforts including a “mapping assessment” for reducing overlap between the UNGA agenda, the agenda of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the 2030 Agenda, and enhancing their synergy and coherence (UNGA 70), and a report containing recommendations for doing so (UNGA 71).

Most recently, intergovernmental consultations took place in the context of UNGA resolution 71/323 on ‘Revitalization of the work of the General Assembly’ of September 2017, in which the Assembly requests the President of UNGA 72 to identify proposals aimed at addressing gaps and duplication in the agenda of the UNGA as they relate to the 2030 Agenda. On 6 June 2018, the co-facilitators appointed by UNGA President Miroslav Lajcak (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Belgium) proposed continuing the consultation process in the UNGA’s 73rd session. They underscored that the process should ensure that intergovernmental bodies adequately cover the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Goals and targets.

ECOSOC Strengthening

ECOSOC, for its part, has undergone multiple waves of reform in the past several years. A “strengthening” process in 2006 resulted in UNGA resolution 61/16, and in 2013, Member States agreed to an additional round of reforms (resolution 68/1). These were up for review, in turn, during the UNGA’s 72nd session (2017-2018).

On 23 July 2018, through a consultation process led by Iceland and Qatar, the UNGA adopted a resolution setting out a restructuring of ECOSOC’s segments and forums. On themes, the resolution mandates the UNGA to adopt one main theme for each year’s session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) and ECOSOC. For the segments and subsidiary bodies, the themes should focus on a particular aspect of the main theme.

Further on the HLPF, the resolution calls for improvements to the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) on SDG implementation. The ECOSOC Bureau will consider ways of optimizing the time for countries to present their VNRs, in order to improve the exchange of experiences.

Following the HLPF’s ministerial segment, the final day of the ECOSOC High-level Segment will focus on future trends and scenarios related to the ECOSOC main theme, and the long-term impact of current trends on the realization of the SDGs. The outcome of the HLPF and the high-level segment will continue to be a negotiated ministerial declaration.

This text provides the basis for the coming year. After that, ECOSOC arrangements will be reviewed in tandem with periodic reviews of the HLPF.

Coming up Next

Numerous reforms are underway at once, which can overwhelm calendars and attract criticism of “process proliferation.” A few concrete next steps to look out for include:

  • The Secretary-General to issue a plan for realizing the reinvigorated RC system by mid-September 2018;
  • The Secretary-General to launch the Funding Dialogue on a Funding Compact for the “repositioned” UN development system;
  • The Secretary-General to inform the UNGA, in the context of changes to the peace and security pillar, regarding the creation of the Standing Principals’ Group and four stand-alone divisions for Africa, during the main part of the 73rd session; and
  • The ECOSOC calendar to reflect changes during its 2018-2019 session, including that the July 2019 session of the HLPF is expected to:
    • Feature improved VNR sessions; and
    • Be preceded immediately by the Integration Segment in order to consolidate a range of inputs on promoting “the balanced integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development” and bring together key messages on the main theme, along with action-oriented recommendations to feed into the HLPF.

Stay tuned for in-depth updates on each of these reform tracks as they unfold in the coming weeks and months. [SDG Knowledge Hub coverage of UN reform]

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