On Tuesday of last week, Crikey reported a tip along the lines that Kevin Rudd had been developing “a blueprint to completely reinvent the United Nations”.

Then, on Monday, a more detailed piece by Rudd appeared in The Guardian online, and I read it with great interest. How could I not, with the headline “My 10 principles to reform the United Nations, before it’s too late”? Comment does seem to be merited.

Firstly, last week’s tip included a link to a chat and Q&A session by Rudd at UNICEF HQ in July 2015. Aside from gratuitous and surely insulting references to the UN putting out “95-paragraph press releases” about delivering “buckets of artichokes”, the key points offered by Rudd about critical UN reform essentially amounted to the UN needing to make greater use of private sector public relations agencies and financing, that “burden sharing” needs to be “reframed” as a “global problem” with a “global solution”, and that the UN needs a “rolling research capability”.

But the UN system has been reasonably successfully addressing all such “priorities” over the past couple of decades, with considerable enhancement of its own outcomes and effective engagement across most UN member states. (I am putting issues related to Syria and other crises to one side, as the UN is at the mercy of powerful members in brokering meaningful responses.)

In my experience, such reforms started taking hold across UN country-level operations sometime around 1997. Primary barriers were more commonly from “donor” member states, especially in trying to dictate development priorities as conditional on bilateral financing within an agreed framework of increasingly multilateral co-operation.

It wasn’t for nothing that the US forced then-UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali to depart after one term in 1996 (still the only SG to be denied a second term). He was a reformer, just not of the US mould. Under his leadership, the groundbreaking 1995 World Summit for Social Development and 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women irreversibly reshaped global development priorities.

[No uptown funk for K-Rudd]

African states refused to be denied a second term under an African SG, and agreed to the USA’s entrusting of the post to what it saw as the safe technocratic hands of Kofi Annan. This, however, enabled Boutros-Ghali’s “UN Reform Agenda” to be efficiently implemented, especially at the level of so many “developing” countries, where UN impact is strongest, with more coherent and focused national planning and implementation and, it must be noted, co-ordination, especially across and between the many UN agencies on the ground.

As was evident so soon after arriving in New York earlier this year, there is a distinct lack of diverse country-level awareness or expertise at the “centre” — which seems to extend to the leadership of other UN partner agencies based in New York and focused on dialogue at the top/centre — so that, fortunately, ignorance of UN achievements is not evidence of their absence.

The rapidity with which country-level development planning became the norm has been undeniable and impressive, even if initially unwelcome to the more paternalistic remnants of various Western UN member states. (I witnessed, around that time, the red cheeks of rage of a British government official when told by a permanent secretary in an “ex-colony” that, from now on, the country would determine its own funding priorities.)

Such progress is at least so, in my experience, across most, if not all, countries of the UN regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, east Asia and the Pacific, east and southern Africa, and the Middle East and north Africa. This transformation is primarily government-led and integrated with the parallel joint planning across so many UN agencies through which national development priorities are determined collaboratively and transparently, and now almost uniformly evidence-based (even if still imperfect). It is — in my view — a direct legacy of Boutris-Ghali and Annan.

Claims of such agencies being “silo-based” are merely cheap shots, ignorant of a lot of hard work by many UN workers on the ground and some decent periods of SG leadership; it smacks of an outsider peering into the admittedly bewildering HQ-centric UN maze. Ditto Rudd’s characterisation of the UN representing “a culture of simple reaction, ‘band aid’ solutions, and fingers crossed”, even if some examples could be cherry-picked.

In one sense, Rudd’s reference to the UN being a 20th-century body needing 21st-century relevance contains some truth, but evidently not in the way that he means. As he says, the UN was established as a post-WWII institution, but where is his acknowledgement that the anomalous unreconstructed agency of the UN into the 21st century is the Security Council, especially to the extent that it inhibits, weakens or delays, for geopolitical reasons, so much of the UN’s critical development and humanitarian work?

[Kevin Rudd’s cats’ names explained]

And while Rudd correctly decries “states increasingly ‘walking around’ the UN on the most important questions”, this has largely pertained to key Western member states, largely with Security Council sidelining or leveraged endorsement. Instead, it appears that essential reform of the UN is seen as being to seize a stronger leadership role within some new global order that departs little from the post-war (both II and Cold) order but that better ensures that old order’s resilience to new (21st century) challenges and threats.

Such a conception of the UN enables such comments as that the UN lacks “robust policy planning capability” and just reacts to “the crises of the day” and “reacts” rather than “prevents”. There are many millions of children today who would quibble with this view; if it were true, they would not be alive to do so. Rudd’s “principle” of calling for a “Team UN” to overcome “institutional silos” is so divorced from reality on the ground in the wake of such (nevertheless imperfect) initiatives as UN “Delivering as One” and unprecedented UN inter-agency cooperation via UN “Country Teams” as to render his “principle” of prioritising “field operations” over “head office” as rather meaningless.

Obviously, for all the internal institutional reforms and associated acceleration of “impact” on the ground, enormous challenges persist. Apart from the increasingly strained peacekeeping roles that remain hostage to the Security Council and (often related) key donor government delinquency, these include the need to better integrate development, humanitarian and emergency response planning; to more stridently ensure that key donor commitments actually materialise; to tackle the often contradictory consequences of Security Council realpolitik, and UN Charter and international human rights and humanitarian law obligations; and to resolve UN (horizontal) inter-agency (UN Country Team) duties under conditions whereby staffing and budgets remain (vertically) dependent upon agency-based leadership/boards. For me, a key issue is the transition from the Millennial Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals, given the latter’s far greater ambition and accordingly greater risk of implementation failure.

But the UN continues to address such priorities, such as through the global working mechanisms of the UN Development Group, the quadrennial planning framework that has been driven by UN General Assembly leadership with particularly strong support across “developing” UN member states, and the aforementioned Agenda for Sustainable Development.

It is tempting to conclude that the last thing that the future of the UN needs is another secretary-general located within a Western hegemonic world view and attuned to the opportunities for corporate engagement in global crises (too many of them are surely already too involved!). Although experience suggests that Western states are more likely to co-operate with one of their own. UN leadership demands awareness of the range of organisational measures and structures already in place that have leveraged wide-reaching benefits, despite the structural barriers to better tackling crises, rather than selling the UN system seriously short in order to be seen as its putative saviour.

Peter Fray

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