A bucketful of UN reform

At the Global Forum in June 2015 the most popular recommendation by far was for the UN Secretary General to ‘reform UN agency mandates and roles to better meet the basic humanitarian needs of affected people’.

72% of all 300 participants strongly supported this suggestion, whilst only 5% strongly opposed.

Similarly at a session on Partnerships at the recent Geneva Consultation, the most popular question from the floor was about exactly the same thing.

I noticed afterwards several disgruntled tweets from people fearing this issue was being swept under the carpet and, following a recent IRIN interview with the Emergency Relief Coordinator, one widely read blog gave voice to the same fears.

Clearly there is an appetite for discussion on UN reform – but is everyone talking about the same thing? The work we have being doing in ALNAP shows there are at least three different discussions taking place simultaneously. And it seems to me that they are in danger of being unhelpfully conflated. Let me explain:

  • The first is that UN humanitarian architecture is outdated and requires reform to create a more effective, single command and control system. In order to do this, some form of merger is required. This viewpoint has been with us for many years and has been partly re-generated due to the weak response to the Ebola crisis. (See our State of the System Report 2015).
  • The second is about overlaps and gaps in coordination between different mandated agencies and is about matching up the boundaries and mandates of agencies. This discussion has been fuelled partly by the Syria crisis and the movements of IDPs and Refugees within and across borders (See the Global Forum Results and Analysis).
  • And the third is based upon perceived power imbalance within the current structure of the IASC. Many people are now arguing for a more proportionate representation and reform of global governance through increased involvement of non UN actors and actors from the global south. Indeed, this recommendation was the second most popular one at the Global Forum

The point is that all three of these discussions about UN reform are different things and have different dynamics and implications. The first two are primarily based on the idea that humanitarian performance can be improved by reform of the current coordination system. However, they both offer very different solutions.

Command and control tends towards a single system and consolidation. Mandate review, on the other hand, tends towards accepting a structure with multiple agencies and mandates. It is likely that both types of model have pros and cons in different contexts and perhaps the ultimate vision should be to create a more flexible system capable of deploying a contextually appropriate response.

The third discussion about the IASC is more directly related to values and power in a changing system and is likely to fit better with the multiple agency/mandate model.

So where does this leave us? It appears that the appetite for a discussion, combined with a growing sense that the issue is being swept under the carpet, has created a ground-swell of opinion that fails to differentiate between the different conversations. As a result they are in danger of becoming conflated and confused and dumped into a big bucket called UN reform.

The desire for a ‘big idea’ or for doing something ‘bold’ is both understandable and valid but structural change is not helpful for its own sake. It may well be (part of) the solution – but can we first agree on what, specifically is the problem and what (if any) structural change of the UN is meant to achieve?

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