Tag Archives: Rio+20

The UN at 67

(or Happy UN Day, 24 October 2012)

The United Nations is celebrating its 67th birthday on 24 October 2012. A lot can be said about its many achievements, but also its numerous shortcomings. Without going into the historical details, I try in this piece to identify the UN’s strengths and weaknesses, as they relate to today’s world. I conclude by making seven suggestions for improvement, namely:

  1. Less talk and more focus on problem-solving;
  2. More involvement of regional organizations to rationalize the number of negotiating parties;
  3. Organic connection to limited-membership intergovernmental bodies that matter, notably the G20;
  4. Better use of the broad expertise available in the entire UN system;
  5. Bringing together all relevant stakeholders into joint projects focusing on implementation;
  6. “Quantitative easing” at a global scale, to kick start economic activity in developing countries, and fulfill various financing-for-development promises;
  7. Bringing the UN closer to the average individual and making them feel that it is their United Nations.

Those familiar with the UN’s good deeds may want to skip the first long section on strengths and go to the second, more critical part, or go straight to the final section, where I analyze the seven suggestions for improvement.


The UN and the system of multilateral agencies that revolve around it[i] have some clear strengths, namely:

+      Near-universal membership of countries, especially in the UN General Assembly, and therefore moral authority and legitimacy in representing “the World”. This is particularly exemplified in the “global village” gathering of national leaders each September in New York, but also on special occasions for global challenges like food security (Rome, 2009), climate change (Copenhagen, 2009) and sustainable development (Rio de Janeiro, 2012).

+      Norm and standard setting in areas related to human rights, including women’s and children’s rights, workers rights, refugee rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, disabled people’s rights, etc., all of which serve as a guide for action, and to judge the actions of, governments around the world.

+      Creation or guarantee of principles that regulate behaviour among states, such as the peaceful resolution of disputes, the “common but differentiated responsibilities” for addressing climate change and other global challenges, the interconnection of the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, environmental), etc.

+      Efforts at conflict prevention and peace-making by the UN Secretary-General and his various special envoys may have varying degrees of success but are often the only ones accepted by all parties in a conflict. And when the peaceful settlement of disputes fails, there is also peacekeeping and peace enforcement, under an increasingly unrepresentative but still legally empowered and potentially effective Security Council.

+      Concrete goals and mechanisms for advancing the wellbeing of humanity, especially its less privileged parts, notably through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

+      Technical standards for safe operation and cooperation in various areas of human activity, from safe travel by air and sea, to telecommunications, postal services, health, keeping the environment clean, safely operating nuclear plants, recognizing the world’s cultural heritage, etc. through organizations like ICAO, IMO, ITU, UPU, WHO, UNEP, IAEA, UNESCO, etc.

+      Warning systems based on scientific evidence about imminent threats, from diseases and environmental degradation to all-encompassing climate change, food crises and even financial crises, through agencies like WHO, UNEP, IPCC, FAO, UN-DESA, UNCTAD, IMF, World Bank,[ii] etc.

+      Humanitarian assistance, from feeding, vaccinating and schooling poor children through UNICEF, to providing for the victims of drought and hunger through WFP, to taking care of the needs of refugees through UNHCR, etc.

+      Development assistance, including expert knowledge, capacity building and funding, through UNDP, the World Bank, IFAD, GEF, etc.


Inevitably, the UN also has some quite clear weaknesses, which have to be acknowledged and dealt with:

–      Too much talk and too little action often characterize the UN, not least the General Assembly, where the democratic one-country-one-vote principle looks increasingly irrelevant compared to the powerful influences that shape the real world outside, from state and non-state actors. By the time agreements are reached, often by consensus, among 193 countries, they contain very little that can be actually applied in their convoluted prose.

–      Country representation mainly by diplomats, in the UN General Assembly and even in the more “specialized” Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), makes tackling global challenges with strong technical elements like climate change, food insecurity or unemployment a virtually impossible task. Instead of problem solving, what all too often happens is negotiating of lowest-common-denominator political texts.

–      A ritualistic insistence on debates of the past, between North and South, East and West, and related diplomatic point-scoring, with minimal or no connection to today’s world realities and to solving the actual problems facing humanity.

–      Fragmentation of efforts and lack of coordination between the political centre in New York and the more specialized technical agencies of the UN system that cover from economics and finance to health, education, telecommunications, etc. In addition to bureaucratic infighting, this reflects a lack of coherent guidance by national governments, which are represented in the UN specialized agencies by different line ministries that often take a narrow sectoral approach.

–      No effective connection to limited participation bodies, like the G20, that powerful countries create to deal with key issues outside the egalitarian “’one country one vote” system of the UN General Assembly.

–      Reliance on ad hoc arrangements of questionable accountability and effectiveness for engaging powerful non-state actors, like the globalized private sector and civil society, which can nowadays mobilize a lot more resources than small or medium countries can.

–      For UN Headquarters, too much reliance on and embracing by actors based in New York and the US Northeast, often non-governmental actors, including media, foundations, think tanks and academic institutions, which attempt to monopolize the attention of UN senior staff and diplomats and become “the world” in their eyes, disconnecting them from the realities faced by the actual 7-billion-people-strong worldwide constituency.

Suggestions for improvement

From this author’s experience with the UN, in theory but also very much in practice, the following suggestions if implemented could make a positive difference for the UN and the world:

1. Less talk and more focus on problem-solving, bringing into the discussion experts, from governments and other stakeholders, who actually know in depth the issues and have to deal with them on a daily basis in the real world. Thus each problem-solving debate/conference could be preceded by a mapping of the relevant actors globally, with invitations sent to high-level representatives of such actors to participate. It could all be topped up with an intergovernmental debate to keep official delegates and leaders happy, but once the expert voices have been heard. Timid steps in this direction have been made by the General Assembly, its Main Committees and ECOSOC, but they are completely informal, disconnected from any decision-making and the selection of invited experts is often haphazard. Having permanently stationed at the country missions to the UN, along with the diplomats, experts in the key areas of UN activity, including economic, social and environmental, from the relevant country ministries, would help a lot too.

2. More involvement of regional organizations to rationalize the number of negotiating parties and reach decisions faster and of a more applicable nature. Arrangements in this direction could be introduced without a (very difficult to achieve) amendment of the UN Charter, by agreeing that regional organizations (real ones, like the AU, ASEAN, CARICOM, EU, League of Arab States, Mercosur – not just geographical groupings) and key individual countries would get together to discuss draft resolutions before formal submission to the General Assembly and other intergovernmental bodies, ideally including the Security Council too. How each organization would be represented, by the country that chairs it during that period or through a supranational body as in the case of the European Union, it would be up to the countries covered by the respective organization to decide. This way the one-country-one-vote system would be maintained for final approval, while allowing initial consultations and action planning in smaller groups. Of course, a lot would depend on the degree of integration and effectiveness of the regions, which is far from homogeneous, but would probably have the positive side effect of expediting regional integration.

3. Organic connection to limited-membership intergovernmental bodies that matter, notably the G20. In fact, actual decision-making or at least decision-preparation in the UN context on the basis of regional representation and involving only major countries individually would obviate the need for the establishment of ad hoc bodies outside the UN.  While such bodies may be useful for crisis management, eventually they suffer from the lack of legitimacy or succumb to broader participation rituals and proceduralism over time.  Interesting to note in this respect the current General Assembly President’s stated intention to connect the UN and the G20, or the “G193” and G20. It remains to be seen how he will attempt to do that and how successful he will be where others failed.

4. Better use of the broad expertise available in the entire UN system, bringing together into a coherent whole the now scattered organizations, and providing central leadership, vision and direction. This would mean upgrading and making more substantive the existing system-wide mechanism, the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), which is chaired by the UN Secretary-General and attended by the executive heads of UN specialized agencies, funds and programmes. The CEB in its current state, with its two meetings per year and with minimal high-level attention in-between, cannot realize its potential and is led adrift by petty competition between agencies for predominance and access to limited resources. Stronger leadership by the UN Secretary-General and his Deputy, coupled with appropriately coordinated guidance by UN member states, who are represented in the assemblies and governing bodies of each UN system entity but are often incoherent themselves, would make the UN system much better value for money for the global taxpayer.

5. Bringing together all relevant stakeholders into joint projects focusing on implementation. International public-private partnerships increasingly promoted by the UN Secretary-General are moving in this broad direction, covering issues of global concern from health to energy and education. However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure accountability, from the selection of the participants to the planning phases, to the actual investment of pledged resources and the achievement of the stated results. Before that happens, such partnerships can be variously seen as social or image-making opportunities for those participating (“bluewashing”), or products of political expediency, or as a way of bypassing UN member state control over substance, process and budgets. It will be interesting to see how the participation of stakeholders other than member states will be organized in the context of the high-level political forum mandated by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro last June and due to meet for the first time in September 2013. Another project mandated by Rio+20, the development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), can offer the context for broad mobilization and partnerships, especially as regards sustainable development implementation, in the post-MDG/post-2015 period.

6. “Quantitative easing” at a global scale, to kick start economic activity in developing countries, and fulfill various financing-for-development promises. Developed countries have been adding liquidity to their systems to help themselves out of the financial crisis by basically printing new money through their central banks. Why not have the world’s “central bank”, the IMF, issue or allocate Special Drawing Rights, which have an exchange rate equivalent to all major currencies, to be used for infrastructure projects in developing countries, especially least developed ones, to give their citizens a chance to get access to electricity, mobile telephony, drinking water, the Internet. SDR allocations for such use can be of the magnitude of the annual Official Development Assistance (ODA), which amounted to about US$129 billion from OECD DAC countries in 2010. ODA commitments are now faltering due to developed country problems, but the use of SDRs should not be instead but should supplement them. Such new liquidity would not destabilize the global financial system, as it is much lower than the new money produced by developed countries, and would in any case partly at least return to developed and emerging economies, from where the hardware, software and know-how will have to come from, providing an additional stimulus for their economies. Such SDRs be issued in annual installments for a certain period, say over 5 years to start with, and can be counted as innovative financing also towards the annual US$100 billion by 2020 agreed at the UNFCCC COPs in Copenhagen and Cancun for climate change action.  Finally, some of this money could be used for large scale microfinancing projects enabling developing country smallholders and entrepreneurs, especially women, to start or expand agricultural and other small businesses, which can create a growth dynamic in their respective economies. A suggestion to use SDRs to mobilize climate change financing was put forward in recent years by IMF staff but was not pursued further; it may be time to revisit it. Of course, honest accounting, good governance, strict guarantees against corruption, transparency and accountability should be key parts of any such project.

7. Bringing the UN closer to the average individual and making them feel that it is their United Nations, not an external force, even a good one. Beyond political declarations and even money, it is through a broadly shared global conscience that attitudes can change and actions can be generated at such magnitude that will have a positive impact on human societies and the planet. Promising salvation by a UN as an outside force, or making the UN the scapegoat for the lack of leadership and effectiveness of national governments, as is often the case, will not solve any real problem. The UN needs to work a lot more on its public image, on informing the global public about its real nature and capabilities. This requires a lot of honest and eloquent work out there, by headquarters and country teams and other offices – as well as civil society organizations, academics, religious leaders and others who realize the importance of the UN – for the hearts and minds of people.

So there is a lot that needs to be done, and the UN has to run faster to keep up with developments in the world. But that can wait for one more day, and let this 24 October be dedicated to rejoicing in what the UN has already achieved. Cheers to those who have been in the centre of it all, the UN staff, as well as diplomats and experts from all around the world, who work in New York, Geneva, Bangkok, Santiago, Nairobi, Vienna and so many other offices and missions around the world day in and day out. Congratulations, praise be to you – and sleeves up again as soon as the UN’s birthday party is over!

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 24 October 2012

[i] For the membership of the UN system and the full names of the various organizations see: http://www.un.org/en/aboutun/structure/index.shtml

[ii] The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group are also parts of the UN system of agencies, even if they are often mentioned as rivals or alternatives to the UN, especially by finance- and economy-focused critics.

Global Sustainable Development Negotiations and the Role of Europe

Although not as anxiously anticipated as that of Copenhagen 2009,[i] the outcome of Rio 2012[ii] may have equally disappointed many a citizen of the world, who expected more concrete outcomes for implementing sustainable development. The sense of disappointment may be even stronger among EU citizens and policy makers, who had hoped to see coming out of Rio a very strong endorsement of the concept and specifics of the Green Economy, along with the elevation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to an autonomous organization within the UN system.

This author, however, solemnly believes that reports of Rio’s failure are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, the results may have not been as concrete as one would have liked. But the actual Rio+20 Outcome,[iii] the document approved by consensus among UN member states in Rio, has a lot to offer. Here are a few examples:

  • It clearly places sustainable development at the intersection of the economic, social and environmental spheres, with the highest priority given to poverty eradication. This balances a tendency to overemphasize the environmental dimension, which has made sustainable development implementation efforts rather one-sided since the first Rio conference in 1992.
  • Recognizes the importance and usefulness of setting a limited number of universally-applicable sustainable development goals (SDGs) for focused and coherent action on sustainable development. A 30-member, geographically balanced working group of UN member state representatives is mandated to make proposals on such goals to the UN General Assembly at its next session that starts in September 2013.
  • Establishes a universal intergovernmental high-level political forum to lead on the implementation of sustainable development, replacing the discredited Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The format and organizational aspects of the forum are to be decided through negotiations in the UN General Assembly, with a view to holding the first high-level forum in September/October 2013.
  • Recognizes the need to complement gross domestic product (GDP) with broader measures of progress, and requests the UN Statistical Commission, the intergovernmental body that brings together the statistical offices of the world and approves common methodologies and standards, to work on it.
  • Decides to establish an intergovernmental committee of 30 experts to prepare, by 2014, a report with proposals on a sustainable development financing strategy to facilitate the mobilization of resources and their effective use in achieving sustainable development objectives.
  • Invites the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution at its present session on strengthening and upgrading UNEP, among other things by making the UNEP Governing Council membership universal, increasing UNEP’s financial resources, and enhancing its coordinating role within the UN system on matters pertaining to the environment.

A special note on the Green Economy: There is nothing in the Rio+20 outcome that prohibits putting a Green Economy into practice, within the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and taking into account the special circumstances and priorities of each country. If one accepts these caveats, avoids the temptation to turn the Green Economy into an ideology, and alleviates fears of “green protectionism” or “green conditionalities”, there is plenty of room created by Rio+20 to build on good practices, create tool kits for countries at various levels of development and use the emerging Green Economy arsenal as a means of moving closer to sustainable development.

These are no small achievements by any means. Yes, they could remain mere declarations on paper, or could lead to endless new negotiation processes with no concrete result. But that exactly is the challenge now and the opportunity for glory: to make sure that these Rio decisions are acted upon in a concrete, efficient and balanced way.

As the UN General Assembly gets down to business in New York, with the Rio+20 follow-up/post-2015 development planning high on the agenda, Europe needs to get its act together to play its part as effectively as possible. It has or will soon have its representatives on the intergovernmental working groups mentioned above, and in other relevant bodies like the Post-2015 Panel established by the UN Secretary-General.[iv] Could they be:

a)     Efficiently coordinated, without being fully absorbed by their own internal negotiations (the formulation of policies and the practice of EU external relations, in the UN context at least, leaves a lot to be desired);

b)    Substantive rather than representational, and covering all three dimensions of sustainable development, not only the environment (by coming from and being supported by experts from all relevant EU and member state ministries/DGs/agencies/offices);

c)     Open and inclusive internally (connecting with European professional associations, think tanks, NGOs, etc.) and externally (reaching out to other countries, including developing countries and emerging economies, and international civil society and private sector coalitions)?

d)    More cognizant of and publicly acknowledging the challenges of sustainability as they apply to the EU itself and its member states, from reliance on coal and energy infrastructure dependent on non-renewables for some time to come, economic and governance weaknesses affecting parts of the Union, etc.

If the EU representatives, member states and central EU institutions together, manage to do all this, they will play a leading role, make Europe’s positive mark and contribute to a better state of sustainability for Europe and the world as a whole in the years to come.

                                                                                                    Georgios Kostakos

                                                                                   Ixelles, 22 October 2012

[i] 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Copenhagen, 7-18 December 2009.

[ii] UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as “Rio+20”, Rio de Janeiro, 13-22 June 2012 (high-level segment/Summit on 20-22 June 2012).

[iii] See “The Future We Want”, endorsed by the UN General Assembly on 27 July 2012 through resolution 66/288 (document A/RES/66/288 of 11 September 2012).

[iv] The membership and terms of reference of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda were announced by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 31 July 2012.

The annual meeting of the global village (Part II)

Syria, as expected, was a top agenda item for the leaders addressing the UN General Assembly. While there was broad agreement that violence should end from all sides, there were disagreements on apportioning blame. The deployment of an Arab peace force was proposed (Tunisia), while others insisted on diplomatic efforts among Arab, regional and global powers that would prevent external military intervention (Egypt). Good governance, justice, respect for human rights and the rule of law were identified as the main elements of democracy that could eventually, with sustained effort, lead a country from poverty to prosperity, and would ensure peaceful relations between countries (EU, Ghana, Japan, Kenya, UK, US, Zambia).

In direct or indirect reference to the violent protests caused by the slanderous video about the Prophet Mohammed, several leaders addressed the apparent contradiction among the principles of freedom of speech, tolerance and respect of the religious beliefs of others. Some of them stressed the importance of tolerance and avoidance of violence as paramount (Liberia). Others pointed to the need of preventing abuses of freedom of expression, when it blatantly disrespects the religious beliefs of others and sows hatred, while at the same time stressing the peaceful nature of Islam and the need for peaceful protests (Yemen). The widening gap between rich and poor in the world was pointed out as a main cause of the ideological conflicts and violence (Iran).

On development issues, several leaders stressed the importance of implementing the outcome of the Rio+20 Conference for a more sustainable and equitable future (UN Secretary-General, UN General Assembly President, Brazil, Nauru). At the same time, it was significant to accelerate efforts to achieve the MDGs, especially in Africa (Australia South Africa). It was suggested that poverty and climate change could be addressed in tandem, so one does not have to choose between them (Mexico). Moreover, the connection was pointed out between sustainable development and peace and security (UNGA President, Cyprus). Serious concerns were expressed about the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (China, Norway), as well as about the nuclear activities of Iran and possible responses to them (Israel, Russia, US).

There was a broad recognition of the importance of multilateralism and the role of the United Nations, often accompanied by calls for UN reform, in different directions: to give emerging powers the place they deserve, especially on the Security Council (France, Germany, South Africa); towards more democracy within international fora, away from the control of a few powers (Iran); or towards full implementation of commitments made and decisions taken within the UN (Poland).

Only indicative references have been made above to the many speeches and the numerous issues brought up by world leaders at this year’s UN General Assembly. But of course this global village gathering has no decision-making purpose. It mainly allows expositions of country and leader positions on the global stage, in a ceremonial but useful way for reference and agenda setting. Of more practical relevance are side meetings of other bodies like the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, special initiatives like the Secretary-General’s “Sustainable Energy for All”. And of course very important are bilateral meetings that happen on the sidelines of the General Assembly, thanks to the simultaneous presence of so many dignitaries from around the world. Such meetings take place even between leaders (or their aides) whose countries are not on friendly terms.  This is by itself a very important function that the UN fulfills, as the meeting place of the – still quite dysfunctional – human family.

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 29 September 2012