The world’s toughest job?

The world’s toughest job?
A white UN emblem (world map surrounded by two olive branches) on a blue background.

The new United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres of Portugal, took office on 1 January 2017. It is no wonder that one of Guterres’ predecessors described the role of Secretary-General as “the most impossible job in the world.”

He faces considerable headwinds. The context is of enduring, global challenges, from terrorism and climate change to forced migration and civil wars. The sheer scale and number of issues in the Secretary-General’s in-tray is daunting.

While the policy challenges multiply, US President Trump is seeking Congressional support to cut his country’s contributions to UN agencies and peacekeeping as part of a wider proposed 31% cut in US diplomacy and development assistance from 2018.  He wants the UN Secretariat to cut programme costs and other countries to pay more.

Facing a potentially shrinking operational budget Guterres has called for “prevention” to be “a hallmark of my tenure”.  He seeks to break down UN “silos” by integrating the UN’s development and humanitarian activities with its work to resolve conflict. And he is keenly aware of the importance of communication and tone.  Attending the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa four weeks into his new role, Guterres expressed his appreciation of “African wisdom, African ideas, African solutions.”

Early on he appointed three women to pivotal roles in his office. His new Deputy, Amina J. Mohammed of Nigeria, was a key architect of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.  His Chef de Cabinet, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti of Brazil, and his Senior Policy Advisor, Kang Kyung-wha of South Korea, each have deep multilateral experience. Guterres is carefully building a representative and competent leadership team.

During March 2017 the UN Security Council has remained divided over Syria and the Ukraine, but has strived for a more unified response to conflicts in Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Yemen. Tarnished in the past by peacekeeping scandals and a variable record in partnering the African Union, the Council is streamlining its larger operations, amidst cost-cutting pressures. Guterres seeks instead to expand the UN’s smaller political missions and his own mediation role.

Stalled negotiations on UN Security Council expansion have seen the rise of parallel mechanisms outside UN auspices. The G20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) groups are increasingly used to advance the interests of emerging powers.  These forums allow leaders to meet without rule-heavy organisational constraints. But they can lack the legitimacy of treaty-based bodies, particularly in the eyes of those States not invited to participate.

A major recent success for the UN was universal endorsement of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with a target date of 2030.  These address traditional human development objectives in health, education and gender equality, but importantly also embrace the means as well as the ends – with goals for energy, infrastructure, and inclusive and accountable institutions.

A pressing challenge for the UN – and for Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed, who leads this work – is to help harness the power of private capital for development and climate change action.  The prize is a big one – unleashing trillions of dollars investment from sovereign wealth, investment and pensions funds into pro-poor low carbon projects in developing countries.

The UN’s role in sustainable development is likely to focus less on its own operational delivery and more on mobilising resources and overseeing and catalysing innovative partnerships among diverse actors – including member states, regional organisations, philanthropic foundations, the private sector, city authorities and civil society.

The coming decades will witness remarkable advances in science, technology, engineering and medicine; these could provide new tools to lift millions out of poverty, but to remain relevant the UN must adapt to harness these discoveries.

Big data allied with the proliferation of smart phones and biometric identification open up new ways of delivering services to citizens, with direct money transfers to marginalised communities in developing countries, and increasing government accountability.

The scope for UN action will also be shaped by any future US budget cuts. While full details have not been published it is understood that President Trump is seeking to cap US peacekeeping costs at 25% of the UN’s budget (from 28.5% at present), as well as cutting all US funding to help poorer countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions. UN agencies such as UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the UN refugee agency risk losing billions of dollars of US voluntary funding, and the earmarking of contributions for specific US-designated projects will almost certainly increase. But President Trump still needs to convince a number of moderate republicans in Congress who regard UN agencies and peacekeeping as significantly advancing US interests, especially where direct US intervention would be less effective or legitimate.  Senior military leaders have also defended the funding of the US State Department and its diplomatic outreach through international organisations.

The UN’s institutions are particularly alert to how a less engaged US administration may weaken international responses on climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, human rights, migration, and reproductive and sexual health. Guterres has initiated a review of the Secretariat’s approach to peace and security issues, and this will also take account of evolving US policy in that area.

The new US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has demonstrated good political instincts, and is working behind the scenes both to identify where possible cuts could fall but also to demonstrate to Washington how the UN delivers for the US. A significant reduction in US funding would give Japan an unprecedented opportunity to take over as the largest contributor to the UN regular budget (it is currently in 2nd place), significantly bolstering its case for a permanent UN Security Council seat.

Speculation that China aspires to eclipse US leadership at the UN increased after President Xi praised multilateralism in speeches in Geneva and Davos. China’s ambitions focus on peace operations and on climate change. China is the second largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping and contributes more troops than the other four Security Council permanent members combined. It regards stabilising conflicts in Africa as vital to its economic interests on the continent. China last year installed and exported more renewable energy than the US, Japan and the UK combined, amidst soaring deaths attributable to air pollution in Chinese cities.  China’s enlightened self-interest may just keep the Paris climate change agreement on track.

The new UN Secretary-General thus faces both traditional challenges and a rapidly changing external environment, and must ensure that his organisation adapts quickly to remain relevant. I believe he was a superb choice by the international community and has the personal integrity, charisma and political agility to succeed in this task. The UN is a fairly recent and fragile experiment in humankind’s history. Let us hope that a strong, credible and effective United Nations can emerge from these current tumultuous times.

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