The United Nations in the 21st Century (18 June 1996)

An indispensable key to the UN's success in undertaking this role in leading and catalyzing action by the entire world community is for it to become the primary source of objective, credible information on major global trends and issues.

Speech to the United Nations' Association, Washington DC by Maurice Strong, Chairman, Earth Council

Our celebration of the 50th birthday of the United Nations last year was tempered by a profound concern as to its future. This should not diminish our appreciation of what it has accomplished in its first fifty years. It is a remarkable achievement just to have survived when for most of this period its principal founding members were deeply divided by the Cold War and the accompanying development and deployment of a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons that hung like a sword of Damocles over the entire world community. The UN played an indispensable role in fostering the transition from colonialism to independence on the part of developing nations while accommodating the fundamental changes in its own composition and character resulting from the fact that developing countries now constitute a substantial majority of its members.

The demise of the Cold War opened up a new era of east-west cooperation which rejuvenated the UN and particularly its peacekeeping role. At the same time, it took the lid off a series of long festering regional and ethnic conflicts to which the UN's capacity to respond has been restrained by a waning of political will on the part of its principal members and their unwillingness to provide adequate resources. As a result, the UN now finds itself having virtually exhausted its financial reserves maintaining peacekeeping operations mandated by the Security Council but for which member states have not provided the necessary resources. Thus, it is being forced to retreat from Somalia, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, to reduce its stabilizing and humanitarian roles in Rwanda while having to absent itself from a preventive and mitigating role in other areas of emerging conflict.

Change of mood

In the United States, there has been an ominous change of mood from the heady days in which the UN was hailed as a valuable instrument of international sanction for the Desert Storm operation which rolled back Iraq's aggression against Kuwait. Now there has been a resurgence of anti-UN sentiment, and congressional hostility which threatens to cripple the UN's peacekeeping role and precipitate the most acute financial crisis in its history which would call into question the viability of the UN as a whole.

But crisis, as the Chinese have long understood, can also open up new opportunities. This crisis, I am convinced, could give rise to a new opportunity to make many of the changes in the United Nations that even its friends and advocates have long realized are very much needed, but have not been able to muster the political will to carry out. It is no adverse reflection on the UN to recognize that some basic changes are required in the way in which it is structured and managed, if it is to be able to meet the needs of the 21st century in a world very different from that which gave birth to it a half century ago.

The 50th Anniversary of the UN gave rise to a plethora of books, studies, seminars and learned papers focusing on the future of the UN and the reforms required to prepare it for that future. Particularly valuable and timely was the report of the Commission on Global Governance, "Our Global Neighbourhood", chaired by Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson of Sweden and former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal.

This process produced some thoughtful and innovative proposals which will give governments a rich body of analysis and broad range of ideas from which to draw in taking the decisions concerning the future of the UN which can only be taken by its member states. It has concentrated largely on issues of structure, of process, and of charter change. There has been some, but I would contend too little, attention paid to the management dimension of these changes. Yet my own experience in the UN persuades me that the greatest and most immediate need is for improvements in its management.

Costs of global governance

The need for such changes is likely to become more acute as a US Congress less sympathetic to the UN and the budgetary constraints faced by virtually all member states presage even greater pressures on the UN's finances and much tougher requirements by governments for more efficient use of UN resources. While it is useful to bear in mind that the cost of running the UN system represents but a very modest proportion of the total costs of global governance, this is really not the point of issue in making the case for better management of the UN. The case really rests on what governments actually get from their investment in the United Nations and what value they place on it in relation to alternative uses of their resources. Today all governments are facing severe budgetary pressures that are requiring them to re-examine their own priorities and provide much more rigorous and cost-effective management of their own finances. It would be illusory to believe that the UN can be exempt from this process. It would be much more realistic to recognize the reality that in few, if any, nations does the UN have the kind of strong political constituency that can support its claim on the national budget against the competing claims of domestic constituencies.

The United Nations, unlike other levels of governance, has neither taxing nor borrowing powers. It must depend for its finances on the willingness of its members to pay their dues, which constitute treaty commitments. Nevertheless, the failure of many member states, including the United States, to pay their assessed contributions keeps the regular budget of the UN in a constant state of crisis. Surely these assessments should be treated as due and payable at the first of each year with interest accruing from that date. And, despite recommendations to the contrary by a group of international experts which recently reviewed UN finances, I believe the UN should have the right to borrow against these obligations. There is precedent for this in the practice of the World Bank and other regional development banks of borrowing large sums of money against the security of the unpaid capital guaranteed by their member governments.

Most of the economic and social programs of the United Nations, including its humanitarian activities, and a major portion of peacemaking and peacekeeping costs, are funded from voluntary contributions. These, too, are much harder to come by in the current climate and even more difficult to anticipate for purposes of the planning that such programs requITe. Most of these activities today are having to be funded on a hand-to-mouth basis.

Global forum

The experience of the UN's first fifty years surely points to the main areas in which the UN is at its best. There is no substitute for it as the global forum for leadership in identifying and legitimizing new issues for the international agenda -as it did in respect of international development cooperation, human rights, the environment, population and women's issues, to name but a few. It is also unique in its capacity to mobilize the international response to major peacekeeping, peacemaking and humanitarian needs.

One of the UN's most important roles is to provide the forum for development of international law on the negotiation and administration of treaties and conventions. The establishment of an effective world order must be based essentially on the extension into international life of the rule of law, together with reliable mechanisms for accountability and enforcement, that provide the basis for the effective functioning of national societies.

We are a long way from this today. UNCED produced two framework conventions of fundamental importance - the Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biodiversity. But the political will required to implement these and to move on with the processes of negotiating the protocols required to give full substance and effect to them, has receded significantly since Rio. On the positive side, the process initiated at Rio of negotiating a Convention on Desertification has been successfully completed and the Convention on the Law of the Sea has finally co~e into force. But implementation of both of these is endangered by the current recession in political will.

Three examples

I cite three examples from my own experience, not to suggest that they are the best examples, but the ones with which I am most familiar personally. They are the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, which placed the environment on the international agenda; the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa, which led and coordinated the international response to the great African famine emergency of 1984-86 and the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which provided a broad global sanction for the concept of sustainable development and agreement on basic principles and actions to give effect to it. In each case the central UN Secretariat unit was very small in relation to the magnitude of the task it was given numbering from 20 to 30 persons drawn from the permanent Secretariat. But in all cases, too, it engaged the active support and involvement of all parts of the United Nations system and a multiplicity of other actors and sources of expertise, national and international, governmental and nongovernmental. What the UN provided was the leadership, the capacity for mobilization and orchestration of the contributions of other participants and the framework within which they could operate in a collaborative manner towards common goals and objectives.

An important feature of each of these examples is that the organizations responsible were ad hoc in nature and each was phased out after the task for which they were set up was completed.

All of the UN's peacekeeping operations are by their nature ad hoc responses to particular crisis situations. And all are managed and orchestrated by a permanent UN headquarters staff that has never exceeded more than 314 professionals, even now that the UN is managing an unprecedented number of some 18 peacekeeping and peacemaking operations involving a total of approximately 74,625 temporary personnel in the field.

The point here is that many of the UN's most important and successful value-added activities have involved relatively small numbers of its permanent staff and correspondingly modest contributions from regular budgetary resources. At the same time, the successful launching and management of such initiatives requires a permanent secretariat cadre with special qualities of leadership and management and the capacity to identify and command the respect and cooperation of the principal actors concerned both within and outside of the United Nations systems. Yet it is a quality that it is not sufficiently valued, nurtured and supported by present UN personnel policies and practices.

Prime function

Maintaining world peace and security must continue to be a prime function of the United Nations. But it will be an even more complex and demanding role in the emerging world of the 21st century than it has been in the UN's first fifty years. Guaranteeing the security and integrity of the smaller and weaker states which now make up a majority of the UN's membership must be a high priority. The response of the international community to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a landmark in this respect. While it will not necessarily establish a model for future operations of this type, much can be learned from it. One of the things we have learned already is that the international community will not respond to the same extent to threats to the integrity of other nations where they perceive that their own interests are less at risk, as in Bosnia. Witness the willingness of the world community to acquiesce in the dismantling of that troubled country so soon after admitting it as a member of the United Nations.

In our interdependent, technological civilization, the cause and effect system through which human policies and actions are translated into their real-world consequences is systemic in nature and global in scale. The processes of governments through which we seek to manage these issues are clearly inadequate. There is no need for world government. But there must be a more systemic relationship amongst each of the various levels of government than now exists if our civilization is to be secure and sustainable through the 21st century. The financial crisis in Mexico last year is but one reminder of how events in one part of the world can affect all of us. There can be no permanent escape from the realities of interdependence through a retreat into narrow nationalism and parochialism, as tempting as this may be.

A series of paradoxes is developing which will soon confront both industrialized and developing countries with some very painful tensions and challenges. While efficient and competitive economies produce more gross national product, the benefits accrued is proportionately to the minority which have capital and knowledge to deploy. This class is highly mobile and those in it can readily move their assets and activities across national borders. But the majority of people are largely not mobile and, indeed, they are more and more barriers to their movement. For both, migration is no longer an option.

Social tensions

Thus, the gap between rich and poor, privileged and under-privileged, will tend to grow, both within and amongst societies. This process, if it is not reversed, will inevitably lead to greater social tensions and potential for conflict. A recent article in the "Economist" - hardly a radical publication - stated that "if the Marxist prediction of a proletariat plunged into abject misery under capitalism has so far been unfulfilled, the widening gap between haves and have-nots is causing some to think that Marx might yet be proved right
on this point after all".

Our technological civilization which has produced such unprecedented levels of economic growth and prosperity, principally for the societies of the industrialized world, has also given rise to severe imbalances and disparities which are not compatible with a secure and sustainable world order. Of these the most ominous results from the concentration during most of this century of population growth and poverty in developing countries and of economic growth in industrialized countries. These same processes have produced a new generation of risks to the integrity of the basic ecological systems on which human survival and well-being depend.

Now that some of the major developing countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America, are experiencing the rapid growth to which they have long aspired, there is a very real prospect that environmental degradation and global risk like those of climate change and ozone depletion will move beyond safe levels. Yet the right of developing countries to grow cannot be denied. Nor will it be fair for new constraints to be imposed upon them by the countries who have been the principal beneficiaries of the economic growth that has given rise to these risks.

In a recent survey of the world economy, the Economist postulated that if the rapidly developing countries continue to grow at current rates, there will be a major shift of economic power to the south. Of the fifteen largest economies in the world by the year 2020, nine would be what we now call developing countries. China would replace the United States in first place; India and Indonesia would take over fourth and fifth place from Germany and France respectively. This historic shift of economic power to the south will have profound political implications as well as a decisive effect on prospects for achievement of the transition to a sustainable mode of life on our planet called for at the Earth Summit in June 1992.

Explosion of activities

Many of the most exciting and promising post-Rio developments are occurring outside of governments, where there has been a virtual explosion of activities and initiatives on the part of grass-roots organizations, citizen groups and other key sectors of civil society. Particularly promising has been the initiative of almost 100 countries to establish national councils of sustainable development, or similar bodies, to come together with various key actors of the civil society, to consult and advise on the development and implementation of Agenda 21 at the national level and provide guidance and support for similar initiatives.

The Earth Council, headquartered in San Jose, Costa Rica, is unique. It is a new kind of global, non-governmental organization, designed to act as a catalyst to facilitate and support implementation and follow-up of the results of Rio through a network of some 10,000 organizations, most of them of a grass-roots nature. Its principal mission is to help link people at the community and grass-roots level with the broad policy and decision-making processes which affect them, and to amplify their voices in these processes. It has initiated, in cooperation with the International Green Cross, a consultative process designed to produce a People's "Earth Charter", one of the tasks which governments at Rio left unfulfilled.

Despite these encouraging developments since Rio, there are all too few signs of the fundamental changes in economic behaviour required to effect the transition to sustainability. While many governments have affirmed in various ways the commitment to sustainable development and Agenda 21 to which they agreed in Rio, most have done little to reorient the system of incentives and penalties by which they motivate the economic behaviour of their corporations and individuals. Many, like agricultural and energy subsidies, have become deeply entrenched and difficult to change, while contributing to economic inefficiency and costing taxpayers and consumers hundreds of billions of dollars.

A revamping of this system would release more than enough resources to drive the transition to sustainable development and contribute to making economies more efficient and competitive as well as more environmentally responsible.
Industrialized countries must be willing to accord to the indispensable services that developing countries provide to the world community - as for example, as custodians of most of its precious and irreplaceable biological resources -the real value of these services, and reflect this in the terms of trade and the prices they pay for the relevant products of developing countries.

Wasteful practices

In the meantime, patterns of production and consumption in the rapidly growing developing countries are largely following the model established by the more mature industrialized countries, which are doing little to change that model. There would be scant prospect of a secure and sustainable future for rich or poor if developing countries do not replicate in their growth our wasteful and destructive practices. Helping them to develop sustainably is the best investment industrial countries could make in global environmental security. And it is imperative that we do it.

One of the most interesting recommendations of the Global Governance Commission is to revitalize the Trusteeship Council as the forum in which the nations of the world come together to exercise trusteeship of the global commons -the oceans, the atmosphere, and outer space, as well as the integrity of the principal ecosystems on which human survival and well-being depend.
We confront these new challenges of almost baffling complexity at a time of crisis in governance. Even the strongest and most successful industrialized nations are reaching the limits of what their governments can do, and what their people are willing to let their governments do, to deal effectively with these larger issues. Necessity, more than ideology, is driving a reduction in the role of all governments and increased reliance on the private sector. There is mounting pressure for movement of responsibilities from central governments downstream to state and local levels. And more and more issues require a degree of international cooperation. But this has not been accompanied by the willingness to provide multilateral organizations, notably the United Nations, with the needed mandates and resources they require to perform their essential functions.

Thus, we have the sobering paradox that while the objective need for the United Nations is even greater now than it was when it was created, there is little evidence of the enlightened political will and vision that gave rise to the creation of the UN and Bretton Woods Institutions in the aftermath of World War II. Without a revitalization of enlightened political will inspired by a transcending vision of the risk and opportunities that confront the human community as we move into the 21st century, there is little likelihood in the near term of effecting the fundamental changes required in these institutions to enable them to respond effectively to these needs.

Restore confidence

In the meantime, change can and should begin at the management level. This would also help restore confidence in the UN which is now at such a low ebb and contribute to the rebuilding of political will required to make the more fundamental, constitutional and structural changes that must ultimately be made.

Much of the Secretariat's work involving perhaps half, or even more, of its staff members is devoted to areas and issues that are now accorded marginal priority by member states, or can be done better by others either inside or outside of the United Nations. would suggest that a very large proportion of the UN Secretariat, probably well over half, is now engaged in activities that would fall into these categories.

The UN need not and cannot do everything. Its uniqueness and its comparative advantage lies in the fact that it is global in its mandate and ~ universal in its membership.

Its resources should be concentrated in those areas in which these distinctive qualities enable it to perform functions for the international community other organizations are not geared to perform.

Often the primary role of the UN will be to provide a global framework or context for actions that must be taken on other levels, regional, national or sectoral. It need not and cannot have in the Secretariat the capacities to deal with these issues in their totality.

One of the principal challenges the UN faced in its early years was that of facilitating the transition of former colonies in the developing world to independence, and launching them on the pathway to national development. But the situation and the needs of developing countries have changed immensely during the past several decades.

Yet the resources of the UN Secretariat have not been redeployed sufficiently to take account of the major changes in the needs and interests of developing countries while the proportion of their external funding requirements provided by the UN has been reduced substantially. Economic and social development is and must be one of the highest priority tasks of the UN. But it is one in which the UN is a great deal less effective than it could be and should be, despite the large proportion of the Secretariat ostensibly devoted to it.

Lack of resources

In a global economy in which knowledge is the principal source of added-value and competitiveness, developing countries, and particularly the least developed, are disadvantaged by lack of the resources required to develop their scientific and technological capabilities, their institutional infrastructure and educational systems. Supporting developing countries in strengthening of these capacities is, for most of them, their most critical need and highest priority.

The UN must gear itself to become to a much greater extent a mobilizer and not just a dispenser of resources in the development field, as it has done so successfully in the humanitarian field. During the 1984-86 famine in Sub-Saharan Africa, the UN took the lead in mobilizing and deploying over $4 billion of humanitarian assistance, only a modest portion of which was actually dispensed directly by the UN. Yet the UN was not nearly so effective in meeting the process of mobilizing the increased resources required for rehabilitation and long term development in Africa following the famine.

Virtually all governments are at or near the limits of what they can do to meet the needs and expectations of their people, and what their people are prepared to pay in taxes. Thus, the multiplicity of nongovernmental actors that make up civil society are inevitably playing a much larger role, both in developing social policy directions and in mobilizing and deploying resources to meet particular societal needs and interests. In many areas their capacities today exceed those of governments. The same is true at the international level in which more humanitarian and development resources are today channelled to developing countries through nongovernmental organizations than through the United Nations.

Private investment has become by far the principal source of external financing for the rapidly growing economies of Asia and Latin America which are also generating substantially growing earnings from their export trade. While these rapidly developing countries continue to require external support in meeting their social needs, their capacity to do this from their own resources is improving. Meanwhile the least developed countries, particularly those of Sub-Saharan Africa, remain highly dependent on Official Development Assistance. And the countries in transition in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union require specialized technical policy support as well as infusions of private and public capital to help them rebuild and restructure their economies. The UN must therefore be in a position to provide a more diverse range of support targeted to the particular needs and interests of each of these categories of countries. The new United Nations must be built around the best experiences of its past while shedding much of the costly and bureaucratic baggage that has developed over the years and is now-more an impediment than a contributor to the UN's effectiveness.

Indispensable key

An indispensable key to the UN's success in undertaking this role in leading and catalyzing action by the entire world community is for it to become the primary source of objective, credible information on major global trends and issues. The spectacular advances made in recent years in information sciences and telecommunications combined with the confidence and respect that the Statistical Division of the UN's Department of Economic and Social Information & Policy Analysis as one of the UN's quietest, but most consistently valuable performers over the years, provide the basis and the tools for such leadership. But it will require strong leadership mandated directly by the Secretary-General to rationalize the current hodge-podge of information services within the UN which, despite the high quality of some of them, has so far defied any attempt at coordination, consistency and common focus.

Nothing is more characteristic of calls for UN reform than exhortations for more "coordination". Yet, with some notable exceptions, principally of an ad hoc nature, the United Nations has a dismal record in effecting coordination. Information is the key to coordination. As demonstrated by the experience of the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa, when the UN can dispense timely and reliable information that other actors find useful in their own decision making, it exercises de facto a coordinating role that most other actors would not accord to it in any formal sense.

Introducing more cost effective management principles and practices into the United Nations may seem somewhat mundane in light of the broad global purposes the UN was established to serve and the ideals enshrined in its charter. But it must now make radical changes in the manner in which it manages its awesome responsibilities if it is to meet the challenges of the much more demanding, complex and interdependent world of the 21st century. Indeed, it is precisely because its task as the centrepiece of an effective global system of governance is so vitally important to the human future that it requires the very best of management, and should settle for nothing less. After all, no business is more important than that with which it is entrusted.