UN Day, 24 October, marks the anniversary of the entry into force of the UN Charter in 1945. Seventy years on we take a critical look at the internal and external challenges of the ‘UN family’ – with a particular focus on coordination and leadership.
Reforming the UN System – Diego Salama
Eight years ago, while interning at the UN Information Centre in Lima, my director invited me to a Country Team meeting. It was my first chance to meet all the UN heads of agency in Peru, and I remember how excited I was to witness leadership in action. On the day itself, my main role was to pass the microphone around; but I kept listening and learning – because it had long been my dream to join such a meeting.
Yet the voices grew louder and louder, and the agenda was quickly disregarded. At a certain point I thought to myself: this is gridlock. There was no unity, no attempt to coordinate beyond the minimum; each agency had its own voice and even its own territory, if you will. I saw first-hand that while the UN is supposed to work as one family, one system, it remains deeply fragmented. I asked myself, “How on earth are we going to achieve the MDGs if we can’t work as one United Nations?” And if this is the case in a middle-income country like Peru, how dire must the fragmentation be in countries where the UN has more presence, more ‘competing’ agencies, and has to feed or protect countless numbers of people?
How much has changed since then? Well, despite the fragmentation, we managed to achieve some of the MDGs, and Latin America did quite well in several areas. And personally, I’ve seen more of the world, and am now lucky enough to work for the United Nations University in the Netherlands. But as for the UN system as a whole, I remain deeply disappointed.
This year the UN turns 70, which is certainly a reason for celebration. Happily, I eventually got my turn with the microphone (see video below), invited to speak at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague about the ‘Future We Want’, on the eve of UN Day.
A large part of the future that I want is to reform the UN from within. I set out my vision for ‘fixing’ the UN in a recent paper, for which I won a competition and was invited to speak at the ICJ. It’s quite technical, but can be summed up in a few words. Essentially, we need to repair the chronic fragmentation among the many different parts of the UN — agencies, country teams, etc. One way to do this is to endow UN country heads with the authority to align budgets, to set overarching priorities, and to ensure cohesion for everyone on the ground. To my eyes, failing to deliver development because agencies fail to coordinate is simply unbecoming, and proves them unworthy of the UN Charter they are sworn to uphold.
These changes are long overdue, but we are now at the perfect juncture to make them. A few weeks ago the UN pledged to achieve the SDGs by 2030. This should spur us into action — coordinated action. In my view, we’ll only achieve these ambitious goals if we change our mindsets, change the way we work, and do so right now!
Reviewing UN Communications – Howard Hudson
Four years ago, I was invited to a meeting of the UN Communications Group (UNCG) in Geneva. This was my first chance to meet all the UN heads of communication from the many UN bodies: around 50 people from across the world, representing all the biggest UN agencies and several smaller organisations like UNU. Employed as an editor, rather than a comms chief, I treated the trip as a networking and fact-finding mission. Luckily, my diagonal counterparts shared a huge amount: who was partnering with whom, honest stats about resources and limitations, and many ideas on how to work more effectively as one ‘UN family’.
I heard about UNESCO’s partnerships with China’s Xinhua and Russia’s Ria Novosti – how UNESCO barters its name for free access to photo databases. A similar story for UNFPA and IBM – receiving infographics for its 7 Billion Actions campaign. I also heard how the World Food Programme and International Monetary Fund get most of their web traffic not via research reports but from online games and blogs. And I heard UN Foundation, UN Dept. for Public Information, and World Bank reps all calling for the UN to take more risks and to be more creative and transparent.
Fortunately, I learned that all this doesn’t require too much money. In fact, smaller budgets can make teams more creative, said UNRIC. Yet it does mean being more direct, sometimes brutally so, according to OHCHR. We also need to put human interest centre stage, as at Fukushima, said CTBTO, while producing more videos and sharing more anecdotes from the field, said WFP and UNIDO. The list of recommendations goes on and on – as you’d expect from a UN meeting! But it ended with two clear appeals: to work as partners not competitors and to try to be ‘action-oriented’.
Returning to UNU-MERIT in the Netherlands, I took as much as possible on board from these meetings. Working with Sueli Brodin, and encouraged by director Bart Verspagen, I’ve co-produced video trailers that our UN Under-Secretary-General liked so much that he commissioned his own; I’ve co-led and delivered a blog series on the SDGs with several directors and deputy directors; and I’m now launching a ‘Jargon Buster’ app that gathers knowledge from five UNU institutes — all from the jungle of the ‘sharing economy‘! Back in Peru, Diego was shocked at the deafening territoriality of ‘big beasts’. What troubles me is the opposite: the silence of silos that only connect ad hoc. The closed doors, the fragmentation, the duplication of effort.
The world is not getting any simpler, with ever bigger populations competing for ever scarcer resources, amid the appalling predictions of climate change. More than ever, the UN needs leaders who value communications: leaders who are creative and transparent and able to build bridges, both within and outside the UN. Leaders like Dag Hammarskjöld and Sergio Vieria de Mello, who are sadly no longer with us — but whose legacies can inspire us to build a better UN for a stronger, more resilient world.
UN Photo / J.M.Ferré. Howard Hudson is top row, fifth from the right.