Briefing Member States on the eve of the Economic and Social Council’s coordination and management meeting, and in the lead-up to the High-Level Political Forum, Secretary-General António Guterres today presented a raft of proposals aimed at repositioning the United Nations development system to make it more capable of supporting the 2030 Agenda and delivering “tangible results in the lives of the people we serve”.
Central to those, he said, were recommendations to strengthen the role of resident coordinators and review the United Nations presence in the field, review roles at the regional level to better respond to needs on the ground, and match reform efforts at the country level with repositioning at the global level, including through better accountability for system-wide results. Establishing a “funding compact” with Member States would be critical to reposition the United Nations development system and enabling it to deliver system-wide results.
“The 2030 Agenda [for Sustainable Development] is our boldest agenda for humanity and requires equally bold changes in the United Nations development system,” the Secretary-General emphasized. The “true test”, he added, would not be measured by words in New York or Geneva, but through results on the ground. Recalling the Council’s decision to task him with advancing proposals matching that ambition, he said that his report — which laid out 38 concrete actions and ideas — was “the first step of that response”.
Describing the development system’s proud history over recent decades as having changed the world for millions of its poorest and most vulnerable people he nevertheless stressed that it was not functioning at its fullest potential. “Far too much of what we do is rooted in the past rather than linked to the future we want,” he said, emphasizing that “we have no time to lose” in making changes to secure the promise of sustainable development, human rights and peace. “The 2030 Agenda points the way and has to be given life as the defining agenda of our time.”
Outlining the report’s eight guiding ideas, he said the United Nations development system must first accelerate its transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the 2030 Agenda. There were currently gaps in the latter’s skill sets and mechanisms, he said, stressing that the Organization must be able to respond to the different needs and priorities of each country to in helping them implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, leveraging the strengths of all development partners.
He stressed that the 2030 Agenda required United Nations country teams that were more cohesive, flexible, leaner and more efficient. Resident coordinators should have the skills, authority and resources to steer and oversee the system’s substantive contribution to the 2030 Agenda, in line with national priorities and needs.
For too long, reform efforts in the field had been hindered by a lack of similar efforts at Headquarters, he continued. Calling for the creation of an impartial, neutral accountability mechanism — without creating new bureaucracies or superstructures — he asked the Deputy Secretary-General to oversee the process, which would also entail providing strategic guidance to the United Nations Development Group and leading a steering committee to foster coherence between humanitarian action and development work. On the latter, he said it must be done in a way that would not lead to the diversion of funds or a shift in focus from development objectives.
Underlining the need for a more cohesive United Nations policy voice at the regional level, he announced the launch of a review aimed at clarifying the division of labour within the system and exploring ways to reinforce the United Nations “country-regional-global policy backbone”. He also cited the critical need to address the unintended consequences of funding, saying they hampered the Organization’s ability to deliver as one, cautioning that “a fragmented funding base is delivering a fragmented system”. In that respect, he expressed his intention to explore the possibility of a “funding compact” through which the system would commit to greater efficiency, value for money and reporting on results, against the prospect of more robust funding support for individual agencies and improved joint funding practices.
When the floor was opened for comments and questions from delegations, many speakers welcomed the report’s specific and concrete proposals, as well as the “transparent and inclusive” discussions that had led to its drafting. However, several delegates voiced regret that the report had been circulated just before a holiday weekend, saying they had not had sufficient time to respond to its proposals. They nevertheless laid out their preliminary reactions and highlighted the most critical issues.
“[The Secretary-General’s report] is a document full of common sense and pragmatism,” said Mexico’s representative, adding that, while his country supported each priority issue outlined in it, additional focus was needed on reforming the Organization’s current incentives system, which was leading to silos, competition and weak cooperation. He also drew attention to a second “elephant in the room”, saying that the fears and inertia of Member States themselves had created obstacles to reform. He urged delegations to be guided by common sense going forward.
Japan’s representative joined other speakers in commending the fact that that the report went beyond a simple mapping exercise to detail ambitious and concrete ideas. Among other things, Japan supported its call for action on the critical humanitarian-development nexus, he said, welcoming its focus on improved governance and oversight by Member States.
The United Kingdom’s representative, stressing that more people needed the United Nations today than at any other time in history, declared: “We’re failing too many of them.” Noting that millions of people were currently reliant on a system designed more than half a century ago, he said the Organization must evolve to keep up with increasing demands. He called upon the Secretary-General to use his authority to “refocus, reorganize and renew”.
Chad’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Group of African States, expressed support for enhanced efforts to help developing countries, especially those in Africa, implement the 2030 Agenda. Among other critical functions, the United Nations should consolidate best practices, lessons learned and the transfer of technology to that end. Improvements were also needed in mobilizing financing and identifying new funding sources.
Sweden’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Nordic countries, called for a greater focus on prevention and sustaining peace, a stronger emphasis on cross-pillar work, and enhanced efforts to ensure coherent delivery and accountable leadership. Since development efforts must always maintain a clear focus on the beneficiaries in the field, all responses must be country-specific. He expressed particular support for the report’s proposal to merge the executive boards of the various United Nations funds and programmes based in New York. He also pointed out that the Nordic countries were among the United Nations development system’s top donors — with both Sweden and Denmark committed to contributing 1 per cent of their gross national income to development aid — and expressed support for efforts to design the proposed “funding compact”.
Several other speakers echoed that emphasis on financing, with the representative of Bangladesh — speaking on behalf of the Group of Least Developed Countries — stressing that “the strength of the United Nations lies in its resource base”. In that context, he expressed support for the proposed establishment of a benchmark for the Organization’s funding to the least developed countries, and for efforts to leverage available funding in a more predictable way.
Brazil’s representative said his delegation would consider the report’s proposals carefully in the context of its membership of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China. He called for emphasis on policy integration, knowledge and technology, as well as for a multidimensional approach to poverty and special attention to developing countries and those with special vulnerabilities. “Country-level delivery must be the litmus test for success,” he said.
The representative of the United States agreed that the report was an important first step in the review of the United Nations, welcoming in particular its call for reform in the Organization’s humanitarian-development-peace nexus, as well as greater focus on outcomes and impact.
However, several speakers voiced strong opposition to the report’s recommendations. The Russian Federation’s representative described the document as cause for “serious concern” regarding the future of the United Nations development system, saying its proposals far exceeded the framework agreed by Member States in the 2016 resolution on the quadrennial comprehensive policy review. Describing the report as an attempt to significantly weaken Member States’ control over the development system, he said efforts to combine development and humanitarian work were inappropriate, as was the addition of tasks related to conflict resolution.
Recalling that the essence of the review had been to create transparent and clear working methods, rather than to further bureaucratize the system, he warned against “unjustified expansion” of the Secretariat’s authority and the “centralization of governance” over the entire United Nations development system. That system must remain a “neutral, objective partner” and never be led by a narrow set of interests, he underlined, pointing out that the report did not take into account the real needs of countries on the ground.
China’s representative welcomed efforts to reposition the development system in line with the 2030 Agenda, but nevertheless emphasized that such reforms must be aimed at supporting developing countries to choose independently their own development paths in line with national priorities.
The Secretary-General responded to each comment in turn, welcoming the interest and engagement of Member States and pledging to continue to work with them as the reform process progressed. Responding to the Russian Federation’s statement, he argued that the assertion that the report’s proposals were aimed at politicizing the United Nations development system and centralizing its leadership was, in fact, contrary to the spirit of the report, which, in fact, aimed to strengthen the connections linking the system and the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and national Governments. The same applied, for example, to the proposal to have the Deputy Secretary-General assume the chairmanship of the United Nations Development Group so as to strengthen the role of resident coordinators and to merge the executive boards of New York-based funds and programmes.
Also speaking were representatives of Maldives (for the Alliance of Small Island Developing States), Switzerland, Australia, Cameroon, Pakistan, Belarus, Germany, Canada, Colombia, Singapore, Jordan, Thailand, Ecuador and Hungary, as well as the representative of the European Union. The Economic and Social Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 6 July, to continue its work.