Report of the Secretary-General: Chapter I - Introduction

The UN Secretariat Building in New York, with Members States’ flags in the foreground. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

I am deeply honoured and humbled to be at the helm of the United Nations at this critical time. In this annual report on the work of the Organization, which reflects on the first few months of my term and the last few months of my predecessor’s term, my aim is to offer a candid view of the world today and a realistic vision of how we can better deliver on the promise of the United Nations.

The world we live in presents a mixed picture of progress, challenges and opportunities

The United Nations was established to prevent war and human suffering by binding us together through a common rule-based international order. Today that order is laden with contradictory trends, and a clear assessment must be made if we are going to address these challenges effectively.

Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. More children, both boys and girls, are achieving greater levels of education and more women are entering the political world than ever before. This progress represents concentrated efforts by United Nations Member States to work towards these and other development goals. Yet after years of decline, the number of conflicts is on the rise and they are lasting longer, fuelled by the spread of terrorism and violent extremism, transnational criminal networks and deep regional divisions. The threat of famine in several countries, resulting from violence compounded by drought, lurks just around the corner. These contradictory trends are exacerbated by international power dynamics that are in flux. As we move towards a multipolar world order composed of multiple and shifting centres of power, there is an added feeling of unpredictability.

Now more than ever, multilateral action is needed to find effective solutions to this mix of challenges.

While progress on development indicators is moving ahead, the risks to global stability may be accelerating, affecting these hard-earned achievements. Climate change is creating deserts where once there was farmland; it is also generating extreme weather that threatens lives, livelihoods and infrastructure and leads to critical shortages of water. The planet’s population will grow to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, two thirds living in cities that could be left unprepared for such rapid growth unless urban leaders grasp this opportunity to prosper by utilizing concentrated habitats to build more efficient infrastructures.

People are on the move, to cities and all parts of the world, in search of opportunity and safety. Population displacement and migration on a scale not seen since the Second World War bear witness to enduring challenges grounded in escalating conflicts and systemic inequalities. While some countries have been willing to open their arms to people in need, others have reacted by succumbing to deep national and international tensions and polarization.

Inequality and exclusion underlie many of today’s challenges

Inequality and exclusion underlie a great many of today’s challenges. Globalization has brought immense gains in the fight against poverty worldwide and has improved living conditions nearly everywhere. But it has been cruelly unfair: as wealth has increased, so too has its asymmetry, leaving millions behind in all parts of the world. Both developed and developing countries, North and South, face greater inequality and marginalization now than they did 20 years ago. Unless we work together, the coming decades are likely to drive poverty more deeply into fragile low-income countries, pushing them even further onto the sidelines, while even larger numbers of people struggling with poverty live in middle-income countries. Furthermore, this sense of exclusion is not limited to the poorest countries but is vividly on the rise in developed countries as well, fuelling trends of nationalism and a lack of trust in national and multilateral institutions. Our hard-won collective progress towards combating poverty and promoting common security is newly at risk.

Countries and institutions are struggling to fully deliver

Threats to global stability are frequently rooted in weak infrastructure and failing institutions in fragile States. Where States cannot provide basic protections and services to their people, the likelihood of violence, pandemics or violent extremism increases dramatically. We must collectively invest more to help countries build inclusive institutions and resilient communities capable of thriving in a globalized world.

Overwhelmed, a significant number of States across the world are struggling to effectively address today’s major challenges and deliver the services needed by their populations. Tensions are exacerbated by a lack of opportunities and by a strong sentiment among many peoples — their youth especially — that they are being excluded by the very institutions meant to serve them. Few countries or institutions appear to have a long-term vision to meet peoples’ needs or strategies to manage today’s interlinked crises, instead finding themselves entangled in reactive responses.

The United Nations and many other international institutions deserve credit for their achievements, but may also be perceived as bureaucratic and remote.

Demonstrating multilateralism matters more than ever

We need to rekindle faith in multilateralism and confidence in the United Nations as the place where States and civil society can come together to face the most pressing challenges in the world today.

The interconnected nature of today’s global trends unequivocally demonstrates that countries cannot manage these risks alone. Acting together is the most effective way to fight climate change, global terrorism and the threat of new pandemics and is the only way to manage forced displacements and migratory flows in a humane manner.

Countries cannot manage these risks alone

Member States clearly recognized this commonality when they adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, two landmark achievements all the more remarkable for coming in a period of stark division in international responses to other challenges.

Along with the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these multilateral agreements constitute the most important frameworks for guiding us along the pathway to a world where more people can enjoy freedom from want and fear. We can succeed only if we work in greater unison. Multilateralism is not optional. It is the most effective vehicle, whether regional or global, for achieving the goals of peace, inclusive sustainable development and human rights for all.

United Nations reform is essential

The United Nations has a proud record of achievement in keeping peace, improving human well-being and advancing human rights and the rule of law. But the Organization came into being at a particular moment in history. While its animating principles continue to stand the test of time, its day-to-day structures and practices are no longer well adapted to current challenges. The world needs a more effective, nimble and accountable United Nations to manage the crises of the twenty-first century.

My assessment of the world we live in demonstrates that we need to respond to interlinked global risks in a less fragmented and reactive manner. If the United Nations is to remain relevant and reliable, we must vigorously enact proactive reforms that are motivated by the objective of achieving better results for those most affected.

One of our main goals in steering the reform agenda must be to engage more effectively on prevention. For too long, our reactive responses towards threats to peace and security have been too slow, allowing crises to worsen so that effective action becomes more difficult. We know that preventing a crisis is much less costly and more effective than reacting to one. We know that catastrophic natural disasters can wipe out in seconds development gains that took years to achieve. We know from painful experience that wars destroy societies and that protracted crises keep generations locked in perpetual vulnerability. This must change.

I have called for a shift in approach, with a less reactive posture, towards a more robust approach to prevention. Prevention means doing everything we can, across a broad range of engagements and activities, to help countries avert the outbreak or worsening of crises that result in massive human suffering. Prevention is the common thread running through the interwoven fabric of my reform efforts. Both the 2030 Agenda and the sustaining peace resolutions (General Assembly resolution 70/262 and Security Council resolution 2282 (2016)) demonstrate strong support for a holistic approach to prevention; the best prevention is sustainable and inclusive development. While these two approaches are complementary, the 2030 Agenda remains the primary architecture within which the sustaining peace resolutions provide a solid framework for enabling the United Nations to concentrate on support for the planning and delivery of specific aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals as they pertain to peace.

I have set in motion several related reform processes. All aim to make the Organization’s approaches more integrated and coherent, reflective of a more comprehensive understanding of the greatest risks facing the world, and more securely financed. The reforms will foster stronger and more accountable leadership, cutting away many of the burdensome administrative rules that hamper quick, nimble responses to crisis situations. They will increase and strengthen the partnerships we need to deliver meaningful change on the ground. Last but not least, I am fully committed to ensuring gender parity and greater geographic diversity across the Organization in order to better reflect and serve the peoples of the world.
The responsibility for preventing human suffering and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals rests with the Member States, but the United Nations has a vital supporting role to play. My reform agenda will make the United Nations a better partner for Member States in meeting their responsibilities.

In taking stock of these early months in office, I am above all inspired by the goodwill and creative ideas of people across the world. We must harness these forces as we serve the global common good. I look forward to working with Member States and stakeholders everywhere to build a stronger, more effective United Nations that can deliver today and for generations to come.


Secretary-General’s main initiatives in 2017

  • Cabinet-style weekly Executive Committee meetings to enhance decision-making and promote cross-pillar perspectives
  • New Under-Secretary-General-led Office of Counter-Terrorism endorsed by the General Assembly
  • In a call to strengthen prevention: Special Adviser on Policy; and High-level Advisory Board for Mediation
  • Strengthened whistle-blower protection policy
  • To combat sexual exploitation and abuse, a new strategy for the United Nations system to strengthen our investigative capacities and engage the responsibility of senior leaders
  • First report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations development system, outlining a wide range of actions
  • Commitment to achieving gender parity at the senior leadership level by 2021
  • Agreement with Chairperson of the African Union Commission to enhance coordination of United Nations-African Union activities at all levels
  • Joint European Union-United Nations initiative to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls
  • Good offices: visits made to countries in different parts of the world and diplomatic efforts undertaken to seek solutions to crises
  • Initiated strategy on financing for development to facilitate investments in the Sustainable Development Goals, including a proposal to the Group of 20 on an international finance facility for education
  • Set in motion a process of reform of the development system, peace and security architecture and management of the Organization