by Nic Watkins
The UN development system was the topic of conversation for a conference hosted by the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies. Guest were invited to hear a briefing by Dr Bruce Jenks, Adjunct Professor, SIPA, Columbia University and former Assistant Secretary General, UNDP. Dr Jenks has recently co-written and report with Dr Bruce Jones, explaining that the UN development system is at a cross roads and the decisions it makes now will be critical for its future, choosing between evolving into a relevant institution to tackle the world’s development problems or increasing obscurity and irrelevance.
Dr Jenks highlighted the importance of self criticism as a sign of commitment to an institution. He believed the UN wasn’t very good at self examination, it was under such continuous scrutiny that its reflex reaction was to keep internal criticism under the surface; his report was looking to spark recognition of the problem and an open discussion about the need for reform.
Examining the case for reform, Dr Jenks explained that fundamental changes have taken place in the world over the last 15 to 20 years. Focusing on globalisation and technology and communications revolution since the end of the cold war as the key drivers for change. The expansion in world GDP has risen from $13 trillion in 1970 to $70 trillion in 2010. This massive growth and expansion of global markets has taken place in developing countries, highlighted by the rise of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries. This has had a profound change on the profile of poverty in the world. The current development system was based on and understanding that ‘poor people’ lived in ‘poor countries.’ Global trends now mean that the majority of ‘poor people’ in the world are residing in middle income countries. The challenge would be to decide how to deal with this as it was very difficult for governments to justify giving tax payers money in development assistance to countries with expanding economies.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) were conceptualised in the mid 1990’s in an era focused on individual national governments. The MDG’s framework is designed to facilitate national goals and the improvements inside individual countries. The development issues the world faced today (Environmental issues being a well documented example) required collective responses. If there is no world power willing or able to deal with issues then the world must decide between individual jostling for position or collaborating to divide responsibility. Collective action is required to tackle problems but this goes beyond just cooperation between states; partnership models would become important as civil society and multinational cooperation’s would need to be included to address issues in a vast swathe of development areas.
The report goes on to argue that if you accept the world has changed, and it is fair to say that these changes are fairly uncontested, then surely the UN approach to development must also change. The report then goes on to argue, using case studies that the UN development system has a history of making fundamental changes, showing that it would be capable of making similar changes today.
Dr Jenks report is keen to stress that it does not have the answers to the problem but is designed as a map to highlight the current trends in the world and to force a debate looking into the issues. The report is very clear that now is the time to act, with the MDG’s framework coming to an end in 2015. Although this debate focused on the development system the argument could be applied more generally to UN reform as a whole. The world is different today and requires collective action to solve the issue we face together as a planet. The overarching message here was that the UN is the only organisation that can play the role of international mediator, as the forum for discussion and decisions. The UN transposed borders and could be the global forum for discussions, for setting the norms and values that a global citizenry decided upon, away from the old arguments of sovereignty and national borders; an organisation that set the agenda and took the lead.