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Is a Better UN System Possible? Global Experts Respond to an Independent Survey


Members of the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan, a network that promotes the rights of widows. GAGANJIT SINGH/UN WOMEN
Members of Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan, a nationwide network that works to secure the rights of widows in India. GAGANJIT SINGH/UN WOMEN

An unusual survey of 3,400 people worldwide who know the United Nations has found strong support for some basic rethinking over the next decade on the organization’s work in development. Among the recommendations, over two-thirds of respondents suggested adding more nongovernmental representatives to governing bodies and better consolidating both organizational representation and programs in countries where the UN development system, in all its aspects, has a presence.

The survey was conducted for the independent Future of the United Nations Development System (FUNDS) project, which began in 2009 to pinpoint how the 30 UN agencies working on a wide range of issues can respond more efficiently and more timely to the fast-changing global environment, which is marked by the emergence of new actors, national and nongovernmental, as well as the broad effects of globalization on both countries and people’s lives.

The project is directed by Stephen Browne and Thomas G.Weiss, both with experience in the UN and in research organizations outside the world body. They are fellows of the Ralph Bunche Institute of International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science.

Although the people surveyed in the 2014 FUNDS report were drawn from lists of those who were familiar with the UN’s work and it was not a random popular poll — a good thing, given the scant knowledge much of the public in various countries may have of the organization — some results seem to coincide with public perceptions. Notably, the experts said that the UN’s highest impact was in humanitarian relief and peacekeeping, though development, crisis recovery and human rights were not far behind.

The selected respondents came from many walks of life, including the private sector, the UN itself, governments, academia and nongovernmental organizations.

Other findings of the survey, intended to project what work the UN should be doing and how it should be organized by 2025, were these:

¶ Asked about key challenges in UN development work, a large majority identified internal organizational structures, the growth of earmarked funding (when money coming in is restricted to specific tasks) and lack of financial resources. The ineffectiveness of the organization and lack of adaptability were also regarded as troubling. Another noted challenge was competition from outside the UN.

¶ Respondents ranked quality of expertise at the top of the list of factors contributing to effectiveness. Quality of expertise also ranked high in answers to a question about what the UN needed most, just behind responsiveness to local needs and knowledge of country situations.

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¶ On a question asking what UN agencies or programs are most supportive of development goals, the World Health Organization and Unicef topped the list. Surprisingly, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime was at the bottom. This might raise a question that applies to many parts of the UN: is its visibility too low and what can be done about it? There are numerous UN programs that are all but unknown among the general public worldwide, yet apparently there may not be much awareness of the programs among experts either.

¶ When it comes to how the various UN agencies working in development cooperate, or compete with each other, there was a sense among two-thirds of respondents that competition was most intense in funding and recruitment. Cooperation was found to be best in information and research.

¶ The survey asked experts what changes at the UN should be carried out by 2025. There was strong support from respondents for greater use of technology to cut costs and improve effectiveness, an updated systemwide technology platform and a single gateway to all UN research and publications. The UN’s Internet presence is notoriously hard to navigate and poorly indexed for outsiders.

¶ The zinger question was this: To what extent is the UN development system capable of major reform? Nearly a quarter of respondents replied that the organization was either incapable or strongly incapable of change.

The FUNDS project is also doing extensive research and analysis on the impact of emerging nations on the UN’s development work, and some results are included in the survey. Future publications on that topic will be forthcoming.

Browne said the results of the survey were sent to the heads or to senior managers of several UN agencies, including WHO, UN Women and the UN Development Program. “There is a particular interest in agencies in how different professional groups rank them, as a guide to their communications strategies,” Browne said in an email.
The results are also submitted to the donors and particularly to the Swedish, Swiss, Norwegian and Danish governments, who support the project, Browne added, noting that the results probably help to inform their financing decisions.



We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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