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Next Best in 2016? The UN Secretary-General Must Be a Reformer


Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general. His term ends in 2016, and possible successors are already lining up. Here, he speaks at the Business and Investment Forum in Vienna, November 2014. AMANDA VOISARD/UN PHOTO
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general. His term ends on Dec. 31, 2016, and possible successors are lining up. Here, he speaks at a business and investment forum in Vienna, November 2014. AMANDA VOISARD/UN PHOTO

GENEVA — For only the second time — the first was in 1996 — the electoral campaigns for the American president and the United Nations secretary-general are running in parallel. Both promise to be long and protracted. Each already has a growing slate of presumptive candidates pounding flesh and employing lobbyists.

But the next two years will, of course, witness very different selection processes. US presidential aspirants will be watched, tested and paraded in front of respectful and hostile audiences in a vetting that is far more prolonged and thorough than that for any other prospective head of state.

If past is prelude, however, the successful candidate for the planet’s top job will, as spelled out in Charter Article 97, be rubber-stamped by the General Assembly after being selected by an extraordinarily compact electoral college of five: the veto-wielding members of the Security Council­ — the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France and Russia. The main “tests” will be geographic origin, which this time favors Eastern Europe, and perhaps gender — why not a female secretary-general for the first time?

Based more on accident than on merit, a clamor is growing for a dramatic shakeup in the traditional process of the UN. The 1 for 7 billion campaign has called for geography to be overridden and for a transparent and inclusive process to identify a secretary-general who is “highly skilled, competent, persuasive and visionary.” If seven billion constituents along with 188 other member states cannot vote, could their views at least be better represented? Could some modest accountability not be introduced into the usual great power manipulation? How about a job description?

Only Pollyanna would hope for a comprehensive vetting, but it should not be beyond intergovernmental imaginations to ask that all candidates have a platform as part of a semipublic process. An absolutely essential element of any such platform would be a candidate’s “vision” for the shape of the UN system and how to make the most of its 50,000 international civil servants (and 100,000 peacekeepers). While geopolitical change is beyond the writ of the secretary-general, rocking the system and its staff members are not.

Resigning in utter frustration, the first incumbent, Trygve Lie of Norway, described his seven years at the helm as “the most impossible job in the world.” In addition to being battered by politics, he and his successors have unsuccessfully tried to make sense of a fragmented and decentralized system engaged in virtually every sphere of human activity: peace and security operations; humanitarian assistance; promotion of human rights and justice; establishment of norms and conventions; and the provision of technical assistance for peace-building and development.

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The job is all the more complex because within this so-called system the “boss” is only primus inter pares because the UN’s own specialized agencies are independently funded and managed, answering to their own governors. Even the special funds and programs of the UN proper are largely autonomous.

Thus, while the importance of the world body in helping to confront growing global challenges has never been greater, the UN has never been more disjointed. Over many years there have been countless attempts at reform and adaptation, starting in 1969 with the “Capacity Study of the United Nations Development System,” described by the UN-lifer and former under secretary-general Dame Margaret Joan Anstee as “the ‘Bible’ of UN reform because its precepts are lauded by everyone but put into effect by no one.”

After a long fallow period, the last two decades have seen some promising innovations. In 1998, the International Criminal Court was established, upon which the Security Council can call. In 2000, the Global Compact began bringing the UN into closer partnership with the private sector. In the same year, the largest-ever development summit led to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which provided a focus for the UN’s unwieldy development agenda.

Two major new global health funds, inspired by the UN, opened for business. A high-level panel ushered in the path-breaking concepts of the “responsibility to protect,” the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council, which were both endorsed by an even larger world summit in 2005. The following year, the latest reform for the development UN was supposedly agreed under the rubric of “delivering as one.”

However, all of these decisions added new moving parts. Building on the 2006 reform and breaking with the time-tested model of growth by accretion, four modest women’s programs were consolidated into a single organization. UN Women gives more weight to gender advocacy but adds to the number of UN bodies requiring coordination. While there has been some convergence in a minority of countries in which the UN has field offices, the desirable ultimate goal of closer integration remains as elusive as ever, for gender and every other sector.

UN member states and secretariats normally respond to emerging problems by creating new mechanisms, often putting existing UN organizations in new and unworkable configurations but virtually never getting rid of old institutions. Cumbersome responses to food security, migration and health are just three recent examples: many organizations at the table but without any unifying approach.

Effective change and adaptation require hard choices, even where — especially where — outcomes are bound to disappoint at least many governments and bureaucratic interests. The delivering-as-one program, for instance, brought organizations closer but never questioned why more than 20 different UN organizations still required offices in the emerging economies, or never worried that transaction costs increased rather than decreased.

The painful process of formulating new sustainable development goals (SDGs) is another lamentable example of the cumbersome nonsystem at work. Member states, UN organizations and civil society came together to lobby for their own lengthy lists of “priorities.” But lacking strategic direction from the top of the organization, the honored if wasteful accretion process has thrown up 17 main goals and no fewer than 169 paragraphs of elaboration, with scant attention to overlap, resources, sequencing and implementation capacity. The outcome has therefore raised more questions than answers for the path to be followed beginning in January 2016 and by the new secretary-general in January 2017.

The reaction of member states, UN staff and observers is individually and collectively to throw up their hands, to accept the legacy of weakness and atomization in the world body. But there are two overwhelming reasons to reject such complacency. The first is the progressive marginalization of the UN in many of its major functions, manifested by the emergence of alternative organizations and sources of support designed specifically to circumvent the UN’s unwieldy bureaucracy.

The second is the evidence from past attempts at reform that a strong leader committed to change, and with the communication skills to match, can make a difference. Research by the Future UN Development System Project (FUNDS) has identified many key reform initiatives that could and should be on the radar screen of the next secretary-general. The question is not what and whether, but when and how. The UN system falls well short of being fit for purpose, for today let alone tomorrow. Meanwhile, global challenges demanding global responses are growing in numbers and intensity.

Thus, it is critical to identify and elect a secretary-general who understands the flaws in the structure and staffing of component parts of the UN family and has the knowledge, determination and — dare we say — charisma to correct them.

Indeed, the chances for significant institutional change are normally enhanced during the “honeymoon,” the first six months of a secretary-general’s new term. Both Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt and Kofi Annan of Ghana instituted their most sweeping staffing and management changes in 1992, 1997 and 2002. Let’s hope for similar initiatives from 2016’s successful candidate.

The 1 for 7 billion campaign has also recommended a single term of six or seven years for the next secretary-general, a proposal that has been raised repeatedly over the years but without success. (The term is now five years.) Doing so would require overcoming tradition but not a Charter revision, and it could eliminate the caution that customarily goes with concerns for re-election and jolt the incumbent with a greater sense of urgency to strengthen — actually transform — the organization.



Stephen Browne spent more than 30 years working in the UN system and now lectures on the UN. This essay is adapted from his latest book, “Aid and Influence: Patronage, Power and Politics,” published by Routledge in 2022.


Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminent Scholar at Korea’s Kyung Hee University. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations” (with Tatiana Carayannis).


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