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The Global Trust Crisis: 5 Ways the UN Can Be Part of the Solution

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UN Security Council Meeting on November 10, 2022
A Security Council meeting on counterterrorism in Africa, Nov. 10, 2022. The author writes that the “global trust crisis” is fueling polarization and “undermining our ability to address the poly-crisis engulfing the world.” She offers five ways the UN can position itself to solve the public’s “lack of trust in institutions.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Inaction on climate. The grossly unequal response to Covid-19. Bailing out banks instead of helping the least-developed countries. The different and disproportionate approaches to conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. The failure to prevent atrocities in Palestine, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Sudan. The Cold War. The destruction wreaked by colonial powers.

One can debate the origins of the global trust crisis. But it’s clear that it has become existential, fueling polarization within and between countries, undermining our ability to address the poly-crisis engulfing the world.

Trust was an underlying theme at the Munich Security Conference, which concluded on Sunday. The conference report included a welcome recognition — if bewilderingly late — that developing countries have legitimate concerns about international norms and institutions, while leaders from the global South, such as Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo called for a critical look at the organizations that govern the world’s activities. David Malpass’s resignation as World Bank chief and the likely scenario that his successor will again be American seem emblematic.

The United Nations, meanwhile, is variously held up as both part of the solution and part of the problem. While non-Western states have played a critical role in shaping the UN since its founding, it remains — in structure, programing and mind-set — a construct of the dominant global players. It was instrumental in decolonization but also helped to preserve the power dynamics of 1945. It has not only challenged the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund but also helped to implement them. And while most people think the UN is an essential organization, only half of the world’s population believe it has delivered for their country. Even fewer consider it has improved their lives.

More recently, the UN has struggled to coordinate equitable global responses to challenges such as the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic, while playing an increasingly peripheral role in the peace-and-security sphere. This has widened the gap between people’s expectations of the UN, which remain high, and their assessment of its ability to deliver, particularly related to their own countries and communities. It has also contributed to the broader lack of trust in institutions.

Here are five ways the UN can position itself firmly as part of the solution:

Help globalists become nationalists. Capitalizing on the trust deficit, nationalists have built transnational networks that have wreaked havoc on governance systems at all levels through disinformation, cyberattacks and electoral interference.

To disrupt these networks, globalists must become better at supporting governments in delivering for their populations by increasing — not constraining — their fiscal and policy space. To this end, the UN must partner with international financial institutions and multilateral development banks to implement proposals such as those set out in the Bridgetown Initiative, by the Vulnerable 20 and in the G20 review of capital adequacy frameworks.

Remedy gaps and double standards. UN member states and officials should also seek ways to address the accountability gap and inconsistencies in the application of human rights. This is ever more critical in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which resulted in rapid use of the full human-rights toolkit that highlighted both what can be achieved with muscular Western support but also just how limited that is — as justice for the people of Ukraine remains far from assured. Political creativity is needed to identify and support changes that would deliver gains for Ukraine as well as other countries, from mechanisms to address the crime of aggression from boosting the Human Rights Council’s investigative resources.

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Get localization right. As concerns around legitimacy, ownership and power grow, the UN must do more to hand over power to local partners — particularly in development and humanitarian assistance. For too long, localization efforts have largely focused on setting up local UN offices, rather than building local capacity and agency. A global localization drive could help breathe life into the Sustainable Development Goals while freeing up constrained UN resources to focus on areas where it is uniquely placed to add value from data, foresight and analysis to norm-setting, investigations, mediation and rapid response.

Make “multistakeholderism” the norm. Integrating diverse partners into governance structures has proved game-changing in sectors such as health. It is essential in other areas too — from technology to forests to the minerals needed to harness green energy. Next year’s Summit of the Future at the UN should represent a massive leap forward for multistakeholder governance of global commons and global public goods. It should also make long overdue progress on greater inclusion of partners in UN deliberations, decision-making and delivery at the local, national and global levels. To date, even simple steps, such as the appointment of a high-level champion for civil society, have not been taken, while local engagement is still ad hoc and reliant on individuals.

Be transparent on appointments. Ultimately, trust is about people. We need UN leaders who are appointed on merit in transparent and inclusive processes and the means to hold them to account. Blue Smoke, a newsletter launched by PassBlue and United Nations Association-UK to track senior UN appointments, is a vital resource that should be matched by similar steps from inside the UN.

These ideas may seem like a tall order amid geopolitical headwinds and a growing list of global emergencies. But as Akufo-Addo said last week: “Crises are the best time to make reforms.”

Global Director of Advocacy at

Natalie Samarasinghe is the global director of advocacy for the Open Society Foundations. Previously, she was the executive director of the United Nations Association-UK, the first woman to have this role, and a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. She has degrees in human rights and modern history from Oxford University and the London School of Economics.

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The Global Trust Crisis: 5 Ways the UN Can Be Part of the Solution
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Dan Becker
Dan Becker
1 year ago

Thank you.
And if there was ever a time (and need) for tall orders…

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