A disrupter at UN: Can new chief shake up bureaucracy to speed progress?

Secretary-General António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, says the world has made progress – on hunger, poverty, education – but he's impatient for more. His approach: We can do better.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (c.) speaks to Syrian refugees during his visit to Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, on March 28, 2017.

António Guterres, who took over as United Nations secretary-general early this year, acknowledges that the world community has made encouraging progress in improving people’s lives over recent decades.

Since 1990, extreme poverty has declined by well more than half; more children – notably girls – are going to school and staying there longer; and fearsome diseases are being eradicated. And famine, while still a devastating by-product of man-made instability, has largely been eliminated within poor yet stable countries.

Just two examples: Malaysia reduced poverty levels from about half the population in 1970 to under 10 percent in 2000, allowing the country to focus on eradicating poverty by 2030. And Ethiopia, devastated by drought-caused famine in 1984, improved governance and crisis intervention so that by last year, when drought again struck, the crisis did not escalate to famine levels.

Still, Mr. Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal and past head of the UN’s refugee agency, is dissatisfied. The rate of that progress is too slow, he repeatedly asserts, and conflicts are allowed to set back too many countries and destroy too many lives when preventive intervention might have averted the loss.

In other words, with everything the 21st century offers, we should be doing even better.

Consequently, Guterres has taken the helm of the UN more as a disrupter than a tweaker. He is moving forward with a reform agenda that aims to peel away decades of accumulated bureaucratic practices, shift from top-down to bottom-up management of humanitarian and development programs, and empower local political leaders and UN representatives at the expense of higher-level bureaucrats.

And Guterres is doing this at a moment when the United States, which has spearheaded UN activities since the world body’s creation in 1945, is pulling back from its global leadership role and cutting its UN funding.

So far, the Trump administration is showing signs of strong support for robust humanitarian assistance, UN officials say, but less enthusiasm for maintaining levels of support for long-term development programs.

Efficiency and agility

Still, in some ways the new US stance fits with the Guterres goals of greater efficiency and agility, and of enabling UN member states, in particular poor and least-developed countries, to do more for themselves.

But what sets apart the Guterres vision for UN reform is that it is presented not as a necessary evil in an era of tightening resources. Rather, it is a necessary and positive element of the effort to accelerate the attainment of those universal goals, such as ending extreme poverty and avoidable infant mortality, and educating all the world’s children.

“This is an institution that over its 70 years of existence has not been able to reform itself, but now with Guterres we have at the top someone saying that changing how we do things wouldn’t just be a nice thing, but is in fact essential if we want to continue the progress in development,” says Ursula Mueller, the UN’s new assistant-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Even as a candidate for the UN’s top job, and then upon taking the helm in January, Guterres has not shied away from designating a top-heavy and clogged bureaucracy as part of the problem.

The UN “needs to be nimble, efficient, and effective. It must focus more on delivery and less on process, more on people and less on bureaucracy,” he said after taking the oath of office before the 193-member General Assembly of UN nations. Looking at UN rules and regulations, he said, “one might think some of them were designed to prevent, rather than enable, the effective delivery of our mandates” to secure global peace and prosperity.

An appetite for progress

One thing Guterres has going in his favor: He is not alone with his impatience to see the world community accelerate the rate at which it addresses humanity’s core challenges and improves more people’s lives.

For some senior UN officials, it is in fact the progress the world has made since UN member countries adopted a set of basic development goals in 2000 that has given a taste of what can be accomplished. That, they say, has fed a growing determination to do more, faster.

“The secretary-general is impatient with progress because he has experience with the urgency of achieving progress,” says Thomas Gass, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and inter-agency affairs, referring to Guterres’s decade as high commissioner for refugees.

“But he’s not the only one who is impatient,” he adds. “I think the member states have seen what they have already accomplished, there is a sense of a window of opportunity to go farther and accomplish more, and that is energizing.”

The measurable progress the world made in accomplishing basic goals like reducing extreme poverty and hunger was part of the impetus for the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 – aiming among other things to “end poverty and hunger” by 2030.

Guterres is seeking to use those ambitious goals to make the case for his reform agenda.

“The clock is ticking,” he said this week in issuing the annual report on progress toward reaching global goals. “The rate of progress in many areas is far slower than needed to meet the targets by 2030.”

Decentralized authority

The report shows that despite impressive gains in reducing poverty, hundreds of millions of people are still destitute. Between 2000 and 2015, global maternal mortality declined by 37 percent and the mortality rate among children under five fell by 44 percent. Still, in 2015 some 303,000 women died during pregnancy or childbirth, and nearly 6 million children under age 5 died.

Moreover, while overall development assistance increased, bilateral assistance to the world’s least-developed countries actually fell by nearly 10 percent – suggesting a potential onslaught of donor fatigue.

Guterres has some ideas for addressing the gaps and speeding up progress. One is a “funding compact” that would pair sustained and even increased spending for development programs with commitments from receiving entities, including countries, to achieve greater efficiency, “value for money,” and verifiable reporting of results.

Another proposal is to empower UN country representatives in the field by shifting greater authority to the experts on the ground and away from the UN’s centralized bureaucracies.

Some UN agencies and countries have been cool to these ideas, but others – particularly the least-developed countries the changes are designed to benefit – have shown enthusiastic support.

“There are a lot of silos and overlaps in the UN agencies and at the country level, and the secretary-general’s reform process is designed to address that,” says Masud Bin Momen, the Bangladeshi ambassador to the UN, who is also chair of the General Assembly’s Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group.

In what is very likely music to donor countries’ ears, he adds that “the role of the UN is to help with strategies and help coordinate efforts, but at the end of the day it’s the national governments that are responsible for their own programs and development progress. We are responsible for achieving these goals.”

'Window of opportunity'

Guterres says there is “no time to lose” to make the changes necessary to facilitate more rapid progress on the UN’s 2030 goals, and many UN officials and outside experts concur that he is right about that, for a number of reasons.

For one, a new secretary-general, like a president, tends to benefit from a honeymoon period to get things done, some say. Others note that unforeseen crises tend to come along to throw things off course.

“When Ban [Ki-moon] came in, no one knew then that the Syria crisis would burst on the scene and end up dominating directly and indirectly so much of the international agenda,” says UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq, referring to Guterres’s predecessor. “I think [Guterres] knows he needs to strike while he can.”

Then there is the “window of opportunity” that Mr. Gass, the assistant secretary-general, says has been opened by what he sees as a period of “extraordinary multilateralism” that he dates from the emergency response to the 2008 financial crisis to the adoption of the 2015 Sustainable Development goals and the Paris Climate Accord.

But Gass cautions that the world, in its impatience for progress, is not going to wait for the UN to reform itself. He insists that other entities – public and private, from countries to business, universities, and groups of teachers and farmers – are already pressing ahead to achieve the goals of eliminating poverty and hunger and enhancing every individual’s right to pursue fulfillment.

“The reform effort is part of it, but the larger global community’s pursuit of what is really a universal plan to improve people’s lives won’t wait for the reform of the UN system,” he says.

“Everybody wants better institutions to help them along, and that puts positive pressure on the reform efforts,” Gass says. “But this broad and very diverse push forward towards these universal goals is not going to wait to see whether the UN reform happens or not.”

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