These days, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly is tasked with fine-tuning a centrepiece of the reform: the strengthened Resident Coordinator system – key driver of a more cohesive UN Development System (UNDS) working towards a common agenda. Negotiations have yet to reach a break-through.
A Resident Coordinator (RC) leads a UN Country Team – on average 18 UN entities – in a given programme country. The reform delinked the RC system from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and invigorated the authority and neutrality of RCs. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many RCs have enabled and enriched the UN’s response; they have been useful beyond the amount of resources they command, due to their convening powers and the ways they can orchestrate change, bridge the peace and development nexus, and liaise with external actors. Many have stood up for human rights, gender equality and the principle of ‘Leaving no one behind’, demonstrating the value of a strong multilateral development actor that can use the considerable trust of developing countries for promoting the 2030 Agenda in all its facets.
The RC system is set out as the centre of gravity in the ongoing exercise to reposition the UNDS. UN member states decided in 2018 on a set of far-reaching measures to make the UNDS greater than a sum of its parts and fit for the requirements of the 2030 Agenda. The objective is to offer more sophisticated services, policy and normative support that leverages the full breadth of the system’s capacities. This is not an easy task in a very heterogeneous system that comprises entities as diverse as the World Health Organization, UNDP, or the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with partially or completely independent governance arrangements, unreliable funding structures, big differences in size, and overlapping activities.
In the current negotiations, as most important task, parties must agree on how to reliably foot the bill for the 130 Resident Coordinators, their strengthened offices, as well as support structures at regional and headquarter level. The current hybrid funding model (consisting of contributions by UN entities, a 1 percent levy on earmarked resources, and a trust fund for voluntary contributions by member states) does not provide a sound basis. For 2021, a funding gap of US$ 58 million is projected.
The UN Secretary-General therefore –as already in 2018 – proposed to fund the costs of altogether US$ 281 million annually through assessed contributions, or at least a rather small portion (US$ 154 million) thereof. Assessed contributions are mandatory payments by all UN member states in line with their capacity to pay. They would provide greater predictability and distribute the costs of the vital RC function across the UN membership, thereby ensuring better ownership. Assessed contributions would also firmly place sustainable development at the heart of the organisation and on par with the UN’s peace and security and human rights functions.
So far, important member states are opposed to or not yet fully supportive of introducing assessed contributions, even for such as relatively small amount. Nor have they come up with viable alternatives. Should member states fail to agree on a significantly improved funding model, the chances of success for the UNDS reform will be significantly diminished. RCs and their support staff would be weakened in their ability to pull the system together, and resistance from within the UNDS against the reform would increase. Three considerations should inform the negotiations.
1. UNDS reform deserves a chance
So far, the reform is showing progress. More than two years into the reform, the Secretary-General’s RC Review report is an impressive compendium of the multifaceted efforts in terms of legal, institutional, staff-related, programmatic, and operational changes. An analysis by the Multilateral Performance Assessment Network describes the RC system as one of the reform areas that has seen most progress. This chimes in with key positive findings from the first system-wide early lessons study on the UN’s socio-economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the actual impact on delivering on common objectives e.g. through integrated policy advice is less clear. The RC review lists some positive examples, as does our own research which however concludes that a broad repositioning of functions has yet to take place. A UNU CPR report echoes this, detailing the challenges for the UNDS to effectively address environmental crises. While success depends on many factors, all in all, reform measures do address the right levers and need to be reinforced.
2. UNDS Reform demands behavioural change also from member states
Secretary-General Guterres uses his political weight to make UN entities align. Yet, his power remains limited in a system of semi- or fully-autonomous entities and a system-wide share of roughly 80 per cent earmarked funding. Member states command both, the carrots, in form of funding, and the sticks, in form of governance. They can demand support and provide funding through RCs, or can continue to deal with individual agencies. They can demand and fund complex, integrated policy support – or short-term services. The UNDS remains fragmented, and longstanding relations between states and individual UN entities make it hard to follow through on reform commitments articulated in New York.
Funding is a central risk to the reforms. As important as a secure funding for the RC system is an overall shift towards a higher quality of funding. Contributions to the Peacebuilding Fund, the Joint SDG Fund or other pooled funds incentivise cooperation. While the UN system showed overall good progress in implementing its commitments of the Funding Compact, member states lag behind in their commitments to provide a higher quality of funding.
3. A half-hearted solution to funding the RC system will reinforce reform resistance
The reform changes power within the UNDS. Our research saw that some staff and entities fear losses – loss of access to government or funders, visibility, the ability to fully implement their mandate. This is particularly true for larger UN entities. They shoulder a greater burden of coordination costs, individually enjoy strong support from contributing countries, and might calculate that in the long run, they stand a chance of ‘going it alone’. All reform studies underline that the reform is still fragile. Despite nascent structural changes, competition about visibility, mandates, and funding persists. For the reform to succeed, entities need to subscribe to the new model, in which collective objectives (not necessarily joint work) clearly take precedence. Many UN entities have adjusted their policies to reform requirements – across areas ranging from business practices to job descriptions and staff appraisals. However, staff incentives for raising the profile of individual entities still compete with or even trump a more coherent, synergetic approach. In this concoction, whatever member states decide will send signals to laggard UN entities: they encourage resistance or reform.
Funding coordination is never appealing, least so during a pandemic with high domestic costs. However, investments in the RC System go beyond mere coordination and promise increasing returns. The urgent need to accelerate sustainability transformations calls for a politically empowered UNDS able to work much better across organisations and sectors.
Member states should do their part in supporting a more cohesive UNDS. They should improve the current funding model of the RC system and thereby support the repositioning efforts. Assessed contributions would be a clear sign that states step up to their collective responsibility. Subsequent UN budget negotiations may become affected by the ongoing geopolitical struggle over influence. Assessed contributions however provide clearer limits to unilateral influence than voluntary funding. Negotiators should use the only formula member states ever agreed on for sharing the burden of funding truly collective tasks. If the UN is to become more relevant in managing transnational threats, this is the way to go. Member states: focus on the big picture!