The UN into the Chrysalis

July 2, 2021

By Javier Surasky

The world is changing rapidly. COVID-19 has accelerated previous change paths, making evident what a real global crisis means and highlighting risk, lack of world preparedness, and multilateralism insufficient capacities to react quickly. It also exposed how dangerous it could be to ignore science warnings or continue answering complex problems with old recipes. The word “interdependency” has gained a new meaning.

As Antonio Gramsci has put it in his Selections from the Prison Notebooks, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

The core question is, thus, what is the “New” and how to support its emergence to leave the crisis behind? 

Of course, this question has almost infinite answers. We want to focus here only on a small part of the problem: Is the UN currently dying? Could it be part of the “New”?

The key to respond could arise from Lourdes Arizpe. The former UNESCO Deputy Director-General, quoted by UN World Chronicle, explains: “someone once said that the United Nations is a dream managed by bureaucrats. I would correct that by saying that it has become a bureaucracy managed by dreamers (…) someone who works in the United Nations has to be a magician of ideas, because working for the United Nations is like working for a government in which all the political parties are in power at the same time.”

The world’s future cannot depend on magicians nor on conjuring policy tricks. The best way to avoid it is by providing the UN with more robust, nimble, and actionable tools. What does this mean?

  1. The United Nations can no longer be used as a stage to debate well-proven facts: climate change, population aging, cyber-menaces are before our eyes and should be addressed urgently. If we cannot make the best decision, the UN should push to adopt the best possible one.
  2. The world’s technological speed of change is at the same time a threat and an opportunity. Strong support for state and non-state actors to minimize threats and promote opportunities should be provided by the UN. Member States should promote capacity building on knowledge about the UN.  
  3. Related to the previous point, states and stakeholders must strengthen the UN’s ability to stay beyond the curve. “We are the first generation that can end world poverty,” we have heard since the beginning of this century. “We are the last generation that can end climate change” is a mantra repeated in the last ten years or so. What has become clear is that this is the first time in history in which the course of time is against us.
  4. For changes to happen, we need a new multilateralism. It should be much more agile, inclusive, and evidence-based. Knowledge from every source should flow. Decision-makers should be the best listeners. Decision-making and data-based decisions should become synonyms.
  5. The UN can no longer be relevant if there is not a broad inclusion of non-state actors. The State-centric world is part of what is dying. States are not the only world doers, and they could not pretend to continue being the sole decision-makers in an increasingly complex society. States will continue to play a starring role, but they are not the only actors on stage.
  6. States and UN leaders should set stronger incentives to innovate inside the UN. UN high-ranked officials should feel free to imagine new solutions and think in new ways instead of the established ones. Even the “UN accepted wording” should be under permanent review. As Ambassador Csaba Körösi put it in the framework of the 2030 Agenda’s negotiations process, “How can you construct a vision of the future from previously agreed language?”.

The UN we know was born after World War II, a tragedy that helped countries understand the need to come together to build a better world for “we, the peoples.” Would a new UN be born from COVID-19?

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