Leading for Reform at the United Nations

New York, NY
January 20, 2012


“The United Nations does extraordinary good around the world -- feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, mending places that have been broken. But it also struggles to enforce its will, and to live up to the ideals of its founding. I believe that those imperfections are not a reason to walk away from this institution -- they are a calling to redouble our efforts. The United Nations can either be a place where we bicker about outdated grievances, or forge common ground; a place where we focus on what drives us apart, or what brings us together; a place where we indulge tyranny, or a source of moral authority. In short, the United Nations can be an institution that is disconnected from what matters in the lives of our citizens, or it can be an indispensable factor in advancing the interests of the people we serve.”

– President Barack Obama, September 23, 2009

The Obama Administration has built on a bipartisan tradition of championing reform at the United Nations (UN) and has achieved notable successes on behalf of U.S. taxpayers. Under President Obama, the United States has:

· Led efforts to achieve a 5% cut in the size of the 2012-13 UN regular budget, resulting in a savings to American taxpayers of as much as $100 million, and only the second budget reduction in the last 50 years;

· Contained the growth of the UN peacekeeping budget, which grew from $1.8 billion to $7.1 billion from 2001 to 2009, by closing peacekeeping missions, as appropriate, and showing increased discipline in establishing new missions;

· Fought for increased transparency throughout the United Nations system, including promoting public disclosure online of all internal audit reports starting in 2012; and

· Spearheaded establishment of a new UN agency called UN Women, combining four separate UN offices into one stronger, streamlined and more efficient entity working to support and empower women worldwide.

Why Reform Matters: The United States has led at the UN since its creation because a strong, effective UN is among the best tools we have to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges. The UN works to prevent conflict and keep peace, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to isolate terrorists, criminals and despots. The UN goes where nobody else will to provide desperately needed humanitarian and development assistance to the world’s neediest people; and promotes universal values that Americans cherish, including human rights, democracy, and equality. The UN shares the burdens of global security among all nations, rather than leaving the United States to manage them alone. This includes:

· Keeping a brutal dictator from killing innocents in Libya;

· Imposing biting sanctions on regimes like Iran and North Korea in response to illicit nuclear weapons programs;

· Supporting the birth of new nation in South Sudan after decades of war;

· Helping a duly elected president take office in Cote d'Ivoire;

· Rebuilding Haiti after disaster strikes, and

· Vaccinating children around the world against polio.

The Obama Administration is committed to achieving a reformed and renewed UN that saves lives, keeps the peace, seeds development, finds common solutions to the urgent problems of a new century, operates effectively —and lives within its means. This comprehensive UN reform agenda is based on four key pillars: economy, accountability, integrity, and excellence.

Economy: A Leaner UN. Every dollar sent to the UN represents the hard work of a taxpayer somewhere, and any dollar wasted at the UN is a wasted opportunity to build a better, freer, more prosperous world. The United Nations should face these tough economic times by tightening its belt and doing more with less. The United States is working to:

· Bring discipline and restraint to UN budgets: The UN’s Regular Budget has nearly doubled over the last decade. Some—but not all—of the increase has been due to expanded UN responsibilities (in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan) and from other tasks that the United States has asked of the Organization. But growth must be rooted in real world needs and constrained by real world realities. The recently-approved 2012/13 budget – a five percent reduction, and one of only two UN budget reductions in 50 years – was a historic step. Over the next 18 months, UN budgets through 2015 will be adopted, and the United States will push to continue this trend toward sustained and structural fiscal discipline.

· Shrink the bureaucracy and right-size UN staff: The UN should implement measures widely used by member states (e.g., hiring freezes, reduction of positions through attrition) to right-size staffing levels by 2015. The UN should also reduce program redundancies and layers through initiatives that streamline or shed non-core functions and shrink outdated entities. In peacekeeping, the U.S. will continue to push the Global Field Support Strategy, a consolidation of operational and back-office support functions at global and regional service centers.

· Bring Private Sector Sensibility to the UN: There are few management challenges facing the UN that the global private sector and entrepreneurial governments and NGOs, North and South, have not grappled with. The UN should systematically introduce a culture of efficiency, productivity, and performance through measures such as seeking the expertise of international business leaders, greater use of outsourcing, professional recruitment for senior posts including from outside the system, and commissioning an independent study of compensation practices throughout the UN system.

· Deploy 21st Century Information Technology: The ongoing overhaul of the UN’s information management system could improve performance while saving more than $100 million annually. The United States and our partners will continue to push the UN to ensure that the overhaul is implemented swiftly and within approved budgets, that staffing issues that have troubled the project are corrected, and that it reaps quantifiable savings for the UN and its member states.

· Reform the Budget Process: The UN budget-making process is too complex and opaque. Paradoxically, there is both too much information but too little useful information: readers of UN budget documents can find, for example, the precise number of policy papers to be issued by a given department, but cannot find the cost of employee benefits or utilities for that department. We will promote a UNs budgeting system that is streamlined, transparent, gives managers more flexibility while demanding more accountability, and provides the information necessary for real financial analysis and management.

· Revitalize the ACABQ: The UN’s Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions was established to be a truly independent and expert review panel. Three reforms would help restore ACABQ to its original vision as a true budget watchdog: ACABQ‘s members should possess internationally-recognized qualifications and be vetted by an independent third party. New rules should discourage a “revolving door” – for the United States or others – between representing member states in the UN’s budget committee and service on the ACABQ. And the Secretariat should provide the ACABQ with the budget earlier in the process, to facilitate timely review.

Accountability: A Cleaner UN. Taxpayers around the world deserve to know exactly how the money they send to the UN is spent and to have confidence that every dollar, euro or yen is handled honestly and well. The UN has made important advances in recent years, but much more remains to be done to strengthen oversight mechanisms, ethics enforcement, whistleblower protection, and transparency. The United States is working to:

· Strengthen Internal Oversight: We will work to strengthen, empower, and firmly institutionalize the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). With a respected new head of OIOS now onboard, the UN should ensure that the office is fully-staffed; independent (able to conduct its business autonomously from the offices it polices); supported by a vigorous financial crimes unit; and have an investigatory writ that extends to UN funds and programs outside the UN Secretariat.

· Increase Transparency throughout the UN system: Open and accessible information for the public is the best way to ensure accountability, and a pillar of ongoing U.S. “UNTAI II” reform efforts that aim to enhance transparency and accountability across the UN system. Though sustained intensive diplomacy in support of these efforts already has led to important reforms, it remains too difficult for the public, press and member states to access budget, financial and audit information, especially among the diverse UN funds and programs. Audits and reports by UN funds and programs should be online and available to the public; we applaud recent commitments toward this goal and will push for full implementation by the end of 2012. Meetings of the key budgetary and other committees should be webcast live. And there should be enhanced public financial disclosure by senior officials across the UN system.

· Encourage a Broader Global “UN Accountability Community”: The UN is a public enterprise whose agencies collectively spend more than $36 billion annually.[i] Yet there is little systematic coverage of UN management workings by independent media, and too little sustained or integrated analysis of UN programs, policies and budgets by NGOs. Although there is a vibrant NGO sector at the UN, its participation is almost always around policy issues (such as human rights, development, or peacekeeping) and rarely around management practices such as budgeting or procurement. The network of independent entities analyzing UN practices should be wider, deeper, and more vigorous, an international network that examines and elevates UN management issues in the public discourse.

· Improve UN Procurement Processes: We will push for an acceleration of efforts to standardize procurement best practices across the UN system. The bid protest system now being tested should be strengthened and made permanent, and the UN should put in place a system-wide vendor sanctions procedure so that a vendor engaging in corrupt and fraudulent practices with one UN agency is barred from doing business with any UN agency.

· Open the Doors on UN Websites: UN websites provide much information about what the UN does, but much less user-friendly information about how it does it. It is far too difficult to access usable information about budgets, personnel, pay, audits and the like. Meanwhile, governments and NGOs around the world are reaching for unprecedented levels of public openness on their websites. At sites such as www.opendoor.ky.gov (Kentucky), www.recovery.gov (U.S.), and www.dfid.gov.uk, ordinary citizens can easily find detailed data on how public money is spent, how much employees are paid, and what contracts have been awarded. As the world’s preeminent international organization, the UN system should lead these efforts.

· Lead by Example: The United States will lead by establishing a new standard of openness around U.S. funding of the UN. Currently, it is too difficult for taxpayers and policymakers to track total U.S. funds to the UN and all UN program results supported by the United States; we will post on the website of the U.S. Mission to the UN a feature that will consolidate existing but hard-to-find data on U.S. funds going to the UN, from which agencies, and to which programs.

Integrity: A Respected UN. As a founding member, host country, and largest contributor, the United States has a particular interest in seeing that the UN lives up to its founding principles and values and standing firm against actions by member states that discredit the UN and the important work it does. To this end, the United States is working to:

· Forge a New Coalition to Improve HRC Membership: The United States will work to forge a new coalition in New York, a kind of “credibility caucus” to promote truly competitive HRC elections, rigorous application of membership criteria, and other reforms aimed at keeping the worst human rights offenders off the HRC. It is time for those UN member states committed to human rights values to come together themselves to do what the General Assembly has not done in its review: hold Human Rights Council members to the same standard of truly “free and fair” elections that the UN promotes around the world, and insist on the highest standards of integrity for the Council and all its members.

· Require Criteria for Member States to Hold Leadership Positions: A related issue is the damage to the UN when a manifestly unsuited country assumes a leadership position, such as when North Korea assumed the rotating monthly chairmanship of the Conference on Disarmament. The United States will push a new common sense standard: any member state that is currently the subject of UN Security Council sanctions for proliferation or massive human rights violations should be ineligible to hold a leadership position in a UN body.

· End Peacekeeper Misconduct: UN Peacekeepers are sent into harm’s way to halt violence and protect civilians, and the vast majority perform admirably. But any incident of dereliction of duty or abuse of local populations is one too many. The UN must do more to implement its zero tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers and protection of the rights of women. Some reforms (including conduct and discipline teams for every unit) are underway, but the UN should deploy a truly system-wide database on misconduct to track abuses –with more consistent and transparent follow-up at the highest levels with member states -- to ensure that those who commit abuses are held accountable and never again serve under the UN flag.

· Stop Discrimination Against Israel: One country in the world – Israel – is consistently singled out for unfair criticism and exclusion by member states abusing the UN system. The U.S. will continue fighting to end this persistent disparate treatment of Israel as a matter of the UN’s fundamental institutional integrity. For example, we have secured Israel’s inclusion in key negotiating groups, but Israel remains unfairly excluded from two key regional fora: the “JUSCANZ” group in the UN’s Third Committee in New York, and the “WEOG” group in Geneva. The US will continue to pursue full participation for Israel in all parts of the UN system.

· Fight for Fairness in the Fifth Committee: A disproportionate influence on UN budgets is exerted by countries that themselves do not pay most of the bills. This must change, and the General Assembly must be held to its 1986 commitment that budgets will be adopted by consensus. A budget adopted by a technical majority but over the objections of major contributors clearly does not meet that commitment. Working with like-minded member states, the US is exploring a variety of proposals for establishing fairer practices in the Fifth Committee, and will stand firm for the principle that legitimate assessments on member states only proceed from truly consensual budgetary decisions.

Excellence: An Effective UN. Billions of people depend, many for their lives, on crucial UN services. They deserve a UN that delivers real results and that performs – from senior officials in New York to front-line implementers in African villages – to the highest standard of excellence. The United States is supporting initiatives to:

· Overhaul the Human Resources System to Reward Performance: The UN needs a more merit-based compensation system for its workforce. An opportunity for overhauling the personnel system will come up in 2012. The United States will push for an external review of UN human resources and practices, enforcement of new staff recruitment timelines, ending employee contracts for poor performance, and broader authority for managers to shift resources to where they are most needed.

· Deploy the Right People to the Right Place at the Right Time: Peacekeeping, barely imagined at the time of the UN’s founding, now comprises 15 missions and 120,000 personnel. An increasing number of humanitarian disasters every year strains the capacity of the UN’s response system. The need for electoral and constitutional assistance has surged after the “Arab Spring.” Yet deployment of expert staff to crises takes too long. Specific solutions have been proposed (e.g., the Civilian Capacity Review, an initiative similar to the Administration’s Civilian Response Corps, to ensure that relevant civilian experts can be deployed where needed on short notice) and the United States will press for key measures to be implemented.

· Unify Assistance and Program Delivery: A fragmented UN system creates confusion for the people it serves and overlap in the services it provides them: 16 separate UN agencies (and one peacekeeping mission), for example, currently operate in Liberia. And in many instances “integrated” operations are just a label on top of what remain disconnected activities. UN leadership should clarify divisions of labor among agencies, funds and programs in the field, and donors should ensure proper incentives to reduce redundant efforts and leverage comparative advantages without compromising humanitarian missions. The UN launched “Delivering as One” on a pilot basis in 8 countries to bring some cohesion to this patchwork; pilot results should be rigorously evaluated, with lessons learned implemented broadly across the UN system.

· Trim Outdated “Mandates”: One roadblock to sharpening UN performance is the mountain of “mandates” – charges to perform certain activities – that the organization operates under. The total number of mandates approaches 10,000, many of which are obsolete and redundant. We will pursue requiring sunset clauses on mandates going forward, and using program evaluation mechanisms to tackle the problem.

· Create a Culture of Evaluation for Effectiveness: While UN programs are subject to regular assessments and reviews, a confusing an ad hoc evaluation regime has undercut the kind of focused, sustained attention needed to improve performance. ACABQ has called for increasing the percentage of evaluations that are external rather than internal, and better linkage of evaluation results to program planning. The United States will work on agency boards to shift the system’s focus from outputs to outcomes and link resources received to evidence of effectiveness.


[i] A/65/187, “Budgetary and financial situation of the organizations of the United Nations system,” page 129

PRN: 2012/011