Image by UN Women/Ryan Brown
  • Blog
  • 30 September 2020

The UN is now 75 – we need a new generation of global institutions

DI’s Harpinder Collacott takes the UN’s 75th birthday as an opportunity to reflect on how our current global institutions emerged and what the next generation will need to look like to sustain progress made in tackling global issues

Written by Harpinder Collacott

Executive Director

Today marks the end of a virtual UN General Assembly which began with celebrations to mark the 75th birthday of the UN. We should be proud of the progress the UN and other global institutions have achieved in the last 75 years, but the world looks very different today to the way it did when these institutions were first established.

Current global institutions emerged from the ashes of WWII; the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were created to support economic development and the UN was set up to promote peace and security. Countries and economies were rebuilt while new relationships were forged that gradually repaired trust between nations. In recent decades, these institutions have led progress in a range of areas, not least helping to halve extreme poverty.

While not without fault, the current system has shown its resilience to serve us well in many respects. However, 75 years down the road and the time has come for a new generation of global institutions.

The world is much more interconnected today, power is shifting from west to east, and the challenges we face are not the same

Our goals have not changed – we still want shared prosperity, and a safe and secure world for all. However, the world we now live in means current global institutions are being required to deliver in the face of globalisation and our ever-increasing interconnectedness, ongoing shifts in where power lies in the global economy, and entirely new global challenges. The consequence is a system that, to quote Stephen Schlesinger in the Economist, “nobody in their right mind would design... as it exists today”.

The effects of the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic are forcing us to face the reality that the power to navigate our way to a better world does not lie in the hands of a few western governments controlling highly bureaucratic multilateral institutions. We must respond as a global community with institutions that are fit for purpose if we want to emerge triumphant. We will not succeed by tinkering around the edges. We must embrace a new era for global cooperation or otherwise allow the current system to weaken and decline as it fails to adapt. So, what might a new approach look like?

We need an approach where global efforts are primarily about empowering local leadership

To achieve meaningful, sustainable and transformative change we need a system that is fundamentally about building from the ground up. A start would be to create a new set of core operating principles to mark a shift from the 1945 mentality towards a model that truly enables the ability to act and respond in the servitude of the people it exists to support and protect, while of course maintaining vital universal standards in areas such as human rights. Global cooperation and multilateralism should be centred on empowering national and local actors – moving decision-making and conflict resolution into the communities affected and establishing as well as increasing the capacity of local institutions, while reducing the capacity of global headquarters. Dialogue needs to take place within regions and countries to resolve regional and national challenges. The role of the ‘outside’ must be to listen and respond. We also need mechanisms for a more equitable distribution of resources that are channeled directly to local responders. The list goes on…

The fact that there has been commitment to this but no meaningful change is proof that radical reform is needed

There is already commitment in current global institutions towards localisation, but the reality is that the system seems to render this task impossible. Resources have not followed commitments to build local institutions and capacity which are essential for the progress of countries. Let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1: The Grand Bargain’s commitment to increase direct funding to local and national responders

Turning to humanitarian assistance, the Grand Bargain signatories committed to a 2020 target of at least 25% of international humanitarian assistance being passed to local and national actors as directly as possible. Yet, latest data from 2019 shows that direct funding to local and national responders has decreased to 2.1% of total assistance.

Example 2: Aid to the health sector

In 2018, data from the Development Assistance Committee Creditor Reporting System database shows that of the $22.5 billion reported by all donors to the health sector, only 0.7% ($147mn) was channeled through local NGOs; another 1.3% was channeled through the private sector in recipient countries and 22% through recipient governments. The majority (76%) was disbursed through donor, multilateral, international or other channels.

Example 3: Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic

Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the challenges of the traditional models of aid delivery. It is concentrated in the hands of international actors who are often unable to respond effectively when travel is restricted or risk gets too high, and local actors who are on the frontlines are left unable to access these vital resources to help vulnerable communities. What’s more, real-time data on aid spending during the pandemic shows that this critical resource is being cut as economies head into recession.

Building back better is just as much about the ‘how’ as the ‘what’

In response to arguments that a top down approach is justified due to the weak institutional and absorptive capacity of institutions and actors in low-income countries: local capacities will never materialise unless we specifically invest in developing them. Our approach must be about long-term sustainable progress that aims to be locally owned and led.

The mantra that we need to ‘build back better’ will only work if we put the tools to do this in the hands of those we want to build back better for. One exciting idea already on the table is a new model of international financing, namely, Global Public Investment to replace outdated ideas of northern ‘donors’ giving money to southern ‘recipients’. We have a chance to get this right, and a lot of brilliant minds willing to make it happen. We did it in 1945 and, in the face of the biggest challenge we have faced since, we can certainly do it again.