Seventy years on from the UN's creation, the list of issues requiring international co-operation is lengthy and complex, ranging from conflict in Syria to disease outbreaks, nuclear threats to food security. Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS, spoke at the Oxford Martin School of the urgent need for improvement. 

Baroness Amos, who served as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator from 2010 to 2015Baroness Amos, who served as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator from 2010 to 2015 

By Alison Boulton     

The United Nations requires a more flexible, streamlined and evidence-based approach to 21st Century problems if it is to remain fit for purpose, Baroness Valerie Amos told a meeting at the Oxford Martin School.  

‘The UN is a Remington typewriter in a Smartphone world’ Amos said, quoting her UN colleague Anthony Banbury.

The post-war conditions of its founding to prevent war and promote peace have changed dramatically. Practical and policy repercussions arising from the original delicate balancing act demanded by Second World War victors such as the P5 veto, and the exclusion of Germany and Japan from the top table live on, to haunt current policy.

Amos contends that the historical rivalry between the USA and the USSR has become entrenched in UN debate. Long after the Cold War, this competitiveness continues to overshadow it, even if diplomacy and proxy wars such as the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique have replaced direct conflict between the superpowers. Today, the UN faces one of its biggest challenges: 60 million displaced people - the largest number of refugees since the Second World War.The Oxford Martin School was founded in 2005The Oxford Martin School which hosted Baroness Amos was founded in 2005 on Broad Street to foster creative research on the big issues of the coming decades

While the UN’s historical set-up remains problematic, its creation today would be almost unimaginable. Yet its achievements are many. The UN currently feeds 90 million people in 80 countries. It vaccinates 58% of the world’s children, and assists 38.7 million refugees and people fleeing war, famine and persecution. The average time spent as a refugee is now a ‘staggering’ 17 years. The UN fights poverty, supporting 420 million rural poor, and promotes and protects human rights in 80 treaties and declarations.

As Amos points out: ‘It is, quite simply, too important to fail’. Only by recognising and acting on emerging trends can future policy be effective.

Identifying recent changes affecting the UN, Amos notes that countries barred from top table have gained influence; centres of power have altered and the G7 is no longer dominant; the relationship between the citizen versus the state has shifted and internet and social media have transformed communications. 

‘People are speaking directly to each other. They are getting information from rival sources. Different, more trusted spheres of knowledge and influence have been created. And facts have become a contested area. People’s personal views and beliefs are seen as credible and valuable as the opinion of an expert.’’ Amos says.Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS, spoke at the Oxford Martin School about the urgent need for improvement.

The UN, by contrast is slow and unwieldy. Arriving in 2010 as Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-Ordinator, Amos found that the sheer size and complexity of the UN undermined its ability to effect action. It had grown from 300 employees at its inception to over 85,000 currently, with 193 member states. The global Secretariat comprises 11 UN funds including UNICEF and UNHCR, and 15 organisations including the WHO and the World Bank.

Three issues dominated then, and now: holding member states accountable for their actions; inter-departmental competition often with contradictory mandates, and issues of personnel. When speed and flexibility were required, recruitment was slow and inadequate. 

While UN interdepartmental rivalry raged, global problems mounted. People, drugs, disease and weaponry crossed borders with impunity. Environmental degradation, conflict and human rights abuses affected the countries of 93 per cent of the world’s poorest people. 

An agenda for reform was urgently required, starting from the top. The world expected a Secretary General to show leadership, courage and integrity; to speak up against injustice, to name and shame those who break the rules, live up to the values of the UN, speak for the marginalised and oppressed and challenge inequality. 

‘‘The UN can continue with piecemeal change or it can revolutionise the way it does business. I know that no SG will be elected with a radical reform agenda and more’s the pity.’ Amos notes. 

Dismissing the idea of ‘turns’, along with the suggestion that $1 billion could buy a specific veto if P5 privilege was abolished, Amos welcomed more women candidates.

'Governance of 21st century challenges: is the UN fit for purpose?' with Baroness Amos

Amos suggested that conflict prevention should be central to future UN policy. The current economic cost of conflict in 2014 was $14.3 trillion – this represents 13.4% of global GDP, costs millions of lives and squanders resources. Diplomacy had failed in the Yemen, Syria, Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet $800 billion had been spent on peacekeeping, and $600 million on special political missions. These were post-conflict or conflict interventions, instead of more desirable early prevention.

‘Where is the longer term vision that puts conflict prevention at the heart of UN action?’ Amos said.

Yet the UN’s Fifth Committee, which manages resources, ‘used its influence to act as a lever to get money into pet projects’.  Peacekeepers were widely employed ‘where there was no peace to keep’. Some were still in place decades after conflict ceased, as in Haiti. Sexual abuse scandals involving peacekeepers in the Central African Republic were not isolated cases.

Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies  (SOAS) in London spoke in Oxford as part of the Oxford Martin School’s series ‘Governance of 21st Century Problems: Is the UN Fit for Purpose?’

Alison Boulton (St Anne’s, 1979) is a freelance journalist, writer and broadcaster who has written widely for the national press.  

Images: Oxford University Images, Oxford Martin School


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