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System Failure

weare.jpgReform of the international system. Well, that sounds exciting – definitely something to get out of bed and onto the streets for. We’ve campaigned to double aid, drop the debt, unpick trade barriers. We’ve worn white bands to Make Poverty History. We’ve turned the spotlight on slow progress in achieving key Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), like cutting maternal mortality and putting more girls into school. Can we persuade the rock stars to line up for system reform? Let’s be honest – can we persuade ourselves? We should. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander (see opposite and page 12) are right to say, as they have recently, that we live in a complicated and interdependent world, and that we need to find better ways of working together. This agenda is about having a United Nations which works, a World Bank which is more accountable to its clients, an international community which acts quickly to prevent genocide, a world which avoids the worst effects of climate change. If “we, the peoples”, as the UN Charter says, care about poverty reduction, the MDGs, the environment, then we care – or should care – about how the international system works.

In lots of ways, of course, the infrastructure of internationalism ticks away successfully out of sight. If letters sent from one country arrive successfully at their destination in another, it’s because the Universal Postal Union has put protocols in place which make it happen. If pilots can communicate successfully with control towers around the world, then thank the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Look across the spectrum of 30 or so Specialised Agencies, Funds and Programmes of the UN, and there are many such examples: food safety standards, control of medicines, health and safety at work. The Law of the Sea, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, all these are accepted building blocks of a functioning global society. On top of all that, of course, the international system, with the UN at its core, is a very large provider of financial assistance and humanitarian aid – the UN alone provides around $15 billion a year in aid, equivalent to about 15% of the total. The UN is also a key forum for conflict resolution, and a vital resource for peacekeeping. There are more than 100,000 soldiers wearing blue berets in the world today, helping to keep the peace in hotspots like Kashmir and Liberia.

So, what’s the problem? It’s partly that challenges are becoming more complex and more urgent, partly that the system is clunky, unrepresentative and out of date. There have been many successes, but also too many failures preventing genocide in Rwanda springs to mind – and too many inefficiencies. The international system was largely created during and after the Second World War. The Bretton Woods conference in 1944 led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the former concerned mainly with managing shortterm financial crises and the second with providing financial support for reconstruction and development. The United Nations was created in 1945, with its main bodies, like the Security Council, reflecting the power balance as it existed at the time. All this, of course, was before decolonisation, the current wave of globalisation, and the emergence of many new economic and political powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The world was probably not as simple back in 1945 as we sometimes think. After all, this was the period of reconstruction in Europe – with the cold war, the Korean war and many other conflicts. The world is certainly different, though. We have seen how important it is, and how difficult, to manage agreement on limiting CO2 emissions – not surprising when there are now 192 member countries involved. There were only 51 in 1945. The world is struggling to deal with climate change, environmental degradation, inter-state conflict, terrorism, and terrible intrastate conflicts like Darfur.

This year has been dominated by the fallout from the housing crisis and the credit crunch in the US, and by rising food prices. These are both problems which transcend national borders and which can only be dealt with collectively. For example, countries which are traditional food exporters suddenly find food prices rocketing, because surpluses are being sucked away from their own consumers into international markets. At the same time, subsidies to biofuels in rich countries like the US or in the EU run the risk of triggering hunger in poor countries.

Next year, we may be facing other crises, perhaps an epidemic of avian flu or another episode of financial instability, like the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Every year, we face the challenge of tackling poverty and ill health, including in emergencies like the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China.

Sometimes, actually usually, our international institutions manage a response – eventually. That’s not good enough, however. There are three main problems

1.pngthe system is unrepresentative and, frankly, undemocratic. Why are the permanent members of the Security Council still the victors of World War II? Why is the President of the World Bank always an American, and not appointed through open competition? Why are the voting rights in the IMF still largely reflective of a country’s income?


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the system seems unable to act with the speed and effectiveness the world now needs. The failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda was the classic case, but Darfur is shaping up to be a scandal on a similar scale: the UN has mandated a peacekeeping force, but seems unable to put sufficient numbers of soldiers and equipment on the ground. A Peacebuilding Commission was established in 2005, to try and deal more effectively with failing states and post-conflict recovery, but progress is painfully slow. Gordon Brown has observed as much, and called for radical improvement


3.pngthe aid system in particular has spread like a surbuban sprawl, with no sense of overall structure or coherence. There were 11 separate UN agencies in Vietnam in the mid 2000s, accounting between them for less than 2% of aid to the country. In 2005, there were 28 different UN agencies working on water; there were 90 global health funds. The cost of this proliferation is borne largely by developing countries, whose aid flows are diminished by the costs of administration, and who themselves bear the burden of donor overload: the average developing country receives 200 donor missions a year, all making demands on busy ministers and civil servants.

This is not to deny the good work being done, the lives saved, the aid workers’ lives being put at risk, by agencies like UNDP, UNICEF or the World Food Programme. Nor is it to overlook the improvements underway, such as the programme to roll out a more integrated ‘One-UN’ approach in eight pilot countries including Mozambique, Pakistan and Vietnam.

What more should be done? There are many proposals on the table. These range from reform of the Security Council,and open recruitment for senior UN and World Bank leaders to very specifi c ideas, like Gordon Brown’s suggestions that there should be a trained police force ready for quick deployment in post-confl ict countries, or a special agency to provide education in diffi cult environments (a kind of Médecins Sans Frontières for primary age children). My own list starts with putting a more effi cient and accountable UN system at the heart of development co-operation – with better governance of the institutions and more money. More urgent, though, is to fi nd a way to put this whole question up for debate. There is too much mistrust, and too many divides between the rich countries and the so-called G-77 group of developing countries. Kofi Annan, when Secretary-General, set up a number of specialist panels on the future of the UN. Gordon Brown has performed a great service in reminding the world that this is unfi nished business. Ban Ki-moon has this issue at the top of his agenda. It is signifi cant that the Commonwealth has set up a task force of leaders to plot the way forward – building bridges between North and South and working for a new consensus.

We need a new slogan to support these initiatives. Not ‘Make Poverty History’, though that is unfi nished business too, but perhaps ‘Let’s have a serious conversation about the future of the international system’. A wrist band anyone? A concert?

Simon Maxwell is Director of the Overseas Development Institute.

Read other peoples' comments

Muhammad Hashim Suleiman, Zaria, Nigeria.
Poverty is a perfectual circle of hoplessness and unless our international systems are set to elude failure, poverty will always be here to stay.
aminu yusuf, Nigeria
The approach to solving the problem of system failure is simple,these include involving the locals in decision making as well as the needed assistance should be directed to the grass roots as much as possible.

The international system is clunky, unrepresentative and out of date.