Helen Clark: Keynote Speech on “Improved Global Governance to meet our Shared Challenges”

Feb 13, 2017

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark at the High Level Session of the 5th World Government Summit. Photo: UNDP

In my speech this morning I will comment on some trends in global governance – the governance we need in order to tackle challenges which are beyond the capacity of nation states to resolve on their own.

Close to a century ago, the League of Nations was founded to promote world peace and co-operation. It was the first global organization with such a broad-based mandate, although sectoral organisations with global reach date back to the mid-nineteenth century – the International Telecommunication Union to 1865 and the Universal Postal Union to 1877.

History records, however, that the League of Nations was not successful, among other things in not being able to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War. The multilateral framework we know today was formed as that catastrophe neared its end – the United Nations in 1945 to promote peace, human rights, and development, and the Bretton Woods Institutions in 1944 in the economic and financial fields.

Our world has changed immeasurably since 1944 and 1945. Nonetheless, these groundbreaking institutions persist, and have many achievements to their credit. From the United Nations, for example, have come a substantial body of international law and norms across many fields, and much practical development and humanitarian work. The UN common system exists to contribute to global public goods and the protection and management of the global commons.

Indeed the UN is credited by the UN Intellectual History Project as being an incubator of new and powerful ideas which have shaped policies at all levels – not least through promoting gender equality, and human rights more broadly; the design of the human development paradigm as an alternative to using GDP per capita as a sole measure of development progress; and the Millennium Development Goals which caught the world’s imagination, had considerable success, and paved the way for the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals launched in 2015.

In the peace and security realm, despite many tensions throughout the Cold War period and the buildup of substantial nuclear arsenals, war between major powers did not occur. The UN also played a role in supporting decolonisation, leading to the expansion of its membership from the 51 founding Member State to the 193 today.

Yet while the post-war institutional framework has proved to be enduring, questions inevitably arise as to whether it is fit for purpose in this second decade of the 21st century. My judgment would be that it isn’t broken, but that it must be continually refreshed. Where organisations do not reinvent themselves and as new challenges emerge, others will seek to fill the vacuum left by those which don’t adapt.

If the basic framework is sound, however, as I believe it is, then the focus should be on what needs fixing, and on the relationships between the structures established in the post-World War Two era and emerging institutions.

On global economic governance:

The G20 meeting at Leaders’ level emerged to fill a glaring gap in global economic governance. As the global financial crisis unfolded, no single institution was empowered to act to avert consequences which spread from financial markets in the north to the poorest nations on earth – despite the latter having done nothing to cause them. While the G20 does not have formal power to direct global economic and financial regulation, when the decisions of a group of major economies representing 85 per cent of global GDP are carried over into formal institutions, they do carry a lot of weight.

This in turn has raised issues of legitimacy, and so it has been encouraging over the years to see the G20’s growing willingness to reach out to both the United Nations and a much wider range of nations for input. The UN and the IFIs are represented at a high level at the Leaders’ and other G20 summits, and their officials participate in various G20 working groups which shape discussions and eventually communiques. Some G20 Chairs have gone the extra mile to include the voices of the world’s poorest countries in their processes.

With respect to the IFIs, there have been longstanding debates about representation and voice for emerging and developing economies. Agreement to the IMF’s 14th General Quota Review in late 2015, and its entry into force in January 2016, were welcome steps forward, with more than six per cent of quota shares shifting to emerging market and developing economies. The World Bank too has been pursuing reforms which aim to increase developing country voice in its governance.

Meanwhile, the range of finance available to developing countries is broadening with the founding of new inter-governmental institutions like the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and others associated with major emerging market economies.

On trade, the multilateral spirit which saw the conclusion of the GATT Uruguay Round in 1993 and the launch of the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Development Round in 2001 has yet to carry through to conclusion of the Doha Round. In these global trade negotiations, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and there has been a number of sticking points.

The consequence is that less and less of the world’s dynamic trade is covered by global rules, and there is a proliferation of regional, sub-regional, and other trade agreements. Neither of these consequences are helpful – and small and low income economies are particularly disadvantaged in negotiating with more powerful economies outside the multilateral framework. In my view, this gap in trade rules coverage and the growing inequity in trade governance needs urgent attention.

On development and governing the global commons:

In this area of global governance I am rather optimistic, especially following the phenomenal agenda-setting year of 2015.

That year saw agreement on the visionary 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the associated Sustainable Development Goals; huge progress on tackling climate change with the Paris Agreement; a new global disaster risk reduction framework agreed in Sendai, Japan; and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda which updates the international financing for development framework.

Then, in 2016, the World Humanitarian Summit outcomes promoted more effective ways of working between humanitarian and development actors; HABITAT 1V in Quito proclaimed the New Urban Agenda; and new commitments were made at the first ever Global Sustainable Transport Conference convened by the UN Secretary-General in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

As well, the first UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants at Head of State and Head of Government level was convened in New York last September. With the world witnessing a worse forced displacement crisis than that seen after the Second World War, the need for global agreement around support for the forcibly displaced is great. The needs of the internally displaced who are not covered by the international convention on refugees must be met too. The New York Declaration calls for a comprehensive refugee response which sets out the respective responsibilities of the UN, Member States, and civil society organisations, and for negotiations for a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration in 2018.

Challenges in the peace and security sphere

When I came to UNDP as Administrator in 2009, my briefing notes routinely told me that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen. The UN had played an active role in keeping the peace for decades, and in facilitating negotiations which led to the end of a number of debilitating conflicts. El Salvador, for example, just last month marked the 25th anniversary of its UN-facilitated peace accords which brought an end to its deadly civil war.

But from around 2011, the world has witnessed a spike in the numbers of deadly conflicts. Uprisings and protracted conflicts in the Arab States region account for some; elsewhere, newly independent South Sudan lapsed back into violent conflict in 2013; Central African Republic descended into deadly conflict in 2012; and Mali experienced a secession in the north and a military coup in 2012 – despite the return to constitutional government there, conflict-related deaths of civilians and of UN peacekeepers continue. Afghanistan and Somalia continue to experience insurgency, with spillover impacts on their neighbourhoods. Deadly conflict continues in the east of Ukraine.

The long list of troubled countries could go on….and we must add to it those experiencing waves of terrorism fueled by violent extremism which has global reach.

For a variety of reasons, the UN has found it hard to address these new waves of conflict. Its older response of dispatching peacekeepers when there was a peace to be kept is often inadequate – peacekeepers may be sent where there is no peace to keep, and may be neither equipped to act nor have a mandate to act to stem the violence. In a number of the currently raging conflicts, there is no mandate for UN peacekeepers to be present in at all.

Given that promoting peace and security is at the core of the UN’s mission, it is important to find ways to respond to what is driving the current spike in the numbers of conflicts. Reform of the veto power at the Security Council could help, but seems unlikely in the near to medium term. Equally distant is reform of the permanent membership of the Council – yet a failure to update the UN’s governance to recognize geopolitical changes of the last seven decades does affect perceptions of it.

There are bright spots though – take the Security Council’s backing in recent weeks of the actions of Member States of ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States – who worked so hard to ensure a peaceful transfer of power in The Gambia. Where a regional organization is prepared to act in this way and the Security Council is prepared to back it, progress can be made.

Another promising area of activity is the current focus at the UN on how to sustain peace. We need big picture thinking here - peace is built and sustained through long term developmental processes. It is surely no accident that many states which lapse into deadly internal conflict have high levels of poverty and inequitable distribution of wealth, governance which is not inclusive and does not reach all corners of the land, and an absence of the rule of law. These development deficits cannot be remedied over night, but tackled they must be if we are to build a more peaceful world. The new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development links all these issues – if we pursue it in all its dimensions, we do have a chance of delivering the more peaceful and inclusive world for which people hope.

To conclude: where now for global governance?

The magnitude of the challenges our world faces needs to lead us to reinvigorate the multilateral institutions which were established to solve our shared problems.

This is happening to a certain extent in the economic and financial arena, and around sustainable development and governance of the global commons. While development agendas have moral, not legal force, it is encouraging to see so many countries volunteering to be early presenters of national progress reports on the Sustainable Development Goals. Those reports come to the purpose-designed High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development convened under the auspices of the UN’s Economic and Social Council – this reform has breathed new life into the role and relevance of ECOSOC and is a welcome sign of willingness to change. As well, the speedy coming into force of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change suggests that there is a broad will to see global governance succeed in that area.

The human rights pillar of the UN has also broken new ground since the formation of the Human Rights Council in 2006 and the establishment of its Universal Periodic Review Mechanism. All Member States are expected to present national reports on the status of human rights in their country, and to respond to the recommendations made by the Human Rights Council. I have no doubt that this helps promote broader adherence to human rights. Nonetheless, from shrinking civic space to repression of freedom of speech and all the way through to war crimes and crimes against humanity, there are many assaults on human rights these days. The need to uphold human dignity is an urgent an imperative as it ever was.

While effective global governance in the peace and security realm is struggling, among other things from an inability to update key provisions of the UN’s Charter drafted in 1945, that should not stop Member States moving ahead with progressive agendas for addressing the root causes of conflict and using all available mechanisms to build and sustain peace. The 2030 Agenda boldly asserts that there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development. Success in implementing the 2030 Agenda will have long term benefits for people and planet, peace and security, and for the legitimacy and credibility of the multilateral system.

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