The value of strong multilateral cooperation in a fractured world
April 20, 2023
As we celebrate International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, we are provided with a great opportunity to reflect on multilateralism based on its founding principles such as consultation, inclusion and solidarity. These principles are outlined in the UN charter, which remains the "moral compass to promote peace, advance human dignity, prosperity and uphold human rights and the rule of law," asSecretary-General António Guterres has said. We are also living in times of unprecedented crises, and it is crucial that we find ways to strengthen and rebuild trust in the global system’s ability to equitably distribute resources and adequately address global challenges.
The multilateral system, even in the face of heightened geopolitical tension and big power rivalry, remains the uniquely inclusive vehicle for managing mutual interdependencies in ways that enhance national and global welfare. The complex challenges of a global pandemic, climate emergency, inequality and the risk of nuclear conflict cannot be dealt with by one country or one region alone. Coordinated collective action is required.
Without coordinated and timely collective global action in recent years to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, global suffering would have been far greater.
Initiatives such as COVAX and the UN’s socio-economic response to COVID-19 not only helped mitigate the public health emergency, but also help decision-makers look beyond recovery towards 2030, managing complexity and uncertainty.
The devastating war in Ukraine has been a colossal blow to multilateral efforts by the international community to maintain peace and prevent major wars. However, multilateral cooperation cannot be declared obsolete – it is crucial in efforts to put human dignity and planetary health at the heart of cross-border cooperation.
The recent Black Sea Grain Initiative agreement represents a key testament to the value of multilateral cooperation working even in the most difficult circumstances, ensuring the protection of those that are most vulnerable to global shocks.
Without this agreement, global food prices would have risen even further, and vulnerable countries pushed further into hunger and political unrest.
The multilateral system is faced with the ostensible imbalance in matching humanitarian and development needs with Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitments. Despite some donors’ efforts to maintain – and even increase – their ODA commitments, others are faced with increasing politicization of aid – and it is part of the political calculus.
With the war in Ukraine still raging, there is real possibility that several donors will tap into ODA budget to cover the partial or entire cost of hosting Ukrainian refugees and rebuilding the devastated Ukrainian infrastructure and economy.
"The multilateral system, even in the face of heightened geopolitical tension and big power rivalry, remains the uniquely inclusive vehicle for managing mutual interdependencies in ways that enhance national and global welfare."
The UN system, a core part of the rule-based international order, is funded dominantly by voluntary earmarked contributions. Ultimately, this gives donor countries influence over the objectives of global public good creation.
Funding patterns tend to be unpredictable, making it hard to strategize and plan for the long term. Although earmarked funding allows the system to deliver solutions to specific issues with scale, the system’s lack of quality funding support risks eroding its multilateral character, strategic independence, universal presence, and development effectiveness.
The recently launched report by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and the UN’s Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office showed that more than 70 percent of funding to the UN development system is earmarked, compared to 24 percent for the World Bank Group and IMF, and only 3 percent for the EU.
As the world faces daunting development finance prospects, investments should focus on protecting a strong and effective multilateral system; the system that remains trusted by countries and partners for its reliable delivery of services.
It has also proven to complement bilateral, South-South and other forms of cooperation – beyond the traditional development narrative. An ODI study showed that the multilateral channel, when compared with bilateral channel, remains less-politicized, more demand-driven, more selective in terms of poverty criteria and a good conduit for global public goods.
Notwithstanding the institutional and bureaucratic challenges that the multilateral system faces, which must be addressed head-on, a retreat from a shared system of rules and norms that has served the world for seven decades is the wrong response.
Those of us in the multilateral system, especially in the UN development system, must recognize the difficult work that lies ahead. We must continue to demonstrate that each tax dollar is spent judiciously and show traceable results, while upholding the highest standards set out in the UN charter.
Improved transparency on how and where we spend the funds entrusted to us by our key partners and the IATI standard have long been adopted as key requirement outlined in the funding compact.
The Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network and other donor assessments have recognized the systems’ value for money and confirmed that partnerships with other UN entities improve programmes and effectively integrates multiple sources of expertise.
Of course, the system must continue to build on successes and lessons to prove to our partners that we remain worthy of their trust and drive our collective agenda.
However, the true value of multilateral cooperation can only be fully realized with strong political commitment by partners matched with the necessary financial investment.
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