- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

John F. Kennedy once described the United Nations as the world’s last best hope. More than 60 years after it was founded, the U.N. still holds great potential as our champion of sustainable poverty reduction, human rights and democracy.

However, the U.N.’s last best hope these days for realizing its full potential is nothing short of radical and rapid reform. The addition of a Peacebuilding Commission and a Human Rights Council to the multilateral architecture is not enough to meet the demands of our times. Certainly in aid effectiveness much more can and should be done.

Last week Secretary General Kofi Annan asked a panel of presidents, prime ministers and other high-level officials from all around the world to come up with concrete reform proposals before the summer. This was a timely move, because six months after the World Summit, the largest gathering of world leaders ever, the momentum for radical reform is fading fast.

To make a difference to the world’s poor and achieve the Millennium Development Goals, the U.N. must clear out its dead wood and streamline the multitude of development agencies. As part of a massive overhaul, at least a third of its organizations should be shut down and the remainder reorganized into three strong operational agencies, dealing with development, humanitarian affairs and the environment.

The EU already supports creating a single U.N. environmental organization. While the main strategy should be an open dialogue between all parties, member states should not be afraid to use the power of the purse to enforce change.

Much-needed change, since the world outside the U.N.’s walls is changing at break-neck speed: international terrorism, the communications revolution, integrating markets and the global resource squeeze have given rise to a highly interdependent world. A decline in economic growth rates often raises the risk of violent conflict which can easily spill over national borders.

In an interdependent world, it makes no sense to carve up international problems and divide them among no fewer than 38 U.N. organisations. The result is too little efficiency and too much overlap, too little action and too much talk.

Often this leaves no room for the U.N.’s unique comparative advantage, based on universality, legitimacy, neutrality and long experience in promoting worldwide human development.

To achieve its full potential, the U.N. will not only have to cut the number of its operational agencies to three, it will also need to create global centers of excellence. These centers would develop norms and standards and provide a platform for international dialogue on issues like health, labor standards and agriculture. The World Health Organization’s swift and successful response to the SARS outbreak a few years ago demonstrates the value of such knowledge institutions. We must hope these centers would prove their value again in the event of an avian flu crisis.

We should also focus on the United Nations’ effectiveness where it matters most: at the country level. We have heard too many stories of U.N. organizations in developing countries squabbling over money, office space and Land Rovers, and too many of these stories are true. The way to increase effectiveness and solve this problem of “too many cooks” is simple: assign each country one U.N. team under the leadership of a single general manager, responsible for a single U.N. program. Obviously, the U.N. should maintain its development operations only in the poorest countries, since it would be counterproductive to try to do everything everywhere.

To give the new U.N. panel a head start, the Netherlands, the fifth-largest contributor to the U.N., has provided ideas for an ambitious reform package elaborating the plans outlined above. But any reform effort is dead in the water without other partners on board. That is why we have formed a coalition with 12 like-minded donor countries: Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the four Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Apart from this so-called G-13, it is also crucial to get the United States to buy in along with Japan, emerging powers such as China and India, and, of course, developing countries.

Now is the time to forge a strong global partnership and make multilateralism work.

Agnes van Ardenne is minister for development cooperation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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