The United Nations is ramping up a campaign over the next two years to spur a wave of partnerships with governments, foundations and the private sector in support of anti-poverty, environmental and other goals—and use the new vehicles to shake loose as much as $90 billion more for the same objectives.
The campaign is also a major step forward in a burgeoning U.N. strategy of becoming a global social-services middleman--harnessing its bureaucratic and inefficient blue-and-white brand to grass-roots networks of local businesses, governments, charities and other non-governmental organizations around the globe, and embedding the world organization, its goals and objectives more deeply into the international social and economic fabric.
But the plan is also raising a host of questions about how it will operate, where the money will come from and how it will be spent—as well as a strong disagreement between U.N. member states and U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon over the creation of a new partnership czar as an Under Secretary-General, the U.N.’s second-highest rank, reporting directly to Ban.
The idea of the new partnership supremo was specifically rejected by the U.N.’s main financial watchdog, known as the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, or ACABQ, which said it “did not concur” with the idea, in connection with its assessment of Ban’s budget proposals for 2014-2015. The ACABQ represents all 192 countries in the U.N. General Assembly, and its recommendations are usually adopted wholesale by the Assembly when it approves budgets.
The candidate proposed for the job, according to ACABQ documents, is Ban’s current Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning, Robert Orr—generally considered to be one of Ban’s closest advisors and a figure with close ties to U.N. supporters in Washington.
The ACABQ offered no reasons for its rejection of the partnership czar, but it had plenty to say about the rest of the partnership scheme. Among other things, the committee found it fuzzy in terms of how it actually intends to meet its goals, and noted an “apparent lack of clarity and consistency” in the “transparency, accountability and oversight of partnership activities” from the viewpoint of countries that would pay for them or have them operate on their territory.
While seeing “merit” in the idea, the committee also questioned the “value added” of a proposed $14.4 million centralized bureaucracy known as the Partnership Facility, which is to be headed by Ban’s proposed new Under-Secretary General for Partnerships, and which is intended to oversee the decentralized initiative at the U.N.’s New York headquarters.
The committee said the idea needs to be “developed further” before getting full General Assembly approval, including a full cost-benefit analysis, even while it said it would recommend approval of the staffing resources involved.
Questioned by Fox News about the ACABQ report, Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky underlined the positive aspects of the ACABQ’s analysis, and said that Ban “will provide detailed information on the proposal to Member States,” including on matters raised by the ACABQ, “in the near future.”
According to Nesirky, the new Partnership Facility “ is designed to enhance the capacity of the United Nations to engage in partnerships to help the Organization deliver on its goals and mandates.” These are growing increasingly extensive as the U.N. approaches the end of the so-called Millennium Development Goals, a series of sweeping anti-poverty and social development objectives that it has met ins some cases (largely through the independent economic achievements of China and India) and failed to meet in others.
The Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, are supposed to be replaced in 2015 by a new and even more sweeping series of objectives known as the Sustainable Development Goals, which are still being formulated. The SDGs are likely to aim at even more dramatic measures of global income distribution to eradicate “extreme” poverty, provide energy access, water and food to the world’s poorest people, and meet other U.N.-defined social development goals.
Overall, those efforts would require trillions of dollars worth of investment and social restructuring over the next decades.
Where that money will come from is a key question, and the partnership campaign is intended to answer it. The strategy allows the U.N. to establish and finance increasingly ambitious goals not only through its own agencies but, for example, through corporate alliances fostered by the United Nations Global Compact, a loose array of corporations around the world that have subscribed to a self-policed set of U.N. principles, and other U.N. initiatives.
In effect, it is a method to harness the global private sector—and its money-- to the U.N.’s vision and goals. As Ban puts it, in the U.N.’s customary glutinous prose: U.N. agencies “are learning to better leverage the strengths of the United Nations in relation to the private sector, including the Organization’s unique values and principles, normative legitimacy, universality and impartiality”—qualities that many other people do not always ascribe to the world organization.
But according to Ban, this “confers upon the United Nations a standard-setting role that no other actor can play.”
In documents included in its budget presentation for 2014-2015, Ban’s office sets grand-sounding but vague “benchmark” goals for the U.N. to gain a “minimum” of 250 new partners from “government, business, finance, philanthropic organizations or civil society” to commit to taking part in un-named “multi-stakeholder initiatives” in various countries around the world, with a minimum of 20 U.N. agencies to be engaged in the effort.
Among other things, the “benchmarks” proclaim that the early partnership efforts are intended to “contribute to saving 1.4 million lives by facilitating the process and investment” leading to achievement of the still-unrealized Millennium Development goals.
Specifically mentioned by Ban in his budget presentation as arenas for the partnership campaign are initiatives such as “Sustainable Energy for All,” which aims at making renewable energy 30 percent of the global mix by 2030; “Global Education First,” which aims to put millions of impoverished children in school but also help “to forge more just, peaceful, tolerant and inclusive societies;” and “Every Woman Every Child,” intended to “mobilize and intensify global action to improve the health fo0 women and children around the world.”
Just exactly how this effort will be focused is still unclear. The sprawling U.N. system consists of 27 agencies around the world, ranging from the familiar U.N. Secretariat in New York to such diverse organizations as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and UNICEF. Beyond those, however, are a growing thicket of sub-organizations, U.N.-related treaty bodies and other ventures that further add to the complexity and bureaucratic density of the system.
In typical U.N. fashion, however, Ban simultaneously wants the new so-called Partnership Facility to operate grass-roots fashion through its tangle of agencies around the world, while creating a $14.4 million centralized office for the facility, headed by the proposed partnerships czar, to oversee the initiative at the U.N.’s New York headquarters.
According to Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. finances at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, that is a new recipe for more of what the old U.N. is notorious for producing: inefficient and murkily-run programs that have few benchmarks for success and little accountability for failure.
“The ACABQ is correct in its skepticism,” he told Fox News. “The need for a Partnership Facility is unclear since, at the admission of the Secretary General, many if not all partnership initiatives will remain independent. The UN obsession with mainstreaming – trying to get as many parts of the UN system as possible to promote various objectives – has weakened accountability by allowing everyone to claim a part in successes while escaping responsibility for failures.”
“This appears to be adding a new bureaucratic layer without explaining how it will enhance accountability, coordination, transparency, and system-wide standards. This merely adds to the confusion,” says Schaefer.
The extent of that confusion when it comes to existing U.N. efforts to cultivate private sector partnerships has already at times been considerable. In 2011, another U.N. watchdog agency, the Joint Inspection Unit, which examines among other things the coordination of the U.N. system as a whole, found the U.N.’s Global Compact to be financially opaque and questioned its effectiveness of getting the global private sector to adhere to its anti-corruption, anti-poverty and environmental goals.
The Global Compact roundly denounced the JIU’s conclusions, and its executive director said the assessment was based on “incorrect or outdated information,” and “raises serious questions about the JIU’s professional standards.”
All of which makes the issue of who oversees the brave new U.N. surge into global alliances and partnership schemes with the private sector—and how those schemes are evaluated and judged—all the more important for the future.