Why the UN has struggled to reform and stay relevant

Kristian Alexander

As the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly commenced last week in New York City, it is crucial for member-states to come together and address endemic challenges to ensure that the UN remains relevant and effective in promoting peace, security, and sustainable development.
The United Nations (UN), founded in the aftermath of the Second World War, was hailed as a beacon of hope for a world weary of conflict and devastation. Its mission to promote peace, protect human rights, and foster international cooperation appeared noble and indispensable. However, as the decades have rolled on, the UN has faced a litany of problems that have hindered its effectiveness, leaving us to ponder whether it can ever truly be reformed. Despite the numerous reform proposals, the UN remains mired in inefficiency and inaction. This begs the question: Why has meaningful reform proven to be an elusive goal? The UN’s problems are manifold. First and foremost, its decision-making processes are cumbersome and often gridlocked by the veto power held by the five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom. This power structure, established in the aftermath of the Second World War, is a relic of a bygone era and undermines the principles of equality and fairness. Attempts to reform this system, such as expanding the Security Council or eliminating the veto power, have been met with staunch resistance from the nations that benefit from the status quo.
One of the glaring challenges the United Nations faces is the recurring issue of member states not fulfilling their financial obligations. Notably, the United States, while being the largest contributor to the UN budget, has a history of arrears and underpayments. This has often led to financial crises within the organisation, hindering its ability to carry out critical missions and projects. Similarly, some other affluent nations have been inconsistent in meeting their dues. The reasons for this inconsistency vary, including disputes over the effectiveness of certain UN programmes, domestic political considerations, and debates about the allocation of funds within the organisation.
This financial instability not only affects the UN’s ability to respond to global challenges promptly but also undermines its credibility and independence. The UN’s dependency on a small group of major contributors leaves it vulnerable to their whims, and it lacks a sustainable and equitable funding mechanism. Furthermore, the UN’s sprawling bureaucracy and overlapping mandates among its various agencies create inefficiencies that affect its ability to address global challenges. Reform proposals have called for streamlining and consolidating these agencies, but entrenched interests and political manoeuvring have stymied such efforts.
One notable example of overlapping mandates among the United Nations’ specialised agencies is the case of food security and agricultural development. The United Nations has multiple agencies responsible for addressing these issues, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the World Food Programme (WFP). While each of these agencies serves a valuable purpose, their overlapping mandates in food security and agricultural development have often led to inefficiencies and coordination challenges. They all work to combat hunger and improve agricultural practices, but the duplication of efforts can lead to the misallocation of resources and a lack of a unified approach. The United Nations also struggles with credibility and accountability. Its peacekeeping missions have been marred by allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by UN personnel, undermining its moral authority. The lack of transparency in decision-making processes and the opacity of internal investigations have eroded trust in the institution.
Numerous reform proposals have been put forth over the years, but none have made significant headway. One proposal is to democratise the Security Council by expanding its membership and reducing or eliminating veto powers. However, powerful nations resist any dilution of their influence. Another suggestion is to establish a more equitable and stable funding mechanism to reduce the UN’s financial dependence on a few countries. Yet, donor nations are reluctant to cede control over their contributions. Efforts to streamline the UN’s bureaucracy and improve coordination among its agencies have also faced resistance. The entrenched interests of those within the system who benefit from the status quo make it difficult to enact meaningful reforms.
So, why has the UN not been reformed, and why does it seem unlikely to change in the near future? The answer lies in the complex interplay of geopolitics, power dynamics, and the inherent flaws of the institution itself. Powerful nations are often unwilling to relinquish their advantages, and the fear of losing influence on the global stage outweighs their commitment to a more effective and equitable UN. Additionally, the UN’s structure, designed in a different era, makes reform a formidable challenge. Any meaningful change requires the approval of member-states, many of whom are resistant to alterations that may diminish their power or financial contributions.
Ultimately, the United Nations faces a multitude of problems that have hindered its ability to fulfil its lofty goals. Despite numerous reform proposals, the institution remains trapped in a quagmire of political interests, financial instability, and bureaucratic inefficiency. While the UN’s mission is undeniably important, its inability to adapt and reform may lead us to question whether it can ever truly be the effective global institution it was envisioned to be. To ensure a more peaceful and just world, we must continue to press for reform, even as we acknowledge the formidable obstacles in its path.
Gulf News