Rebuilding trust is central to the UN’s future

António Guterres is under scrutiny as he prepares to report on the future of the United Nations, with a renewed focus on trust, resilience and prevention.

Expert comment
Published 25 March 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 3 minute READ

Sam Daws

Former Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

The United Nations Secretary-General’s inbox is full as his organization celebrates its 75th anniversary. Trust must be rebuilt amid increased geo-political rivalry, North-South divisions, and sceptical citizens left behind by globalization. The international community has manifestly underinvested in institutional resilience and prevention. Better partnerships are needed with the private sector, and innovative forms of cross-regional cooperation fostered.

There are positive signs UN member states want things to change. They unanimously agreed a Political Declaration last September strongly reaffirming multilateralism, and they gave António Guterres one year to present a roadmap on how to respond, ‘building back better’ in the face of climate change and COVID-19.

Mobilized by populist movements and ‘fake news’ online, individuals left behind by the uneven economic benefits of globalization view governments and international organizations as unaccountable and lacking their interests at heart

A key challenge is to steer mandates and resources towards prevention. The World Bank-WHO Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, which eerily predicted the pandemic in its inaugural report in September 2019, reminds us successful prevention rests not on warning alone, but on aligned incentives for early action.

Geopolitical tensions persist

China has invested significantly in the multilateral system over the last decade, both in formal organizations such as the UN and the African Union, and in fostering a set of China-centred ‘mini-lateral’ fora such as the SCO, BRICS and BRI. It has also deepened its ties with Russia in the UN Security Council. Western countries both begrudgingly admire and deeply distrust China’s nimbleness in advancing its interests and values in this way but are divided on how to respond.

The Biden administration has recommitted itself to multilateral processes but US bilateral relations are likely to remain the main foreign policy driver. The UK has sought to convert the G7 into an enlarged summit-level meeting for democracies but Europe is divided over the wisdom of formalizing a group which may increase divisions with China, and some major democracies – India for example – have divergent approaches on issues such as trade protection.

An increase in cross-regional informal caucusing within the UN system to advance norms and progress around specific common objectives is likely. Guterres can encourage smaller powers to become ‘bridge builders’ sitting in the middle of a ‘Venn diagram’ of such new member state constellations at the UN.

Guterres can also build on the recent Abraham Accords to encourage cross-regional cultural, political and security relationships on the back of trade and investment, and map practical opportunities for strategic cooperation between China and the West in health and food security, climate and biodiversity, and global macroeconomic management, while fostering new normative frameworks to manage strategic competition in artificial intelligence (AI), big data, cyber resilience, gene-editing, and automation.

North-South mistrust

Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and climate objectives rests in part in mobilizing the expertise and resources of sub-state actors such as business and city and regional authorities. However, developing countries remain wary of granting the UN Secretary-General a greater role in fostering partnerships with the private sector and mobilizing private finance, out of fear this may overshadow the global North’s promises to provide aid and create fairer trade and debt conditions.

In addition, African governments are expressing growing frustration at their continued lack of ‘agency’ in UN decision-making, the reneging of promises on climate financing by the global North, and the slow rollout of the COVAX facility to developing countries.

Progress may lie in two areas. First, developing country leadership of initiatives – such as the Friends Group on SDG financing established by the Jamaican and Canadian ambassadors to the UN – can help build trust and allay concerns, which is vital to incentivise transformative investment by sovereign wealth, pension, and insurance funds in pro-poor low carbon infrastructure in developing countries.

The second area is curating multi-stakeholder initiatives outside the UN framework and then linking them back to the organization once they have proven to be beneficial to both developed and developing countries. Successful initiatives such as the Vaccine Alliance can be a model of how to do this while not detracting from state obligations.

Scepticism among citizens

Trust in governance also needs rebuilding at the level of the individual citizen. Mobilized by populist movements and ‘fake news’ online, individuals left behind by the uneven economic benefits of globalization view governments and international organizations as unaccountable and lacking their interests at heart.

Alongside trust and accountability, fostering inclusiveness is likely to be central to Guterres’ report as he navigates how the UN can legitimize multi-stakeholder partnerships, enhance transparency, and bring coherence to diverse ‘mini-lateral’ initiatives

Guterres has called for a new ‘social contract’ between governments and their citizens, and for ‘Multilateralism 2.0’ to demonstrate a practical ‘hard interest’ as well as a ‘values’ case for why international cooperation inclusively benefits individuals as well as states. And technological innovation can also help citizens hold governments to account. As the first Secretary-General with a science and engineering background, Guterres has championed how technology enhances UN delivery of its objectives.

The pairing of artificial intelligence (AI) with satellites and drones for geospatial insight has been pioneered by both the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to help communities preserve ecosystems and agricultural productivity. The resultant data, accessible on smart phones and computers, enables civil society to measure governments’ promises against real-time progress, through monitoring greenhouse gas emissions from power stations.

Alongside trust and accountability, fostering inclusiveness is likely to be central to Guterres’ report as he navigates how the UN can legitimize multi-stakeholder partnerships, enhance transparency, and bring coherence to diverse ‘mini-lateral’ initiatives.

These themes are explored further in the forthcoming synthesis paper ‘Reflections on building more inclusive global governance: Ten insights into emerging practice