The UN is not a perfect institution, but it serves a near-perfect purpose: to promote global cooperation and address some of the world’s most pressing challenges that no single country can resolve alone.

In early 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for significant structural changes to be enacted. UN reform centers around three pillars: (1) repositioning the UN development system so that it is best able to make progress on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals; (2) pursuing management reform that simplifies processes, works toward gender parity, streamlines human resources procedures, and generally creates a more efficient organization; and (3) restructuring peace and security operations to better meet modern day challenges.

Improving Efficiency, Effectiveness and Coordination

Over the years, the UN has worked to rein-in costs and ensure that member state resources are being spent in an efficient and effective manner. The 2019-2020 budget for UN peacekeeping operations approved by the General Assembly in June 2019 is $6.5 billion, a steep reduction from prior years (during the 2014-2015 budget year, for example, the peacekeeping budget was $8.5 billion). This is due in large part to the closure of long-running missions in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Haiti, as well as reductions in force levels for the UN operation in Darfur, all of which occurred at the behest of the Security Council. Despite its wide geographic scope (13 missions on 3 continents) and size (nearly 85,000 total uniformed personnel), the annual budget of UN peacekeeping is less than 0.5 percent of global military expenditures.

In December 2019, the General Assembly approved a new regular budget for Calendar Year 2020. This is the first time since 1973 that the UN will be operating on an annual rather than biennial budget, a reform sought by Secretary-General Guterres to ensure that spending and resource decisions are made closer to the point of implementation and based on more up-to-date information. At $3.07 billion, the 2020 budget was slightly higher than spending levels in 2019 ($2.9 billion). However, this reflects new UN activities not included under previous regular budgets, including efforts to monitor the Hodeidah Agreement in Yemen and investigate war crimes and genocide in Syria and Myanmar.

Over the past few years, the UN has also taken measures to improve its efficiency and coordination, particularly with regards to the delivery of development assistance. An important part of this new approach is transforming the role of the Resident Coordinator–often times the most senior UN official in field missions. Resident Coordinators are responsible for heading up the UN’s development work on the ground in individual countries, often also encompassing humanitarian and security responsibilities. Underpinning these reforms is a stronger team in New York, with Resident Coordinators reporting directly to leadership at the top of the UN. This is meant to create an accountability link between headquarters and leadership on the ground, where most UN staff working on development issues are located, and allow for better coordination across UN agencies to ensure that the UN as a whole is delivering assistance in a non-duplicative and effective manner.

Working Towards Gender Parity in UN Staffing

A key priority of Guterres’s management reform agenda is the creation of a more diverse, inclusive, and genderbalanced UN workforce. To date, gender parity has been reached in the senior management group of the Secretary General, and among Resident Coordinators. The organization has achieved the highest number of women as of heads of missions and deputy heads in peace operations in its history.

Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers

In recent years, the UN—like other large organizations and governments—has implemented a number of measures and policy changes to address the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), including:

  • Appointing victims’ rights advocates, both at UN headquarters and in the field, who work across the UN system to make sure victims have access to urgent assistance, can file complaints safely and reliably, and get timely information on the progress of their case;
  • Repatriating entire military or police units to their home countries when there is evidence of widespread or systematic violations by members of specific units;
  • Expanding vetting mechanisms currently in place for civilian personnel to cover all troops and police serving on UN peacekeeping missions;
  • Publishing country-specific data on credible allegations of SEA online, a critical element of holding countries that contribute troops and police to peacekeeping missions accountable for the actions of their personnel;
  • Requiring UN investigative entities to conclude their investigations into SEA cases within a six-month timeframe, shortened to three months in cases suggesting “the need for greater urgency;”
  • Developing a mandatory online training program for all UN personnel on SEA prevention;
  • Creating a trust fund to support critical services to victims of SEA, including psychological assistance, medical care, access to legal help, and assistance in establishing paternity claims; and
  • Withholding payments from Member States in cases of substantiated sexual exploitation and abuse implicating uniformed personnel, which are transferred to the victims’ Trust Fund.