Monday, 18 October 2010

UN Women and UN Reform

by Ed Elmendorf

Secretary-General Ban swears in Michelle Bachelet as under secretary-general of UN Women in September 2010. Mark Garten/UN Photo

The establishment in July of the United Nations entity on women, known as UN Women, and the appointment in September of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet as its executive director provide an occasion to reflect and identify lessons on UN strengthening, reform and effectiveness. UN Women will be the world body’s lead advocate and operations agency for gender equality and women’s empowerment throughout the world. It will work with governments, build partnerships with civil society and mobilize political and financial support for advancing international goals for women. UN Women will support the UN Commission on the Status of Women, whose meetings UNA-USA members have frequently attended. UN Women will be financed by the UN’s regular budget and by voluntary contributions. The member governments of the UN have agreed that annual spending of at least $500 million is the minimum amount required for the new entity. Nongovernmental organizations have called for an annual budget of $1 billion.

The scope of the challenges facing UN Women is illustrated dramatically by the inability of UN peacekeepers in the last several years to stop persistent rape in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Abuses of women there by UN peacekeepers themselves have even occurred, after the UN proclaimed a policy of zero tolerance. UN Women needs to devote major attention to these issues while also increasing the effectiveness of the work of Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s first Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, from Sweden. Institutional integrity demands action.

By all accounts Michelle Bachelet, 59, is an outstanding choice to serve as executive director for the first four-year period of UN Women’s operations. A surgeon with experience in a variety of Chilean environments, she suffered personally under the dictatorship of the Pinochet regime and lived for a period in exile. [See “Bachelet on Women: We All Share Common Goals,” by Barbara Crossette in UNA’s InterDependent,] More recently, Bachelet served as minister of health and then minister of defense before being elected president of Chile in 2006. In 2008, Time magazine ranked her among the 100 most influential people in the world.

After nearly five years of negotiations and resolutions on reform of UN activities relating to gender, the General Assembly voted unanimously this summer to create UN Women. The agency merges four UN bodies – the Division for the Advancement of Women, its International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women and the Development Fund for Women.

In UN Women, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has built on his predecessor’s initiative to apply the principle of One UN – one leader, one budget and one office. A coalition of more than 360 civil-society groups, called the Global Campaign for Gender Equity Reform, was active in the dialogue leading to UN Women. The UN Secretariat promised a fair and transparent process for recruiting the executive director, a course that was carefully monitored but also kept private to some extent. Civil-society groups were promised a role. Yet, while the result was praised, nongovernmental organizations have expressed dissatisfaction with the recruitment procedure. Distinguished and outspoken leaders in that community, particularly the organization AIDS-Free World, characterized the process as “fundamentally corrupt.”

As president of UNA-USA, I find that the experience of UN Women suggests these lessons:

  • The UN is capable of making important reforms to strengthen the organization and increase the value of its work. This in itself is a vital response to those who lament the UN’s bureaucracy and its failures to prevent, for one, the abuse by peacekeepers in Congo.
  • The UN is able to identify and recruit candidates of the highest caliber for its most senior appointments. Just imagine what the UN would look like, and how much more proactive it could be, if the secretary-general’s senior management team consisted entirely of individuals of Bachelet’s standing.
  • Reform advocates should look for other areas where the principles of One UN can be carried out. It is time to start considering whether lessons can begin to be drawn for wider application from the field experiences piloting One UN at the country level.
  • UN reform processes are messy, cumbersome and lengthy, with only limited opportunities for direct engagement by civil-society organizations even when the goal is to fully engage effective interested parties. The UN Women experience reminds us that the UN is a body of 192 countries, where constant vigilance is required to ensure not only adequate involvement by civil society but also productive outcomes.
  • The UN appointment processes for the most senior positions may be well structured on paper, but ensuring respect for transparency, serious consideration of shortlists of well-screened candidates and open decision-making remains difficult at best. While the process that produced Bachelet was strongly criticized, it was more open than at least some other recent appointments, like the selection of a distinguished American, Anthony Lake, to lead Unicef. Those of us who are committed to a robust UN must stay alert as senior vacancies emerge.
  • While improvements are always possible, and processes and results must be monitored, modesty is required of those who introduce major reforms in the UN’s senior personnel processes, as an outstanding process does not guarantee an outstanding result, and a less than satisfactory process may produce an outstanding result, as evident in UN Women.

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