Fragmentation and complexity of the United Nations system

Other Names:
Inadequate coordination of the UN system
Within the UN system of organizational sub-entities which are concerned with promoting the economic and social goals set out in the UN Charter, and between them and the specialized agencies, which are working towards the same ends, continuing differences of view regarding their respective competences exist. There continue to be cases of duplication and overlapping, of lack of cooperation among organizations and their staffs, of failures to consult, and divergencies of objectives at headquarters, regional and field levels. The extreme decentralization of the system, deliberate at the outset and then aggravated by the establishment of new organs, has not been counterbalanced by a coordination imposed on agents that had no desire to be coordinated.
The structural complexity is indicated by the number of legally independent entities attached to the main bodies within the system: 20 for WHO, 18 for FAO, 10 for UNESCO, 10 for ILO, 13 for UNDP and 15 for the UN. Furthermore, within any of these bodies, the degree of independence of a division (which may have its own committee of experts or intergovernmental organ) or of a field office, is often at least as great as that of the legal entity. The degree of coordination and hierarchical structure varies within each organization but is in most cases very weak. The same situation prevails with respect to regional offices, programmes and field projects. Because of the very ambitious scope of the programme coverage, there is extreme fragmentation of the resources available for any particular project. Because of the system of disbursement of funds, in a single country which is a recipient of aid, some 15 different organizations intervene simultaneously to organize their projects there, which may be extended to 30 when bodies attached to the UN are included.

The complexity of intergovernmental machinery and experts reflects the number of bodies and programmes. Moreover, because of the number of member States, the main committees, with a representative on each committee, cannot examine all problems in detail. This has led to the creation of smaller committees, specialized subsidiary organs, and a system of relationships has been established between them. A whole network of coordination machinery has been imposed on this structure. The vagueness of the terms of reference; the similarity of jurisdiction of organs as important as the Economic and Social Council, UNCTAD, the Second and Third Committees of the General Assembly; and the number and repetition of general debates repeated in committee after committee whose relative status is not clearly defined, have created in the UN particularly a state of confusion which in spite of countless efforts it has been found impossible to remedy.

The very complexity and extraordinary diversity of the UN system, and often merely apparent lack of coherence in its activities, are sources of member frustration, as is the sense among the major contributors that the regular UN budgets, and the programmes financed under those budgets by mandatory assessments, escape their control.

The structural complexity is aggravated by a number of factors, including: the proliferation of external intergovernmental organs, many with overlapping mandates and almost all of unmanageable size; the proliferation of highly independent voluntary trust funds for purposes not necessarily corresponding to established high priorities; the soaring costs for UN and agency tasks which may not always be justified from the standpoint of benefit; the numerous obstacles to comparing and therefore to coordinating the future plans of different agencies; the involvement of so many agencies, including the organs of the UN, in almost every undertaking; the independent public information and public relations offices for most of the agencies and UN programmes; the 'tangle' of UN and agency regional and subregional structures which makes system-wide action at those levels so difficult; the over-frequent and uncoordinated visits by officials of different organizations to the capitals of developing countries and the excessive time and effort which coordinating processes, where they exist, seem to require.

Underlying such conditions, but partly independent of them, is the seriously fragmented character of the UN system and the possibility of increasing fragmentation in very important fields such as population, food, trade, environment and technology, if current trends are not arrested.

Counter Claim:
The UN has already been able to assist economic development and social progress throughout the world without being seriously inhibited by organizational incoherence. Some duplication and overlapping of activities and arrangements, some failures to cooperate, some conceptual differences in regard to objectives (all of which are common phenomena in national administrations) are unavoidable in a dynamic, growing and pioneering international system. Furthermore, they are part of the price that realistically will have to be paid by the UN for the advantage of being able, through the international functional agencies, to mobilize the active participation and support of the relevant technical ministries and professional groups in each country.

It would be easy to show how all parts of the decentralized system have learned to work in concert on an ever-widening series of broad programmes in a way never envisaged in 1945, and, still more striking, how in major emergencies such as the Congo operation of 1960-1964, the Biafra situation in 1969, the aftermath of the Bangladesh conflict in 1971-1972, and the Sudano-Sahelian drought from 1973, as well as in numerous operations for relief and reconstruction after sudden natural disasters, the specialized agencies and UN programmes have worked in concert under UN leadership.

Problem Type:
E: Emanations of other problems
Date of last update
01.01.2000 – 00:00 CET