Ineffectiveness of the United Nations system of organizations

It is uncertain whether the UN system has the capacity to cope successfully with the immense range and scope of new tasks requiring international action that each year brings. Part of this doubt relates to issues connected with the coordination of activities which have been familiar for the past 25 years or more, such as the continuing differences of view regarding the respective competences of different agencies in particular fields, and of the UN regional economic commissions and the specialized agencies in regard to action at the regional level. 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. But to a considerable extent the thrust of the criticism has been shifting. Increasingly, the target is a broader set of problems, which are really problems of coherence and policy coordination as well as of structure.

The very complexity of the system and the extraordinary diversity of, and often apparent lack of coherence in, its activities, are themselves sources of frustration, as is the sense among the major contributors that the regular budgets, and the programmes financed under those budgets by mandatory assessments, escape their control. Furthermore, frustration has been voiced, with different emphases by different groups of countries, because of the lack of cohesion within the UN itself and the various parts of its Secretariat; the proliferation of 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 budgets for tasks which may not always be well considered from the standpoint of cost, benefit or coordination; the quasi-impossibility of comparing and therefore of coordinating the future plans of different agencies; the involvement of so many agencies, including organs of the UN itself, in almost every undertaking; the independent public information and public relations offices of each agency and most of the UN programmes; the 'jungle' of UN and agency regional and subregional structures which makes system-wide action at those levels so difficult, the over-frequent and un-coordinated visits by officials of different organizations to the capitals of developing countries; and the considerable time and effort which the multifarious coordinating processes seem to require. Underlying such complaints, but partly independent of them, is the concern about the increasingly fragmented character of the system and the possibility of further fragmentation in very important fields such as population, food, and the resources of the sea-bed and ocean floor.

In 1991, the UN General Assembly opened its 46th session with a plan endorsed by 22 industrial and developing countries to streamline the unwieldy UN Secretariat, including consolidating the 30-40 separate directorates reporting directly to the Secretary General to four major departments, covering political and security affairs, humanitarian and human rights issues, development and environmental questions, and management and finance.
If the theoretical potential of the UN is so great, then one must ask how it is that since the founding of the organization, governments throughout the world have been impelled to set up an extensive network of non-UN intergovernmental regional organizations to cater for their needs; that the programmes of such organizations expand and flourish; and that new organizations are still coming into being. The most important reason for this, operating equally in Europe, in Africa, in Asia and to a lesser extent in Latin America, is the desire to have an intergovernmental organization tailored to the needs of a particular subject matter as against the wider international community. If such an organization does not exist, then one is created for the purpose. The problem is thus the lateral spread of activities of existing organizations, and the creation of new organizations with overlapping competence.
Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
16.08.1998 – 00:00 CEST