Strengthening role of global multilateral organizations

Defining the future role of the global multilateral organizations

The effectiveness of global multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, were undermined by the Cold War. In the post-Cold War era, the international community finds itself in the midst of unprecedented and complex events, with consequent efforts to adjust to a new order and define the roles to be played by parties within it. There is agreement that multilateral organizations in the post-Cold War era have not acted as effectively in assuming broader global responsibilities as might have been expected. This is for various reasons, which include: uncertainty in the direction the international community should take and the differences among nations as regards priorities for action by international organizations; the economic downturn of the industrialized countries and their distancing away from participation in international organizations; insufficient finance and resources; and government advocation for more effective multilateral mechanisms whilst reluctant to surrender part of their national sovereignty.

It has been argued that in the absence of a common enemy ingrained during the Cold War (Capitalist democracies vs Communism), nationalism and national interest fill the gap, and may become the main driving force for action by nations or regions, to the possible detriment of multilateral organization effectiveness. In recent conflicts, the trend has been that if the big powers are not interested enough in a particular conflict or problem, the chance that multilateral organizations can tackle it effectively is greatly diminished. The role of the economic sphere tends to be clearer, since there is global consensus that the market economy, in whatever shape or form, is the only practical way forward (given there are no other practical global alternatives proposed). Timely new issues that have emerged are environmental awareness and the necessity to protect the environment, as well as rapid population growth and the unequivocal need to reduce it to sustainable levels. These challenges will necessarily require international cooperation, and responsible leadership by those countries or regions that have most influence. Herein, opportunities for multilateral organizations have a strong basis, particularly in promoting sustainable development.


The multilateral system is composed of intergovernmental structures and institutions as well as a multitude of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). At the core of the intergovernmental multilateral system lies the UN and its system of specialized organizations and agencies, including the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBDR) or the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Intergovernmental multilateral organizations are further supported by regional organizations and a host of international organizations.

The UN was established on 26 June, 1945, in San Francisco, on signature of the Charter of the UN, and today virtually every nation on the planet is a member. UN activities cover virtually every field of endeavour, and the four principal purposes of the UN are: to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations; to cooperate internationally in solving inter-nation economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these common ends. The UN is maintained by contributions from its members. The UN has six principle organs: General Assembly; Security Council; Economic and Social Council; Trusteeship Council; International Court of Justice; Secretariat. The General Assembly is the main deliberating organ in the UN. The Assembly has the right to discuss and make recommendations on all matters within the scope of the Charter and the right to discuss the powers and functions of all other organs. All member states are represented in the General Assembly and each one has one vote. On ordinary matters, the Assembly reaches its decisions by a simple majority, and on important matters by a two-thirds majority. Hence, the work of the UN derives largely from the General Assembly and majority voting of its members. The Secretariat performs the administrative functions of the UN, servicing the other organs and administering the programmes and policies laid down by them. At its head is the Secretary-General, and each appointment is a five year term. The current Secretary-General is Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The Security Council is responsible for maintaining peace and security. It has 5 permanent members (United States, Russia, China, UK, France), and 10 non-permanent members elected by the General Assembly for 2-year terms who are not eligible for immediate re-election. Each member has one vote, and a decision on any matter other than questions on procedure is by an affirmative vote of 9 members. The International Court of Justice is the principal judicial organ of UN, functioning under a Statute which is a part of the UN Charter. The Court has a dual role: to settle in accordance with international law the legal disputes submitted to it by states, and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by duly authorized international organs and agencies. The Trusteeship Council oversees member states administering Trust Territories are accountable to the UN for the discharge of their responsibilities and obligations in the administration of the Territories. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the principal organ to coordinate the economic and social work of the UN and the specialized agencies and institutions, known as 'UN family' of organizations.

The 17 intergovernmental agencies that are separate, autonomous organizations related to the UN by special agreements, work with the UN and each other through the co-ordinating machinery of ECOSOC. They report annually to the Economic and Social Council. The 17 agencies – International Labour Organization (ILO), UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Health Organization (WHO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), International Facilitating Committee (IFC), International Development Association (IDA), International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO), Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), Universal Postal Union (UPU), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UN International Development Organization UNIDO – are known as "specialized agencies", a term used in the UN Charter.

Since 1945, NGOs have had a special relationship with the UN, one that has become increasingly complex and diversified. Almost every department of the UN and its specialized agencies has liaison offices or services for NGOs and resolutions and legislative mandates of UN bodies call for consultative, operational, programmes and informational relationships with NGOs. A review of operations carried out by UN organizations with NGOs, Apr 1988, produced a number of directions and guidelines. More than 1,500 national and international organizations are formally related to the UN either through consultative status with ECOSOC or association with the Department of Public Information (DPI). The Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council Executive Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations, associated with the UN Department of Public Information, channel information and represent the interests of these organizations. Many other NGOs cooperate with UN agencies, substantive departments and offices through UN Information Centres around the world. An Interdepartmental Working Group on Relations between Non-Governmental Organizations and the UN reviews and makes recommendations to the Secretary-General, monitors compliance and deals on an [ad hoc] basis with policies and procedures governing the NGO relationship.

The UN system has been criticized for its lack of coherence and effectiveness because of it's polycentric nature, or in other words, that more or less independent agencies may pursue uncoordinated programmes in isolation, though coordinating mechanisms exist, while international problems are cross-sectoral and cross-organizational. It is certainly the case, that the UN is burdened with a plethora of issues in the post-Cold War era, while struggling with inadequate finances, in part as a result of a number of governments failing to pay their obligatory financial contributions in full and on time. In addition, the UN requires increased financial support to pursue its mandate more effectively. Currently, most of the development and humanitarian activities of the UN system are financed from voluntary contributions by governments without any legal obligations. It is estimated that sustainable development related activities alone require at least US$125,000 million per year.

The Union of International Associations (UIA) lists approximately 7,000 active non-governmental internationally orientated national organizations and approximately 9,000 active international non-governmental organizations, concerned with virtually every field of human endeavour. In 1994, about $9,000 million of finances flowed from North NGOs to South NGOs. Whereas official development assistance (ODA) has remained status quo or declined in real terms for many years, the NGO input of finances has been growing in recent years at a rate of 5-8% in real terms per annum. The private sector and multinational corporations have a major voice in investment flows and they wield considerable financial and political power.

Type Classification:
E: Emanations of other strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions