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The UN, People & Politics

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Global Governance in Flux

Lack of Funding
A Call for Global Justice
A More Effective United Nations

The creation of the United Nations by the victorious allies following World War II promised to deliver international peace, security, economic stability, and prosperity for the post-conflict era. A system of institutions and agencies, backed up by an ambitious legal treaty called the ‘UN Charter', were formed to harness cooperation between governments and prevent the breakdown in world order that had characterised the late 1930s. International relations scholars often refer to such cooperation, supported by institutions and legal rules, as ‘global governance'.

Today the United Nations' activities support 192 member states in the five areas of peace and security, economic and social development, human rights, humanitarian affairs and international law. It has six main organs, of which five are based at the UN headquarters in New York: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council (now defunct), and the Secretariat, with the International Court of Justice located in The Hague, Netherlands. Universal membership from all recognised nation-states and the ‘sovereign independence' of each member is at the heart of the United Nations system.

Global Governance in Flux

Many changes have taken place since the idealism of the early post-war era. The Cold War and ensuing military and economic competition between the United States and the USSR largely paralysed the United Nations role in peacekeeping and its aim of promoting cooperation through a universal world organisation.  Despite this gridlock, a renewal in optimism in international cooperation and the UN role followed a wave of decolonisation in the late 1960s and 1970s, when a number of newly liberated nations believed that the organisation could guide a new ‘Development Decade'.  Underpinned by a belief in government intervention and reformed trade rules through UNCTAD, proponents stated that the UN could act as a conduit for a New International Economic Order to right the economic and social injustice of previous years.

Perhaps partly due to this idealism, critics contend that during the 1970s and 1980s more economically powerful nations sidelined and marginalised the UN role in global governance by moving policy decisions to smaller selective bodies such as the Group of 7 (later the Group of 8, or G8) and then reincarnated as the recently expanded Group of 20, or G20. Rather than using democratic international forums such as the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), major governments shifted policy-making power, coordination and funding to pre-existing international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Commentators claim that larger international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation serve the interests of their most powerful members instead of addressing the needs of the world's majority population. At the heart of these criticisms is the belief that these organisations, sponsored and funded by the largest economic powers, most notably the United States and members of the European Union, are undemocratic in their decision-making and exclude many of the actors that will be most affected by their policies. These institutions have also been widely maligned for pushing the ideology of global economic integration through open markets (often know as ‘neoliberalism') to limit the role of governments in guiding development goals and providing public goods. Many specialists note that ‘neoliberal' ideology, which encouraged the removal of the state role in promoting human development, may have exacerbated global poverty and inequality.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 appeared to usher in another era of international cooperation and multilateralism through the United Nations. Since the 1990s, however, a number of controversial events have placed the perceived effectiveness and legitimacy of the United Nations further in doubt, including an unsuccessful US-led military intervention in Somalia, the failure of members of the Security Council to act against genocide in Rwanda, and the unilateral invasion of Iraq by the United States and United Kingdom in 2003. As we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, the United Nations appears at a crossroads, indispensible but also in need of major reform.

Lack of Funding

Despite its importance as an international institution, the United Nations must contend with severe budgetary limitations and complicated, unreliable cash flows. In total, the entire UN system spent approximately US$25 billion dollars in 2007.[1] This sum includes not only the regular budget of the central headquarters, peacekeepers and international courts, but also the programmes and funds of the UN's specialised agencies such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Food Programme (WFP) and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

When assessed against other priorities, government funding of the United Nations remains minuscule in comparison to other budgets such as military spending. Analysts suggest that while member states spend a little more than US$3 for each of the world's inhabitants on funding the UN and its agencies annually, expenditure on military budgets stands at over US$215 per person per year[2] - a ratio of over 1 to 70. Some estimates conclude that world military spending could pay for the entire UN budget for 67 years.[3]

In addition, many UN member states pay their dues late or only in part. Recent estimates suggest that over three quarters of all member states fail to pay their dues to the UN in full and on time. As of October 2009, member states owed the United Nations US$829 million to its regular budget (with the United States accounting for 93 percent of this total).[4]

A Call for Global Justice

Pushing back against the unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of decision-making, the nebulous ‘global justice movement' has become a dynamic new player in international politics. The movement's advocates fight on a number of causes, including the demand for a greater say for people rather than international technocrats in matters that will most affect the general public; a fight against large-scale inequalities of power, opportunity and wealth; and resistance to the further privatisation of national and community resources.

An annual ‘meeting space' for global justice groups under the banner of the ‘World Social Forum' (WSF), formed in Porto Alegre in 2001, captures the wealth and depth of this burgeoning grassroots movement. From the original 12,000 participants in the first meeting in 2001, the most recent World Social Forum in 2009 had more than 115,000 attendees. The WSF is simultaneously a celebration of the expression of global public opinion for a better and fairer world, and a vocalisation of the broad opposition to neo-liberalism, market-dominated globalisation, and the current model of global governance that many claim fails to reflect the broad spectrum of views held by the global public.

The World Social Forum is not only a physical embodiment of the growing strength of the global justice movement, but it also represents the evolution of politics beyond traditional models of political organisation and association. The explosion in global communications and technology has been the catalyst for the international growth and extension of global civil society. Campaigners have shifted their political participation, communication and mobilisation beyond national boundaries into a more virtual and global arena through new media and new technologies such as the internet.

In many ways, this movement therefore exists as a product of globalisation, benefiting from the integration of people through a new ‘flat and borderless world' linked by communication and technology. Unlike many other transnational actors, however, its aims are different, promoting public good rather than private profit through a globally connected grassroots movements. Its advocates claim that this ‘movement of all movements' can promote a positive alternative to corporate globalisation and lead toward a more equitable path for world development.

A More Effective United Nations

The United Nations system clearly remains in need of far-reaching reform. Some of the institutions of the global body, first designed in 1945, appear out-dated for the challenges and risks of the 21st century. The increase in non-state actors, changes in political power between countries and shifting realities of intra-state warfare, peacekeeping and nation-building have all challenged the institutional design of the UN and its staff.

Despite its flaws, the UN remains the most effective body to act as a conduit for international cooperation between nation-states. The UN's universal membership endows the body with a legitimacy and breadth of knowledge that no other international institution can match. It has also placed human rights at the centre of domestic and international policy-making, most notably through the UN Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and Civil and Political Rights. The world body remains the only institution operating globally that can impartially analyse and address multiple interconnected issues such as increasing resource scarcity, threats to biodiversity, climate change and global poverty.

Facing major interrelated crises and rapidly proliferating risks across borders, there is increasing recognition that nations acting alone cannot solve collective global problems. As international integration has increased, policy responses that require cooperation between governments has become ever more important - as evidenced by the need for a coordinated response to the worldwide financial crisis. To contend with these threats to international stability, as well as the urgent need to address global poverty and environmental stability, a reformed and fully funded United Nations remains the most legitimate forum to harness and channel cooperation between governments to address immediate and pressing goals.   

[1] Global Policy Forum, Total UN System Contributions, <>

[2] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Recent Trends in Military Expenditure, <

[3] United Nations,  Is the United Nations Good Value for the Money?, <>  

[4] Global Policy Forum, Total UN System Contributions, <>