There are several reasons why the UN finds itself bereft of power today. Part of the crisis results from the cash-strapped organisation's own weakness. Another significant factor is the …

-- RESTRUCTURING the United Nations -- a subject actively debated internationally for several years now -- may soon become reality. Though the precise nature of changes in the UN system remains nebulous, the broad contours are quite evident.
Various arms of the organisation have already undergone transformation. The secretary-general's office, evolved in the 1960s and 1970s to carry out the programme of action during the UN development decades, has virtually remained non-functional and is facing closure. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), UN's economic arm, is also under threat of being devalued.
The crisis facing the UN system today has grown out of the weakness within the system. This is especially true of the economic and social aspects of the system in which the absence of an effective machinery to implement various programmes has been quite stark.
ECOSOC, for example, has over the years considerably increased its functional areas, but its effectiveness has always been in doubt. This is largely due to the way ECOSOC was conceived at the San Francisco Conference in 1945, which formally established the United Nations Organisation. In recent years, there have been increasing attempts at further marginalising this critical arm of the UN -- and this is where the major focus of the proposed restructuring lies.
Since its inception, ECOSOC has failed to establish its authority over the management of global economy. The UN Charter, in defining ECOSOC's role, laid down that it "may make or initiate studies and reports... and may make recommendations... [It] may propose conventions to the General Assembly and may coordinate the activities of the specialised agencies..." This left ECOSOC without any effective functional role. At its best it was conceived as a think-tank where opinions could be expressed.
But ECOSOC is also the organ that has expanded the most in the 45 years of UN existence. This is largely because of initiatives taken by developing countries, whose imperatives of development made them seek the multilateral forum to access organisations that would help them. More than 75 per cent of UN activities at present are in the social and economic areas, with the involvement of a plethora of specialised agencies. ECOSOC's membership has also increased from 18 to 54 in the intervening years. This apparent attempt to democratise the organisation's functioning appears to have impaired, rather than improved, council performance.
ECOSOC's ineffectiveness is obvious from the two aspects to the manner in which the Council was structured. One can be perceived clearly when contrasted with the more dominant Security Council. The second relates to inherent organisational weaknesses.
The stability acquired over the years by the UN's political arm, the Security Council, is the result of both circumstance and design. The logic behind the UN's formation was to prevent conflagration between nations and it is this singular objective that has been the foundation of the Security Council. It was also beyond doubt in the initial years of the UN which of its members would be able to perform the onerous task of preserving the spirit of the UN Charter. The big league was thus brought into play and the five permanent members of the Council vested with tremendous powers to run the UN and its world parliament, the General Assembly. The Council's mandate was unambiguous -- to ensure the smooth working of the peace-keeping operations.
In sharp contrast, ECOSOC was characterised by divergent interests. Its mandate was too wide for any unanimity of approach even within the group of dominant countries. Consequently, ECOSOC was not given effective responsibility for bringing about economic and social change. The recent Nordic initiative on the reform of the UN system points out that the position of the dominant countries on this issue still remains unaltered. The Nordic initiative considers that the vagueness of ECOSOC's role "may be to some extent intentional, as the member states have widely differing views on the UN role in this area".
The lack of coherence about the role and function of ECOSOC is also apparent from its structure and the effectiveness of the specialised agencies related to it. Quite apart from its weak linkages within the UN system, the ECOSOC is characterised by several internal contradictions. It has long been recognised that ECOSOC has problems in providing effective leadership for operational organisations under its authority. A Dutch initiative on UN restructuring has noted, "Governments and even international organisations are often inclined to set up a new institution whenever it seems that a problem cannot be solved within the existing framework. This has produced a situation in which ECOSOC is surrounded by a variety of newer bodies undermining ECOSOC itself and turning verdicts on its deficient functioning into self-fulfilling prophecies".

Parallel system
The weakness of the UN system has been compounded by the fact that global economy is being increasingly governed by three institutions that have evolved a parallel multilateral system. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), all conceived in the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, have increased their overbearing pressure on the multilateral system and have virtually taken over as the economic counterpart of the Security Council in the global system, replacing ECOSOC almost entirely.
The major source of strength for the Bretton Woods institutions has been that they control two vital components of global economy: trade and financial flows. The World Bank and IMF were conceived as the funding arm and GATT as the caretaker of the trading system in the post-war development process. They were placed under the overall surveillance of ECOSOC. In the original scheme, the UN development programmes and World Bank activities (as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) had to be coordinated. This, however, was not to happen because the World Bank and the IMF, though technically under the UN system of governance, were run by an independent set of managers not bound by the UN system.
GATT received similar functional autonomy in the management of the trading system. The GATT Contracting Parties met periodically, without any effective surveillance by the UN system to evolve rules for international trade. As an expression of its new-found confidence, GATT is now threatening to expand its area of operation and take over the reins of global environment management.
The stability acquired over the years by the UN's political arm, the Security Council, is the result of both circumstance and design. The logic behind the UN's formation was to prevent conflagration between nations and it is this singular objective that has been the foundation of the Security Council. It was also beyond doubt in the initial years of the UN which of its members would be able to perform the onerous task of preserving the spirit of the UN Charter. The big league was thus brought into play and the five permanent members of the Council vested with tremendous powers to run the UN and its world parliament, the General Assembly. The Council's mandate was unambiguous -- to ensure the smooth working of the peace-keeping operations.
In sharp contrast, ECOSOC was characterised by divergent interests. Its mandate was too wide for any unanimity of approach even within the group of dominant countries. Consequently, ECOSOC was not given effective responsibility for bringing about economic and social change. The recent Nordic initiative on the reform of the UN system points out that the position of the dominant countries on this issue still remains unaltered. The Nordic initiative considers that the vagueness of ECOSOC's role "may be to some extent intentional, as the member states have widely differing views on the UN role in this area".
The lack of coherence about the role and function of ECOSOC is also apparent from its structure and the effectiveness of the specialised agencies related to it. Quite apart from its weak linkages within the UN system, the ECOSOC is characterised by several internal contradictions. It has long been recognised that ECOSOC has problems in providing effective leadership for operational organisations under its authority. A Dutch initiative on UN restructuring has noted, "Governments and even international organisations are often inclined to set up a new institution whenever it seems that a problem cannot be solved within the existing framework. This has produced a situation in which ECOSOC is surrounded by a variety of newer bodies undermining ECOSOC itself and turning verdicts on its deficient functioning into self-fulfilling prophecies".

Parallel system
The weakness of the UN system has been compounded by the fact that global economy is being increasingly governed by three institutions that have evolved a parallel multilateral system. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), all conceived in the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, have increased their overbearing pressure on the multilateral system and have virtually taken over as the economic counterpart of the Security Council in the global system, replacing ECOSOC almost entirely.
The major source of strength for the Bretton Woods institutions has been that they control two vital components of global economy: trade and financial flows. The World Bank and IMF were conceived as the funding arm and GATT as the caretaker of the trading system in the post-war development process. They were placed under the overall surveillance of ECOSOC. In the original scheme, the UN development programmes and World Bank activities (as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) had to be coordinated. This, however, was not to happen because the World Bank and the IMF, though technically under the UN system of governance, were run by an independent set of managers not bound by the UN system.
GATT received similar functional autonomy in the management of the trading system. The GATT Contracting Parties met periodically, without any effective surveillance by the UN system to evolve rules for international trade. As an expression of its new-found confidence, GATT is now threatening to expand its area of operation and take over the reins of global environment management.
What do these inadequacies characterising the UN system really mean? Take the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD), which is vested with the responsibility of carrying forward the decisions arrived at the Rio summit. The main impediment to UNCSD's effective functioning will undoubtedly be financial constraints. To realise the stated objectives laid down under Agenda 21, the UNCSD has to rely on funds provided by the rich nations. An estimated US$ 125 billion would have to be provided annually by the developed countries in the form of aid or grants.

Doubtful funding
UN efforts to get funds for its programmes from developed countries have failed. So it is not surprising that there is ground to doubt whether it can do any better in getting funds for the proposed environment management programmes as well.

Proposals in the UNCED resolutions seeking financial contribution from developed countries for environmental management are couched in the same language that the UN General Assembly had used more than two decades ago while laying down the plan of action for the second development decade. Developed countries have been asked to contribute 0.7 per cent of their GNP in development assistance for financing the programmes detailed under Agenda 21. A similar contribution -- 0.7 per cent of GNP -- was also sought in the form of soft lending for meeting the targets of the second development decade.
The target set by UNCED seems as unlikely to be realised as the target for the second development decade, given the poor development assistance by developed countries in the recent past. At the end of the 1980s, the developed countries as a whole were contributing an average of 0.36 per cent of their GNP in aid, with some of the larger economies like the United States and Japan contributing less than the average.
Another instance of the UN system's inability to mobilise funds for its programmes is the attempt by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to stabilise commodity prices in the 1970s. The Integrated Programme for Commodities (IPC) and the Common Fund grew out of the organisation's concern for declining commodity prices, one of the main reasons for the inadequate export earnings of developing countries. To counter this trend, UNCTAD proposed the setting up of the Common Fund, to be used to stabilise commodity prices. The fund would get financial contributions from the developed countries. However, four years after the IPC was launched in 1976, the Common Fund was established and to date it remains nonfunctional.
More important, the three Bretton Woods institutions have been able to establish their dominance over the financial mechanism in no uncertain terms and they have done this despite UN attempts to develop its own funding agencies. An example to illustrate this is the programme the UN had initiated to mark its first Development Decade in the 1960s. Coinciding with it, a new financial institution, the Special United Nations Development Fund, was conceived as the funding arm of UN development programmes. But this idea was short-lived and, instead, the International Development Association was formed within the World Bank.
Funding plan

Another example occurred at the end of the 1960s, when the UN tried to work towards a position of relative autonomy from the World Bank group. A blueprint, entitled A Study of the Capacity of the United Nations Development System proposed the setting up of an International Development Authority. The so-called Consensus Resolution of 1970 (General Assembly Resolution 2688 (XXV) of December 11, 1970 on the capacity of the United Nations system for development) was adopted and a decision was taken to create a central fund to finance the programme. The plan, however, fell through.
In recent years and especially in the 1980s, the ascendancy of the IMF and the World Bank over the global economy has increased manifold. Although the UN system had set out the plans for a third development decade, in the 1980s the IMF-World Bank prescription for the management of global economy gained overriding importance. What is more, the IMF-World Bank suggestions have been made operational while those of the UN have been put on the back-burner.
On the more specific issue of environment, a similar spectre of the World Bank leading from the front looms large. The instrumentality that the Bank has in its command is the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) set up in November 1990 as a pilot project. Although the GEF has the participation of two UN organisations -- the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Development Programme -- the World Bank, as the managing trustee of the funding body, exercises considerable leverage.
Developed countries have always insisted that the GEF alone should be the institutional mechanism for providing funds to UNCED-related activities. But it is inconceivable how the GEF, given its narrow focus, would be able to implement all the programmes of Agenda 21. Despite the recent moves at widening its coverage and looking "beyond the pilot phase" as indicated in a recent World Bank paper, the essential focus of the GEF remains restricted to global warming, biodiversity, international waters and ozone depletion, generally considered to be the North's concerns. But issues that affect the South, such as management of toxic and nuclear wastes and sustainable agriculture, have not found a place in GEF funding priorities.

Debt-for-nature swaps

Quite a different challenge to the UNCED process comes from the debt-for-nature swaps -- a series of initiatives targeting heavily indebted countries. The pioneering agreement involving such swaps was in 1987 between Bolivia and a private US conservation group, Conservation International (CI), which acquired a debt paper with a nominal value of US$ 650,000 on the secondary market. Under the terms of agreement, the Bolivian government was to expand the Beni Biosphere Reserve, an existing national park, under CI supervision.
Midway through 1990, there were 14 debt-for-nature swaps, involving more than US$ 109 million, with Costa Rica alone accounting for six of them. The latest in the swap series again involves CI, which would be trading US$ 5 million of Guatemala's debt with advances made by USAID, in return for management of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
These swaps have raised several contentious issues. But the fundamental point at stake is whether such initiatives would become so common that the responsibility of managing the ecosystems of developing countries increasingly goes to private agencies, by-passing in the process the UN's multilateral initiatives.
Global environmental management has also become a point of interest for GATT, which has been attempting to use its framework for this purpose. In the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations that have been going on since 1986, GATT has sought to increase its scope several-fold by introducing new areas for discussion. GATT's extended mandate, Environment, though not explicitly a part of its negotiating mandate, does figure in more than one way. For instance, the issue of biodiversity appears in the negotiations on intellectual property rights. It is argued here that the scope of intellectual property protection should encompass plant and animal varieties and improvements made in plant and animal varieties should be protected by a patent or something similar. But extending property rights to improvements over plant and animal varieties as GATT is trying to do would lead to a restriction of access to these resources and run contrary to the UNCED spirit that emphasises fair and equitable exchange of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.
At a more general level, GATT has tried to promote the view that free trade alone would ensure increase in global environmental quality and its recent Trade and Environment Report gives substance to this view. GATT also contends with particular reference to agricultural trade liberalisation, that the lifting of trade barriers would lead to the adoption of more ecologically benign technology and less use of toxins in agriculture. The high cost of agriculture in Europe, GATT maintains, is because European countries rely much more on chemicals than countries with cost-efficient agriculture. Forcing trade liberalisation in this sector would compel farmers in Europe to use less chemicals and so a separate framework for environmental management is not necessary. In other words, GATT has overtly challenged the process of environmental management initiated by UNCED.
And this, is yet another example of how UN initiatives are being increasingly sidelined in today's world.

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