UN Reforms: The Best Intentions Only Go So Far

Stephen Pritchard

1 March 2018; Updated 29 November 2018

The reform agenda of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is a welcome, belated intervention that has adopted an inevitable, necessarily deliberate pace. In his first year, Mr Guterres and his teams unveiled a reform agenda along three pillars: development, management, and the focus of this article, peace and security.[1]

Initially welcomed under the belief that they would usher-in urgently needed changes to the Organisation, the reforms capitalise on the political opportunity afforded by the process of transition from one Secretary-General to another. But the United Nations is a complex entity and the actual changes, let alone their outcomes, are unlikely to be realised for many years.

At the end of 2018 we have a clearer idea of what Mr Guterres is aiming for.[2] Member States have warmly welcomed them, a reflection of their necessity as well as Mr Guterres’s consensus-building skills as a former head of state. The Secretary-General started appointing key responsibilities[3] nearly two years into his first term. In June 2018 he gave Robert Piper (a seasoned UN leader recently in the Middle East) the task of “repositioning” development to align with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The following month a Dane, Jens Wandel, was assigned with the coordination of the reforms. In November 2018 the UN opened a website dedicated to detailing the reforms.[4]

Among the most significant of all the changes effected under Mr Guterres is the creation of two new Departments under a reconfigured peace and security architecture: Peace Operations (DPO), and Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA). These two would subsume the extant Departments of Political Affairs (DPA), and Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). It would also move the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) inside DPPA, under the umbrella of the Security Council while still reporting to the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC).

Merging DPKO, DPA and PBSO and realigning them as DPPA and DPO will be no easy feat, with all the inevitable office politics, bureaucratic realities, and Member State preferences to be reconciled. But it will go a long way toward making sure that the bits of the UN that prevent conflict act in concert with those that respond to it. Historically, ‘preventing’ has been hampered by anemic financial support to the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO),[5] which reports to the PBC which in turn sits almost as an afterthought in the UN architecture. In the reforms, Peacebuilding is moved to sit within DPPA, and the benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, Peacebuilding would answer to both the Security Council as well as the PBC, and would sit alongside the well-resourced heavyweight peace operations currently under DPKO. This will remove an institutional barrier between the ‘preventing’ and ‘responding’ conflict elements. Secondly, Peacebuilding will also be present in the UN Development Group. There, Peacebuilding will act as a ‘peace lynchpin’ across all the whole UN system. One UN agency staff update about the reforms said “PBSO becomes more important”.

Financing of civilian Peacebuilding is a bull market. Bilateral contributions as recorded by OECD are already at an all-time high,[6] and the Secretary-General is urging countries to significantly ramp-up multilateral contributions (to the UN) to half a billion US dollars per year, up from the 50–100 millions of recent years, yet a paltry amount when compared with the present near ten billion annual multilateral contribution for UN peacekeeping. UN Peacebuilding has employed innovative positioning tactics during the reforms. It secured the Secretary-General’s support for obtaining more funding through innovative means,[7] such as by taking the millions of US dollars that peacekeeping missions do not manage to spend at the end of their financial years, or the funds stagnant held within various UN Trust Funds that have remained untouched in the last two years. In other words, all of the small change that has fallen down the back of the UN’s proverbial sofa is being claimed. These considerable funds could for the first time put conflict prevention on a level playing field with conflict response. One outcome could be to expand and deploy PBSO to support conflict-affected countries much in the way that OCHA does for states with humanitarian needs.

These reforms will be all the change that the world’s pinnacle multilateral institution can handle in the next five to ten years. While the reforms are ambitious, they omit a bigger question and the elephant in the room among many Member States: UN reform at the level of the Security Council itself. The UN System can be likened to an underperforming company, where the CEO has secured Board approval to reshuffle her management team, but where the real problem lies with the Board itself being dysfunctional. Just this week the US has shut down a Security Council Resolution addressing the dire needs of people in Yemen. The Russian Federation refuses to countenance a peacekeeping mission in the Ukraine. Meanwhile, Security Council reform propositions by the Group of Four (Brazil, India, Germany and Japan) and Uniting for Consensus (a dozen others, including Turkey, South Korea, Argentina, Pakistan and Italy) repeatedly go unheeded.[8]

The Security Council today is an anachronism, and must change to reflect the world today. Will Mr Guterres take his eye off this bigger prize?


[1] United Nations, ‘Restructuring of the United Nations peace and security pillar: Report of the Secretary-General’, A/72/525, 13 October 2017 [accessed 27 November 2018], available from: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/72/525.

[2] Ana Maria Lebada, ‘September 2018 Update on UN Reform Processes’, IISD, 6 September 2018 [accessed 27 November 2018], available from: http://sdg.iisd.org/commentary/policy-briefs/september-2018-update-on-un-reform-processes/.

[3] United Nations, ‘Meetings Coverage and Press Releases’, United Nations, no date [accessed 27 November 2018], available from: https://www.un.org/press/en/un-bodies/appointments.

[4] United Nations, ‘United to Reform’, United Nations, no date [accessed 27 November 2018], available from: https://reform.un.org/.

[5] Security Council Report, ‘The Peacebuilding Commission and the Security Council: From Cynicism to Synergy?’, Research Report No. 5, 22 November 2017 [accessed 27 November 2018], available from: https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/wp-content/uploads/research_report_peacebuilding_commission_2017.pdf.

[6] Andrew Sherrif, Pauline Veron, Matthias Deneckere and Volker Hauck, ‘Supporting peacebuilding in times of change: A synthesis of 4 case studies’, European Centre for Development Policy Management, 17 September 2018 [accessed 27 November 2018], available from: https://ecdpm.org/publications/supporting-peacebuilding-change-europe/.

[7] United Nations, ‘Peacebuilding and sustaining peace: Report of the Secretary-General’, A/72/707-S/2018/43, 18 January 2018 [accessed 27 November 2018], available from: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/SG%20report%20on%20peacebuilding%20and%20sustaining%20peace.As%20issued.A-72-707-S-2018-43.E.pdf.

[8] Japan Times, ‘Diplomats take aim at delay in U.N. Security Council reform’, The Japan Times, 21 November 2018 [accessed 27 November 2018], available from: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/11/21/national/politics-diplomacy/diplomats-take-aim-delay-u-n-security-council-reform/.

Image details

Title photo caption: Secretary-General António Guterres (centre) walks with staff members in between meetings. 17 September 2017, United Nations, New York.

Title photo credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton

About the Author

Stephen Pritchard

Stephen Pritchard has managed programmes, projects and operations in over a dozen conflict-affected countries and advised governments and organisations in Laos, South Sudan and Uganda.

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