This year will be critical for determining whether the international order, as currently constituted, is able to mobilise global and collaborative responses to a series of cross-cutting challenges - whether the looming threat of climate change, public health challenges such as the recent Ebola outbreak, the breakdown of governance in several fragile states and the parallel and expanding threat of terrorism and large-scale violation of human rights, or the continuing fragility of the global economic and financial system that has still not recovered from the financial crisis of 2007-08. It has been apparent for quite some time that these challenges cannot be resolved by a handful of countries, no matter how powerful they may be in terms of economic or security capabilities. These require consensus and collaboration among countries - strong and weak, rich and poor.
In a hyper-connected world, an outbreak of a pandemic in one remote corner of Africa may spread across borders with alarming rapidity. The breakdown of governance structures in any one country may spawn disorder and dislocation, including terror across a much wider region as we witness today in the Gulf and West Asia. And yet, precisely at a time when multilateral responses are urgent and necessary, the institutions designed to deliver them have become weak and dysfunctional.
Despite its many drawbacks and failures, the United Nations remains the only forum whose legitimacy as representing the international community is universally recognised. Its specialised agencies, such as the World Health Organization, remain the only platforms capable of formulating and delivering global solutions in their respective areas. Precisely when the world needs multilateralism the most, the institutions designed to operationalise it have been systematically undermined and even hollowed out. These institutions, which together constitute the UN system, will be unable to deliver on the challenges that the international community is grappling with unless they are reformed, re-energised and their functioning made more democratic.
This being the 70th anniversary of the setting up of the United Nations, the spotlight is once again on its reform - in particular, the expansion of the Security Council in both the permanent and non-permanent categories. However, the United Nations is facing an existential crisis, whose roots go deeper than can be addressed by just the reform of the Security Council, the limitation on the use of the veto by permanent members as recently recommended by the Kofi Annan panel, or by making the election of the secretary-general somehow more democratic by giving the General Assembly a choice among a panel of names. Over the past three decades and more, the United Nations has drifted away from its unique values-based multilateralism - more specifically, from its role as an instrument for promoting not just international peace and security, but also economic and social development. This was based on the recognition that neither peace nor security could be pursued in isolation from one another nor survive in geopolitical spaces that are the equivalent of "gated communities".
If this was true in the post-Second World War world, it is even more true in our currently intensely inter-connected and globalised world. The United Nations retains the appearance of practising multilateralism; but it has, over the years, become an instrument that aligns itself with its most wealthy and influential members. Its actions are no longer based on the principle of equitable burden-sharing, nor are these actions based on democratic deliberation and decision-making. How has this happened?
The most important cause lies in the financing of the UN system and its activities. From figures available in 2010, it is seen that the United Nations spent $33.6 billion, but its regular budget from assessed contributions was only $2.1 billion! The enormous gap was covered by earmarked funds and non-budgetary contributions from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. Donors dictate where and how these funds are to be spent. Oversight and accountability are weak. Funded activities are often not in conformity with the multilateral mandate or the institutional values of the United Nations. In a very real sense, the United Nations is becoming a mere service provider for richer and powerful nations, rather than a democratic institution where member countries, irrespective of their size and capabilities, play a participatory role in global governance. Unless this crucial aspect of financing is addressed, it will not be possible for the United Nations to deliver on its multilateral mandate.
Over the past few years, there is another emergent dimension that undermines the principle of multilateralism. This is the enthusiastic embrace of the so-called "multi-stakeholder partnership model", under the UN's Global Compact of 1999. This has opened the way for powerful corporate interests to influence both policy and execution of UN programmes, particularly of its specialised agencies. These multi-stakeholder activities, often financed by global conglomerates, have often become substitutes for inter-governmental initiatives and avenues for pursuing profitable opportunities, legitimised by the use of the UN brand.
For example, funds for the activities of international agriculture research institutions, which in the past helped with the Green Revolution in India through the free provision of hybrid seeds and modern agronomic technologies, have progressively shrunk under pressure from commercial seed companies. Multinational pharmaceutical companies pressure their governments to limit the use of generics by the UN system in meeting the needs of global public health, even though they have delivered some free medicines as part of corporate social responsibility. In fact, the protection of intellectual property rights through the UN system enjoys greater priority today than the goal of promoting economic and social development of developing countries. There is now a dangerous risk of the United Nations mutating into an instrument for promoting, not the interests of broad humanity, but of special interests because they are willing to lay out some funds that governments are reluctant to provide, though this is their responsibility.
These are uncomfortable realities that need to be confronted with honesty if the current discourse on UN reform is to yield substantive results and not stop at tokenism. And financing is at the heart of such reform. We must find a way to ensure that assessed contributions of member states allow resources to be allocated on the basis of priorities determined by the United Nations rather than by a handful of donors or benefactors. Perhaps one should consider a small charge on international transactions that could flow automatically into the UN coffers rather than keep it dependent upon the largesse of a few countries.
One hopes that India, as a consistent and strong supporter of multilateralism, will bring the issue of financing centre stage in the current reform debate.
The writer, a former foreign secretary and chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, is currently chairman of RIS and a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi