Will Antonio Guterres bring the UN out from its NGO mode?

United States President-elect Donald Trump's controversial tweet on the United Nations (UN), the 193-member global organisation, comes at a time when former Portugal prime minister Antonio Guterres assumes office as its ninth secretary-general.

Mr Trump questioned the UN's efficacy, calling it a "club for people to get together, talk and have a good time". In a previous tweet, he cautioned that when he takes office, "things will be different at (the) UN".

Mr Trump's tweet brought the vulnerability of the UN to the fore. It also speaks volumes of how one powerful nation can affect the functioning of the global body through its funding.

There is widespread speculation that the Trump administration may defund the UN in whole or partially, as the US at present contributes the highest share of 22 per cent to the total UN budget. Out of the 193 participating nations at the UN, the top 20 countries contribute a whopping 83.78 per cent, while the rest contribute 16.22 per cent to the total annual budget. Interestingly, the top 10 contributors account for 68.89 per cent of the total received funds.

It is also surprising to find that the annual financial contribution of 135 nations is placed as low as 0.1 per cent of the total UN budget of US$5.6 billion (S$8.1 billion) for the period 2016-2017.

This financial contribution data itself reveals how badly the UN is placed today.

This clearly outlines an area the new Secretary-General has to work on to free the UN from the supremacy of the US and build consensus to make every country equal at the table through an equal funding mechanism.

Mr Antonio Guterres has a tough task ahead of him if he wants to implement reforms to the United Nations' set-up.


The fundamental principle behind the formation of the UN is to ensure world peace.

Unfortunately, people across the globe are facing serious issues of terrorism and human rights violation.

Where does the UN stand to address these basic issues affecting global peace?

Critics are asking if it is behaving more like a non-governmental organisation (NGO) today than a global peace broker.

According to these critics, instead of focusing its attention on terrorism and human rights violation, the UN's scattered humanitarian development engagement in different countries is weakening its position as an acceptable global body.

There are specialised agencies such as NGOs, which are placed closer to the communities, with better local development solutions to address local problems. Why should the UN dip its hand in areas where local players are competent enough to handle these issues?

While the UN's development work budget is in the billions, its Counter-Terrorism Centre has an annual budget of only US$20 million. Statistics show that the total cost of terrorism amounted to US$106 billion, taking into account the damage caused by terror acts, such as death and injury, including medical care and lost earnings, but excluding the higher security cost imposed on society as a result of these acts.

The figure reflects how badly the world is affected by terrorism and reminds us how important the UN's basic mandate to promote world peace should be.

The UN can do more on terrorism. To cite one recent example: The whole world knows that Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar is a global terrorist and operates from Pakistan to spread the militant group's terror activities in South Asia, particularly in India.

But the UN failed to ban Azhar as a terrorist, at the behest of China. India had requested that he be added to the UN Security Council's blacklist of groups linked to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria , but this was declined.

The reason was that China, a Security Council member, made every effort to block India's attempt to blacklist Azhar.

This was viewed as a move to keep Pakistan happy for geostrategic reasons - at the cost of peace in the region.

This move by China - using the UN platform to safeguard such terrorists - is helping terrorism grow in the South Asian region.

This is an area Mr Guterres should possibly focus on, in addition to bringing the UN out of NGO work.

There is a daunting task before him - to take criticism positively and implement reforms to make the UN more relevant as a global peace broker.

Organisational reform is also needed. Today, there are about 1,200 UN country offices around the world, with 100 nations that have more than 10 such offices.

These country offices typically have large annual budgets, with a high proportion of resources going to operational expenses, leaving a small budget for programmes.

Furthermore, many organisations within UN bodies have overlapping mandates. There are sectors, such as water, energy and health, in which more than 20 UN agencies are engaged and compete among themselves to tap limited resources.

Ten years ago, the UN formed a panel co-chaired by the then prime ministers of Mozambique and Norway and British Chancellor Gordon Brown to suggest reforms.

The report was very critical of the way "officials had to almost beg for money from national governments, making it difficult for the organisation to do any meaningful intervention".

The report also pointed to a large number of support staff doing ill-defined jobs and said that staff costs accounted for two-thirds or more of many UN agencies' outgoing expenses.

These are areas Mr Guterres needs to focus on and find ways to improve its organisational set-up: to strengthen the UN as a peace broker, going beyond its role as a global NGO.

•Sachi Satapathy, a freelance writer, has worked on international development projects with the World Bank, United Nations Population Fund and other organisations.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2017, with the headline Will Antonio Guterres bring the UN out from its NGO mode?. Subscribe