The United Nations has embarked on a course of self-renewal. But it won't be easy
There's no doubt the United Nations has its detractors.
Those on the hard right have long decried it as a supranational evil, a threat to national sovereignty and an overweening bureaucracy intent on "one world government".
On the far left it embodies inequality, and is seen as neo-coloniser of the "global south" and a lapdog of "American imperialism".
But despite the criticism, the UN has endured.
Later this year it celebrates its 75th birthday — an anniversary that comes at a time of significant change.
Secretary-general Antonio Guterres is now one year into a reform process he believes is both ambitious and achievable, one that will recalibrate the organisation and strengthen it against critics.
So, can it succeed?
A targeted restructure
The Guterres reforms are focused on streamlining the operations of the secretariat, essentially the business arm of the UN, which organises peacekeeping, disarmament, health programs and a suite of international partnerships and agencies.
His restructure has seen the creation of a new Department of Political and Peace Building Affairs.
Simon Chesterman, from the National University of Singapore, says the previous strict separation between the UN's political and peacekeeping arms was clearly outdated because most conflicts now occur within states, not between them.
"Whether it's in the Congo, or Côte d'Ivoire or Libya, you're not just keeping peace in the sense of maintaining a border," he says.
"You're trying to stop multiple armed groups from destabilising a political situation and you're looking at political reform.
"So, that enmeshing of politics and peacekeeping I think is why we are seeing the move towards linking up political assessment, peacekeeping and peace building."
There's also been the creation of two new management departments — one for strategy, policy and compliance and one for operational support.
"The aim for Guterres was to introduce a system that was easy to use and to understand," says analyst Michael Nguyen from the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
"He's tried to eliminate duplication of work, outline clear roles and responsibilities, and introduce checks and balances."
Simply put, Mr Nguyen says, the long-term ambition is to develop a culture of "results and processes".
Better management in the field
But the secretary-general's most important reform, according to Mr Nguyen, could prove to be his strengthening of the Resident Coordinator system (RC), which manages in-country operations.
"At the heart of the UN development strategy are united country teams. These teams encompass all of the UN entities that the system might have within a specific country," Mr Nguyen says.
Under the previous arrangement, Mr Nguyen says, a "convoluted hierarchy" prevented Resident Coordinators from having real authority over the various UN agencies operating in his or her country.
But that system has now been changed to give coordinators greater independence and authority, while still ensuring a direct line of authority to the secretary-general's office.
One of those who has welcomed the change is former Georgian agriculture minister Davit Kirvalidze, who recently made an unsuccessful bid to become the UN's head of Food and Agriculture.
"It's about decentralisation — giving more power to the regional offices and down to sub-regional or national offices," he says.
Professor Chesterman believes it's the back-to-basics nature of the reforms that has most value.
"There's a tendency when people think about reforming the UN to think in terms of grand changes," he says.
"What Guterres is focused on is really trying to just make the UN function more effectively and to deal with some of the bureaucratic creep that has taken place over the past several decades."
He argues the reforms are also designed to win over staff within the organisation.
"Any large bureaucracy tends to be quite good at fighting change," he says.
"But I think the compelling argument that he is making is that if the UN is going to be taken seriously in any area, it's got to deliver results.
"We now have a much better sense of how to measure impact, the Human Development Report, the Human Development Index, the Rule of Law Indices.
"The UN can't simply measure development by dollars spent. Development activities have to be measured by achievements realised."
Matching payments to pledges
Where it could all come unstuck, though, is over funding.
While most of the changes were cost neutral, Mr Nguyen says, restructuring the RC system required an additional $US80 million.
And that has put stress on the secretariat's already precarious financial situation.
In October last year, the secretary-general very publicly announced the UN was effectively running out of cash and would soon be unable to meet its commitments.
Too many member states, he said, were failing to honour their voluntary funding commitments in a timely and consistent manner — most notably the United States, traditionally the UN's biggest donor, supplying almost a fifth of the organisation's overall budget.
"The US is by far the UN's largest debtor, owing approximately $US1 billion of the $US1.3 billion owed by all UN members," Mr Nguyen says.
Mr Kirvalidze advocates for greater involvement with the private sector, to help the UN deal with future financial constraints.
However, he acknowledges that many within the UN are suspicious about entering into private-public partnerships.
And Professor Chesterman believes there are those who don't want the UN to be more fiscally empowered.
"These financial contributions are a form of leverage over what the UN does," he says.
"There are a significant number of member states who actually don't want the UN to be independent of the member states, they want it to be the servant of the member states.
"That's why when the first secretary-general, Trygve Lie, welcomed the second secretary-general, he said: 'Welcome to the most impossible job on the planet.'"
The impossible dream
The one area where most observers and analysts agree UN reform is desperately needed relates not to the secretariat, but to the composition of the powerful Security Council.
The council functions as the executive of the UN General Assembly, which has 193 member-states.
There are 10 temporary positions on the Security Council, awarded to countries for a two-year period.
But it also has five permanent members — Britain, France, Russia, the United States and China — who have a veto right over all substantive UN resolutions.
It's that right, and the make-up of the permanent five, that many regard as anachronistic.
"It's a black-and-white photograph of what global power looked like in 1945 at the end of the Second World War," says the Lowy Institute's Michael Fullilove.
He says the council's unrepresentative nature affects the UN's overall legitimacy.
He believes it no longer makes any sense for two European powers to have permanent seats at the expense of India, for example.
"And as the world continues to change, it won't be sustainable that a country like Indonesia is not represented on the Security Council; it won't be sustainable that there is no African representation," he says.
Pushing for a reform of the Security Council is not on Mr Guterres's agenda.
But it was on the agenda of one of his predecessors Kofi Annan, whose campaign failed to get traction.
The "wicked problem", as Dr Fullilove describes it, is that changing the composition of the Security Council can only occur if the permanent five agree to vote in favour of such a change.
And none have shown any inclination to do so.
'A whole lot better than nothing'
International relations expert Sarah Percy says that intransigence could have a serious impact on the UN's effectiveness as a check on great power conflict.
"The UN acts as an early warning system. The problem we've got is that Britain and France are no longer great powers in the sense that they no longer are probably going to be the source of a major international conflict, and we have other powers who maybe should be on the Security Council who aren't," she says.
And that, she argues, has diminished the effectiveness of that early warning system at the Security Council level.
But she cautions against becoming too pessimistic about the future role of the UN overall.
"I think there is value in having United Nations in this century, full stop," she says.
"I think we must never lose sight of what the world looks like when it doesn't have something like the UN.
"Is it a perfect system? No, it's a long way from perfect. Is it better than nothing? It is a whole lot better than nothing."
Source: ABC News