Why Care About Mandate Review?

Our latest guest contributor is David Shorr, Program Officer with the Stanley Foundation. In this contribution, he reviews the mandate review currently underway at the UN and how decisions made may affect the authority of the man or woman who next serves as UNSG. As always, we invite your comments.  


Many thanks to Tony for inviting me as a guest. My focus will be on the reforming, (we hope) renewing organization that the new SG will be asked to lead. One issue coming prominently onto the management reform agenda is the review of mandates older than five years that was, er, mandated by the summit last fall.

Let’s start with a quiz. The mandate review is:

a) a chance to overturn many undesirable mandates and shift the organization’s priorities,

b) a good way to highlight how ridiculous the UN is, or

c) an opportunity to look at whether mandates are helping achieve the desired objectives?

Which of these would serve as the basis for a constructive debate? I’ll give you one guess. In all seriousness, ambassadors at a Stanley Foundation conference last month said that a focus on the effectiveness of mandates would enjoy broad support and help forge consensus, something sorely needed at the UN. It could help create a more positive dynamic between member states and the secretariat.

In essence, mandates are the communications channel through which member states, in their committees and councils, give tasks to the UN staff. In the bigger picture, mandates are member state decisions for how to direct resources (especially human resources) to achieve the ideals of the Charter.

But as our conference participants highlighted, mandates are fraught with the same mistrust that is so pervasive these days in the UN and the wider international system. If mandates are about work assignments and resources, then they are inevitably about priorities, and questions about commitment to development and other political sensitivities inevitably hang over the exercise. So what’s to be done?

Our conference participants suggested how to put the focus on mandate effectiveness. The goal, they said, should be a UN that does better, not less. Donor countries could disavow any idea of seeking a rebate or budget reduction. The assumption for the review could be that any resources freed up by the streamlining of mandates be preserved within
the same program activity or thematic focus.

No member state or staff interest is served by mandates that are mainly “makework.” The compulsion to mandate reports, for instance, has generated countless papers that literally no one reads. If done right, mandate review could focus attention, and creativity, on how staff can help the membership make the impact they seek. It could be energizing and forge a much greater common purpose between member states and the secretariat. Isn’t that a legacy we’d like to see the next SG inherit and build on?

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