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“Reclaiming Multilateralism”: A roundtable discussion organized by UNDP and NGLS

arton4196The changing role and challenges of multilateralism in the global context of multiple crises was the topic of discussion at a panel event organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN-NGLS on 17 December 2012 at UNHQ in New York. 

 The roundtable discussion marked the launch of the NGLS publication “Reclaiming Multilateralism for people, rights and sustainable development.” The publication’s co-author, Barbara Adams, introduced the discussion by noting that multilateralism today is no longer primarily a norm-setting or prescriptive arena, but has evolved into a meeting, convening, and sharing space. The discussion addressed the implications of the shift away from the “aspirational, standard-setting” role of the United Nations, including the ways in which power imbalances within and among State and non-state actors could compromise equal participation in the UN and affect the contours of multilateralism in general.

The panel featured several representatives of the UN system: Tomas Christensen, Senior Adviser for Partnerships, United Nations Office for Partnerships; Fadzai Gwaradzimba, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy (BERA) of UNDP; and Hamish Jenkins, Programme Officer at NGLS. Magnus Lennartsson, Minister (Coordinator Economic and Social Affairs, Environment, Humanitarian Affairs and Peace building) at the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations, and Andrew Davis, Head of Delegation of Catalonia to the United States, shared perspectives of a Member State and a regional government, respectively. After Ms. Adams’s introduction, the panel addressed various dynamics, opportunities and risks of multilateralism and global partnerships.

The "faultlines" in the current system of multilateralism

Hamish Jenkins of NGLS emphasized the need for a multilateral system better equipped to address the crises the world is facing, and to enable the realization of the overarching goals of sustainable development. He highlighted key messages of the recent NGLS publication, “Reclaiming Multilateralism: For People, Rights and Sustainable Development,” which, in three parts, demonstrates the inefficiencies of the current system of multilateralism such as unequal power distributions and reliance on flawed models of development; identifies potential modes of reshaping multilateralism to better align with human rights and sustainable development prerogatives; and makes specific policy recommendations on “how to get there.”

Stressing the lack of policy coherence and the fragmentation of multilateralism, Mr. Jenkins outlined the prescriptive nature of the system. He noted that there were various views on whether the system has become too prescriptive or is not prescriptive enough. Mr. Jenkins highlighted the issue of systemic imbalance between the “global” and “local” levels, explaining that the international policy framework has largely favored a global approach, sometimes at the expense of policies that could revitalize communities. This imbalance stands at the root of the popular backlash against multilateralism today, he said.

Mr. Jenkins argued that the policy response to the current financial crisis – what he termed the “inability of the multilateral system to rein in global finance and make it work for the people and the planet” - exemplifies many of these broader issues of multilateralism. As the response of many governments and the discourse for austerity measures is in sharp contrast to the ideas enshrined in ILO’s Global Jobs Pact, Mr. Jenkins asked how the multilateral system can be transformed to become truly supportive of local empowerment, including through social movements, governments, and other actors, in a manner consistent with universal values of the United Nations.

UNDP’s focus on engagement with civil society

Fadzai Gwaradzimba, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Director of the UNDP Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy, called for creating “credible spaces with credible voices” in the context of globalization, social media, and mobile technologies. She emphasized the need to engage a range of non-state actors, including NGOs, faith-based groups, and social movements, in innovative ways and using new platforms to create space for effective multi-stakeholder relations. Ms. Gwaradzimba pointed to UNDP’s new civil society strategy (2012), which emphasizes the need for greater investment in strategic partnerships and dialogue with a wide range of civil society actors, going beyond programme implementing arrangements with NGOs. She also referred to a recently concluded flagship UNDP initiative, Platform HD, which promotes UN-civil society partnerships at global and national levels to advance MDGs and human development, the longstanding UNDP Civil Society Advisory Committee, and the signing of Memoranda of Understanding with several emerging market economies as examples of the organization’s commitment to engaging with civil society in new ways.

Role of the UN in fostering inclusive multilateralism

Tomas Christensen, Senior Adviser for Partnerships, United Nations Office for Partnerships, expounded upon the UN’s unique capacity to provide a platform for partnerships due to its universal legitimacy, incomparable convening power, extensive country network, technical expertise, and brand recognition. The Millennium Declaration sets an excellent paradigm for engaging with civil society and private sector, Mr. Christensen continued, and is a “golden linchpin” against which partnerships should be evaluated. He cited the Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child initiative as an example of a successful programme of 200-plus partners, and stressed the need to ensure maximum inclusivity and coherence in the design of future multi-stakeholder arrangements led by the UN system.

Forming new partnerships to bridge the current deficit in multilateral structures

Magnus Lennartsson, of the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations, asserted that many voices are calling for a new, more democratic system of governance. Mr. Lennartsson decried the current difficulties of the multilateral system in retaining or reinforcing the normative agenda defined the international conferences of the 1990s; the intergovernmental process faces a risk, he continued, of ending up with a “least common denominator” or a negative agenda.

From the point of view of a Member State, Mr. Lennartsson highlighted three existing deficits in multilateralism: of global governance, which could be bridged through forming new alliances of like-minded governments, NGOs and other stakeholders; of partnership, which would benefit from the integration of groups that are normally underrepresented in decision-making processes; and finally of implementation and financing, which could be addressed by mobilizing resources through partnerships with the private sector and civil society.

Andrew Davis, Head of the Delegation of Catalonia to the United States, highlighted the need to institutionalize the participation of regional, sub-regional and local governments, as agents responsible for providing basic services to and working closely with citizens. Participation of regional and local governments, he said, will have a “multiplier effect on multilateralism.” As the representative of Catalonia, one of the first regional governments to develop a multilateral development strategy, Mr. Davis emphasized his government’s assumption of responsibility beyond its territorial boundaries as a potential way forward for future multilateral arrangements and the incorporation of regional and local governments, who play an increasingly important role in service provision and aid through decentralized cooperation.

The challenges of budgetary constraints

During the discussion, Jeffery Huffines of CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation spoke of the need to ensure equity of voice, resources, influence, and decision-making by different stakeholders in the multilateral arena. Drawing attention to the disparities between the financial situations of UN Global Compact, which promotes private sector engagement, and NGLS, the UN’s sole entity specifically mandated to facilitate civil society engagement at the UN, Mr. Huffines and panelists emphasized the relevance of the allocation of resources towards promoting inclusive multilateralism. Moderating the discussion, Barbara Adams warned of the ineffectiveness and injustice of “self-selection” or, more loosely, “pay-to-play” processes, in which only well-resourced stakeholders can participate.

In his response, Mr. Davis called attention to the potential positive outcomes, including in terms of financing, of broadening multilateralism and enabling the participation of a wide range of stakeholders, particularly sub-national and municipal governments, who may wish to be involved in relevant multilateral processes but are discouraged by logistical and structural barriers. Mr. Jenkins agreed, opining that without affirmative action measures to ensure access for underrepresented voices, the intergovernmental system reinforces the imbalances it simultaneously seeks to address.

Given the context of contemporary global funding challenges, Ms. Gwaradzimba and Mr. Jenkins suggested that the formation of issue-based coalitions could increase the resonance of critical concerns amongst intergovernmental agencies and governments. A subsequent step beyond “getting to the table,” Ms. Gwaradzimba asserted, is presenting concerns or inputs in a manner that enables non-governmental actors to influence the policy process, one that Mr. Christensen reminded participants is still fundamentally owned by Member States.

Multilateralism and the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda

Calling participants’ attention to two aspects of the outcomes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”), Mr. Davis called for further institutionalization and strengthening of stakeholder participation in the formation of the high-level political forum and in an advisory role to the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Additionally, building upon the success of the conference as the first intergovernmental sustainable development process to acknowledge the important role of subnational governments, the post-2015 development agenda should similarly recognize and institutionalize their participation, Mr. Davis concluded.

Similarly, while referring to the ongoing UN process to define its post-2015 development agenda, Mr. Lennartsson stated that it would be “inconceivable” for the process to involve only Member States. Opportunities for multi-stakeholder participation in the post-2015 discussions and in the intergovernmental process towards the creation of SDGs should be real, effective, and properly resourced, he continued; Mr. Christensen agreed that the UN, acting systematically, can do better than the MDGs at the global level and at national levels by ensuring an inclusive and representative process in developing the post-2015 agenda.

Further information

The webcast for this event is available via UN WebTV here: http://webtv.un.org/search/round-table-discussion-on-%E2%80%9Creclaiming-multilateralism%E2%80%9D/2041361060001.

For more information on the NGLS publication launched at this event, “Reclaiming Multilateralism: For People, Rights, and Sustainable Development,” please see the NGLS article and/or publication.

An extensive list of recent resources on multilateralism from the perspectives of civil society is available here.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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