- The United Nations has consistently fallen short when addressing major international problems.
- The UN needs to address its management deficiencies and work with the private sector to properly face the issues plaguing the world.
- It also needs to raise its standard for outcomes to produce sustainable long-term solutions.
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The United Nations too often puts problems on pause. This is why so often the embers of instability remain and then start new fires. They then become major crises. In those situations, we often blame a lack of funds or a lack of political will. I believe it largely comes from outdated and outmoded structures and strategies.
I have spent the past several months travelling the globe, speaking to the world leaders about agricultural crises and conflicts from Yemen to Venezuela. In this process, I have observed three principal challenges: We face a major management problem within the UN system; the system experiences a constant shortage of funds; and frequently we settle for poor results, telling ourselves that there are just too many important issues to resolve.
The tendency within international organisations is to respond too slowly, on too small a scale, and with no enduring strategy. These are fundamental flaws that in many instances lead to fatal errors.
We need global bodies that react to important problems more quickly, with more agility and less reliance on traditional government sources of support. A rewrite of this rulebook is desperately needed.
Moving past firefighting and enlisting the private sector
We always seem to be chasing fires, pursuing necessary but fast fixes. While they may generate flashy headlines, firefighters don’t plant trees or build houses. They are forced to deal with immediate, not enduring solutions. When it comes to critical issues like hunger and malnutrition, handing out food is not a solution. It’s only a short-term patch.
The world has depended on the fire department for too long. Global institutions must shift to implementing programs that plant the seeds of new possibilities and long-term solutions to serious problems.
For example, since 1964, only $US5 million dollars has been raised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation from outside the international finance institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. That’s an astonishingly small amount. Why is the private sector not given a more central role in solving agriculture problems?
The UN enjoys a unique power to convene. Why not use it to bring together leading investors and businesses at an annual conference aimed at connecting them with emerging opportunities in developing countries?
The relationship between the UN and the private sector can also be mutually beneficial. A persistent problem faced by the private sector is a lack of information on frontier markets. That presents an opportunity for the UN to do targeted market research. It should more strategically use its voluminous databases and special reports to address such specific information needs. To do this and more, we have to drastically change the culture of international organisations.
The concern with attaining and wielding power should not supersede the concern for those who are hungry. The UN’s priority should be to act quickly and decisively, empower talented international teams, worry less about protocol and more about effectiveness, and reject the slow pace of bureaucracy.
If the challenges we face are urgent, then the leadership of the UN needs to be in a real hurry. It comes down to changing the mindset of international bodies. A report is not a result. A photograph isn’t the end product. The private sector isn’t an afterthought or an addition; it is a principal partner, which brings critical analysis and long-term planning skills to the mix.
We must introduce the business community more fully into the development and problem-solving processes. That community will quickly understand where and when they can most effectively engage in addressing persistent development problems.
The UN can then fill some gaps and set goals, but it must play a complementary role, not a central one, in the design and implementation of mitigating actions. The focus of international organisations should shift to enabling others by engaging fully with businesses in development projects.
Maintaining a long-term view
The UN system doesn’t necessarily require more money. It needs to spend what it has in a smarter way, such as seeding and supporting more entrepreneurial ventures. Then, it can stand aside as citizens, countries, and companies create long-term local solutions.
As an example, I sit on the board of an international development organisation that just signed a new partnership with John Deere to create mechanization centres across Africa. We are just a small nonprofit. Imagine what the UN could do.
Ultimately, I believe that success at the UN should be defined not by the number or scale of problems addressed. The standard should be the number of opportunities identified today.
That is a transformation to what I call an opportunity organisation mindset. When we plant the seeds of possibilities, we reduce the potential for conflict. Such a deliberate proactive approach may not work everywhere. The UN on occasion will still be called to the rescue.
Yet if we can spend more time and resources looking to tomorrow’s promise and not only at today’s problems, the likelihood we can deliver a better future for our children increases substantially. Just ask our children about their hopes, not just their fears. Our kids don’t want a world with fewer crises. They want a planet filled with openings and opportunities.
Davit Kirvalidze serves as an adviser to the prime minister of Georgia and on the board of the international development organisation Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture. He was twice minister of agriculture and received a Fulbright scholarship to the US. He is a candidate to be the next director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
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