University students take a stand

At the end of this year, a new world leader will be chosen to head the most important global institution: the United Nations. A seemingly widespread lack of interest in the UN is not due to an absence of concern with global affairs and the challenges of peace and security, human rights, equality, climate change and sustainable development, rather to a distrust of the effectiveness and impact of large, bureaucratic and hierarchical institutions.

While healthy criticism of the UN is certainly in order, we are not simply critical, but constructively concerned about the future of global governance, global leadership, and the ability of the UN to face 21st century realities.

At Yale University, a group of students and scholars identified these shared concerns and the limited spaces for people like us to engage in helping the UN move forward. We formed a ‘UN System Design Solutions Working Group’ and began a dialogue to organize our views on a stronger UN, starting with its ideal leadership. Leadership is absolutely key to making an organization flourish and become bigger than the sum of its individual parts. Such a discussion is timely given the current selection of the UN Secretary-General.

In response to increasing interest and concern in our community, an interactive retreat, held in April at Yale, brought together students and faculty from across disciplines, as well as interested citizens from the broader New Haven community, to discuss our vision of the qualities needed for the next UN Secretary-General. We identified a number of qualities as particularly important: the courage to initiate and implement reforms, a strong and clear vision, and the ability to deliver results and act with transparency. We also hope that the new leader will be ready to take chances, encourage effective cooperation among the UN’s many activities and organizations, and strengthen collaboration with all stakeholders. The new leader should be willing to openly discuss weaknesses and be ready to revitalize the UN system.

At the very top of our list was the need for a truly inspirational leader who can reach people everywhere. As a group we strongly agree that the next Secretary-General can make huge strides towards creating a more open, innovative, and coordinated UN. We are convinced that the right person will be able to revive and reenergize an institution that we all feel is vital in order to address the global environmental, human rights and international cooperation challenges that lie ahead.

The UN General Assembly and Security Council will make the decision on who will head the UN in the years to come. The process that began this year to open up the selection of the Secretary-General to a larger public is welcome and must continue. In choosing the right person, we strongly encourage governments to listen to input from citizens and respond to what people want to see in a leader. Although we won’t be in the seats making these decisions, it is important that students, academic institutions, and citizens in general actively think about these issues and engage in UN processes.

As we have defined the ‘ideal leader’, we must also consider the ‘ideal institution’. We are preparing a second retreat at Yale University, which will focus on the UN system, and how it can effectively facilitate implementation of all of its agreements, with a particular focus on the Sustainable Development Goals – putting words into action and delivering the changes our planet and its people need. It is essential that academic institutions, in particular students, get involved in these deliberations. We therefore call on other universities and institutions of learning to do the same, connect with each other, scale up the effort, and join the next session we are hosting at Yale. Citizens worldwide should be involved in creating a strong, vibrant and effective United Nations and we are ready for this challenge.


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Ralien Bekkers, Agnes Bridge Walton, Samara Brock, Erika Drazen, Enni Kallio, Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Maki Sato, and Peter M. Umunay



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