Yale University students and scholars have started a dialogue focused on improving the United Nations (UN) system and its ability to effectively address current challenges. These discussions have taken place since the beginning of 2016 and we look forward to the participation of other universities and interested groups to scale up this initiative in the coming years. We began by focusing on the desired leadership characteristics of a Secretary-General and in the subsequent months we turned our attention to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), initiated by the UN. Our aim has been to harness the academic community’s interest in contributing constructively towards a transformative redesign of the UN system to deliver on these Goals.
We are fully aware of the multiple crises facing humanity and the planet and enthusiastically endorse the SDGs as the framework within which to develop and implement solutions to these global challenges. Furthermore, we believe that the UN is uniquely suited to lead the efforts in achieving the universal and integrated agenda laid out by the SDGs.
Our intent is clear. To deliver on the transformative agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals, there has to be a bold re-design of the UN system itself. There are various systemic challenges to be countered that relate to: bureaucracy; diversity in the leadership; gender, ethnic and generational balance; and accountability and accessibility to the larger world.
In our call to action for a redesign of the UN system, we have identified three key issues, which need to be addressed as a first priority. These are: increased accountability and efficiency; wider engagement of stakeholders in UN processes; and the meaningful inclusion of younger participants in the UN’s work.
ACCOUNTABILITY AND EFFICIENCY
To restore its credibility and to bridge the far-ranging distrust in the system, the UN needs to be transparent about its functions and operations, reduce bureaucracy and duplication of efforts, increase synergies by working across silos, and be more accessible to the larger public. In order to achieve these goals, the UN must pair internal reform efforts with providing increased access to the larger stakeholder community, including the media.
To begin the breakdown of institutional silos, the UN should create an SDG Action Committee, chaired by a high-level leader with the mandate to lead relevant UN bodies and agencies in their efforts to implement the SDGs. Ideally, the UN Deputy Secretary General would adopt this role, thereby demonstrating the seriousness which with the UN takes its commitment to deliver the SDGs. This SDG Action Committee, composed of the heads of UN bodies, agencies and relevant conventions, would provide the platform for each participating program to report on how its activities are aligned with the SDG agenda and how it collaborates across the UN system. The outputs of this committee should be easily accessible to and comprehensible by the public.
This high-level SDG Action Committee should meet once a year until 2030, in parallel with the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the main intergovernmental body tasked to monitor and review the SDGs. The two committees should come together at the end of their meetings, so that progress from both member countries and UN bodies can be reviewed to ensure that the SDGs are addressed in a collaborative and harmonious manner. The Secretary General and his deputy should attend this final day so that the highest-level attention is given to these matters.
One way to increase both collaboration and accountability is to require all parts of the UN system to incorporate the SDGs as a central aspect of their programs, in their work with other parts of the system, and in the way they evaluate employees’ performance.
We also encourage increased coverage by the media about the implementation of the SDGs at the national, regional, and local levels. The independent media has a crucial role to play in educating citizens about the impact the SDGs have on their lives, and in holding the UN system accountable for delivering the 2030 Agenda.
To bolster the overall efficiency of the entire UN system and in the delivery of the SDGs, each of its parts should be regularly and thoroughly evaluated, and if a UN body is found to have adequately accomplished its original mandate, a sunset clause may be considered to help reduce redundancies.
For the implementation of the SDGs, and to bridge the gap between intent and practice, the UN needs to forge strong partnerships with all stakeholders in addition to its already strong links with governments around the world.
While knowledge platforms that provide educational information and materials on the SDGs exist, there are very few processes and platforms to enable direct involvement of various stakeholder groups. We recognize efforts made by the UN to establish Major Groups and Other Stakeholders, while noting there is room for the inclusion of other types of organizations (such as universities and research institutions) in order to ensure that stakeholder participation is representative and has significant impact on the outcomes of UN decisions.
We propose the creation of a dynamic global platform that allows all interested stakeholders to showcase their work, document and share challenges and risks, identify potential partnership opportunities for scaling up, and offer practical guidelines, tools and technical assistance. The platform should connect to other platforms with specific missions, such as the ‘Open SDG Platform’ that relates to monitoring of the SDGs and the ‘Localizing the SDGs’ platform that focuses on integrating the SDGs into the design, implementation and monitoring of local development policies and plans.
A platform at the national level would provide a medium to decentralize action, encourage regional implementation, monitor progress and also source funding. Translation into regional languages would give an equal opportunity to grassroots organizations to participate effectively. This would also provide a channel for organized follow-up on the commitments and goals made by governments.
More than 50 percent of the world’s population is under 30 years old. Young people face overlapping challenges of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and lack of information, access and opportunities, not to mention the profound challenge of climate change. With so much at stake, youth must be at the center of solutions to change the global status quo and drive implementation of the SDGs.
To develop strong leaders of the future, it is crucial to provide them with opportunities for active participation in the decision-making and implementation of the SDGs and therefore in the UN system. For this to happen, many systemic challenges have to be overcome.
We observe that practices in the present UN system are not in favor of the participation of younger persons. There are many barriers to young people who aspire to participate in the UN system as an intern or as a member of staff. For example, the lack of compensation for interns generally favors those who have access to personal funds or sponsorship. Also, entering the UN as a staff member is often reserved for those who already have contacts in the system.
Even when the youth participate, their ideas are not given enough weight to allow them to play an active role in the decision-making processes. All too often, this means youth are present as symbols but not as decision makers. Without purposefully elevating the voice of the young and the disempowered, the UN is structurally at-risk of becoming an aging and closed system, threatening achievement of its long-term development goals as well as its continued relevance as an agent for wide-scale change and international cooperation.
As a first step toward addressing this problem, we hope that those leaders within the UN system, who are interested in encouraging meaningful participation of the next generation, will establish a mechanism to mentor and train youth from within and outside the system. We also encourage the youth representatives in each of the existing Major Groups to facilitate effective participation of other young people. One of the metrics to measure such involvement would be to ensure that there is equal participation of youth in all parts of the UN, from developed and developing countries representing all genders from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
We aim to continue this dialogue in the coming months. We invite students and scholars from other universities to join us in our objective of supporting the UN to become an organization that achieves the transformative and universal ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Signed January 2017 by the following individuals associated with Yale University
Vinay Ananthachar, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2017
Ralien Bekkers, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2017
Uma Bhandaram, Master of Environmental Science 2015
Coral Bielecki, Master of Environmental Science Candidate 2018
Lauren Boucher, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Brittany Carmon, Master of Environmental Management 2016
Veronica Chang, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2017
Susan Clark, Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Adjunct Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Policy Sciences
Maanya Condamoor, Master of Environmental Management and MBA Candidate 2018
Gyan De Silva, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Shannon Dulaney, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Erika Drazen, Master of Environmental Science and MBA Candidate 2017
Luke Elder, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Adam Fishman, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Parfait Gasana, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
George Gemelas, Ethics, Politics, and Economics Major in Yale College 2018
Caroline Hobbs, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Sabrina Korman, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Lenka Lazo, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Kevin Terry Lee, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2017
Rachel Lowenthal, Master of Environmental Science Candidate 2017
Matthew Moroney, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Diego Manya, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Edward P. Bass Distinguished Visiting Environmental Scholar
Apurva Mathur, Master of Environmental Management 2016
David E. McCarthy, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2017
Ethan Miller, Master of Forestry Candidate 2018
Serena Pozza, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Julio Prieto, Master of Environmental Management Candidate, 2017
Grace Reville, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Sarah Sax, Master of Environmental Science Candidate 2017
Elham Shabahat, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Yi Shi, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2017
Abigail Smith, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
James Souder, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Latha Swamy, Senior Advisor in Planetary Health, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization
Mary Evelyn Tucker, Senior Lecturer and Research Scholar
Peter M. Umunay, PhD Candidate 2019
Nathalie Woolworth, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Riddhima Yadav, Ethics, Politics and Economics, Yale College 2018
Leehi Yona, Master of Environmental Science Candidate 2018
Katherine Young, Master of Forest Science Candidate 2017
Weiyang Zhao, Master of Environmental Management Candidate 2018
Michèle Zollinger, Master of Environmental Management 2016