Transformative System Re-design of the United Nations to Deliver the Sustainable Development Goals

Transformative System Re-design of the United Nations to Deliver the Sustainable Development Goals


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.


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

Towards a United Nations for Future Generations

Towards a United Nations for Future Generations

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.


For more information visit or contact


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



Friday 4/29 from 9AM – 5PM at Sage Hall, Yale University.

Please register HERE ( before April 28, 2016.

Registration is free and open to anyone, but max. 100 spots are available.

More information below and under site menu (detailed agenda, location).

Free breakfast, lunch and coffee/tea/snacks served all day.

Join us and help improve the future of the UN system & its leadership!

A next generation’s vision for new UN leadership

The future of the United Nations concerns the next generation, including students at Yale. The UN System Design Solutions Working Group at Yale is leading an effort to constructively contribute to the necessary conversation of improving and redesigning the United Nations system, including its global leadership. On Friday April 29, 2016, we are organizing a Yale-wide retreat to discuss and contribute to the selection of a new UN Secretary-General.

We are pleased to see the UN system opening up as we witness an unprecedented and significantly more inclusive election process evolve for the selection of the new UN Secretary-General by the end of this year. The Working Group has earlier submitted a set of questions for the UN General Assembly hearing with candidates. We are responding further to this increased inclusivity and aim to actively develop and put forward the ideas of the Yale community, students in particular, on the selection of the next UN Secretary-General.

During the retreat we will reflect on what we think the ideal leader for the global institution will look like. Next, we will look at what our ideal institution would look like. The concrete outcome of the retreat would be a draft op-ed for publication that voices the concerns and ideas of our generation about these UN-related issues that ultimately matter to all.

The retreat is open to anyone, with a strong emphasis on Yale students across different Graduate Schools as well as Yale College. Please make sure you register via to guarantee a spot. We highly encourage you to share this with other students who might be interested to contribute.