The United Nations’ failure to coordinate effectively during the COVID-19 crisis will bring about a difficult period of reckoning and tough decisions for the organization. Above all, the UN will have to abandon its old mindset and adopt institutional reforms that make it better equipped to address twenty-first-century challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many institutional weaknesses, but above all, it has shown that the United Nations is in urgent need of reform. In particular, the response of the World Health Organization – the UN’s global health agency – to the virus has revealed obvious shortcomings, which reflect a lack of international consensus and cooperation, as well as widespread protectionism on the part of its stakeholders.
Nowhere has criticism of the WHO been louder or more pronounced than in the United States, where President Donald Trump’s recent decision to freeze US funding for the organization delivered a devastating blow at a time when it was desperately in need of support. What the UN does next, and how it recovers from its failure to coordinate effectively during the COVID-19 crisis, will determine its role in the post-pandemic world.
I consider myself a son of the UN and a staunch supporter of its values and principles. Over a period of more than four decades, I undertook various roles within its mammoth bureaucracy, starting in 1974 with my appointment as Qatar’s delegate to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and ending in 2017, when I failed by a single vote to become UNESCO Director-General.
For much of this time, the UN consistently provided hope for a better future. Its specialized agencies and organizations played a vital role in preserving world peace, preventing international conflicts, eliminating colonialism, and protecting human rights.
More recently, however, the UN’s role has been steadily declining, and its influence on world events and governments has waned. Once the world’s pre-eminent moderator and arbitrator, it has become too constrained by old concepts and doctrines to be the truly effective, collaborative global governing body that its founders envisioned. It can no longer instill respect among governments for international legitimacy, international law, and the maintenance of global peace and security, as it did after both World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example.
Put simply, the world has changed and the UN has failed to keep up. The twenty-first century’s turbo-charged political, economic, and cultural fluidity has left the once-powerful organization exposed, with few friends left to defend it.
But this decline does not mean that the UN is destined for history’s scrap heap. If the past is any guide, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic – a catastrophic failure of global politics – is likely to usher in a period of significant change throughout the world. I believe we are heading toward a new and more diverse global order, in which international governance is no longer driven by any one country or set of political values.
During the COVID-19 crisis, international solidarity has failed, as each country has sought to protect its own interests. When the world eventually emerges from the pandemic, there will be inquests, finger pointing, and even scapegoating. The UN will need to weather this storm, but I think that, in the end, it will be helped by a renewed appreciation for the collective community that we previously worked so hard to build.
Still, this period of reckoning will be difficult for the UN, because tough decisions will need to be made. The organization will need to abandon its old mindset and move in directions that it may find uncomfortable.
For example, bodies such as UNESCO will need to demonstrate their contribution to the world more clearly. Because education, science, and culture will be critical to the post-pandemic recovery, UNESCO’s leaders must ask themselves probing questions: What are we doing to preserve cultural values? How can we protect human rights, including the right to education? How can we lead the scientific community and prevent another pandemic? Should there be more regional diversification to ensure it serves all member states, and does the leadership reflect this? Only by addressing such challenges successfully will UNESCO and other UN agencies remain relevant in a post-COVID-19 world.
Reform of the UN should start at the top with the Security Council, whose five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US – continue to exert veto-wielding power commensurate with a bygone age. Expanding the Council’s permanent membership to include other countries – from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East – would deliver a more equitable balance to global decision-making.
And such change is justified. For example, India is set to become the world’s most populous country during this decade, Japan has the world’s third-largest economy, and South Africa and Nigeria have by far the largest economies in the continent with the fastest-growing population.
Equally, UN agencies need to ensure that citizens of the country in which they are based do not fill their top positions. Too often, an organization’s choice of leadership calls its legitimacy and independence into question. We need look no further than my own region – the Middle East – to see the harmful effects that such decisions can have.