Multilateral Institutions: Do They Still Have a Role?
Michael Møller spent 40 years working within the United Nations System, including as Under-Secretary-General. He tells Governance Matters that he sees a ‘governance transition’ taking place, one that still needs the UN and multilateral institutions.
Few people have a better window into the United Nations — how it works, how it has evolved — than Michael Møller, who began his career with the organisation in 1979. Over his more than 40 years there, Møller held roles in New York, Mexico, Iran, Haiti, Cyprus, and Geneva. It was in his final posting, Geneva, that he served as Director-General of the UN office, and also as Under-Secretary-General.
Møller is no stranger to the questions and criticisms that have been levelled at the UN, and at multilateral institutions more broadly. In a recent conversation with Governance Matters, he spoke candidly about the challenges that these organisations face and explained why they remain, in spite of those challenges, essential.
Governance Matters: How do you think the UN has fared in living up to its 1945 charter, which tasked the organisation with everything from preventing global conflict to promoting economic and social advancement?
Michael Møller: To put it bluntly, if we closed the UN tomorrow, the next day we would have to invent something like it. The world cannot do without a structure like the UN — it simply cannot. The fate of the planet is being played out. If the world wants to have even a minimal chance of tackling today’s existential problems, it needs the UN.
I think that the UN and its partner organisations have helped deliver a level of peace, of rights, and of human well-being never before seen in history. And it has done that, in historical terms at least, in the blink of an eye — though it is important to mention that progress has been asymmetrical and purchased at a very steep price to the planet.
I do not think I exaggerate when I say that if the UN, with all its specialised agencies, had not been put in place, the world would not enjoy the peace it does today. Remember, we have had no world war since 1945. For centuries, war was a regular part of global affairs and our daily lives; it was only in the last 80 years that we agreed war was illegal. So I would say that the UN — and by that I mean the totality of the UN family, the technical UN, the development UN, the economic UN — has done spectacularly well.
But clearly the political system of the UN is not up to the task of facing the challenges of today and tomorrow. This is not just the UN’s fault as an institution. The heart of that really lies in the structural challenges countries are facing right now.
What are those structural challenges?
Most countries, particularly those with democratic institutions, have political systems that are short term: election cycles run for three or four years. And the gap between those short-term systems and the long-term solutions that we need to apply to today’s existential problems — such as health, climate, or corruption — is growing. Most national leaders are structurally incapable of dealing with problems that go beyond the electoral cycle. And you could add that some of them are intellectually unable as well.
If you want to find examples of innovative, smart leaders with the capacity, time, and inclination to look further than political cycles, you often turn to mayors of large cities. The conversation between mayors and their citizens is much closer and more organic than it is between national leaders and their citizens.
If a lot of the problems at a national level are caused by structural challenges, how are those faced by mayors any different in the same political systems?
If you look at the political machinery, once you are a mayor in a city, you usually get re-elected for a while if you do your job right. You are not facing the same fights, issues, or rates of change — or at least not to the same extent — that politicians face at the national level. And as I mentioned: they are much closer to the citizens and to their needs. They understand their needs better, and can deliver on those needs more effectively. I will give you one small example.
The mayor of Mannheim, a German city, keeps getting re-elected because very quickly, he realised that he needed to have a closer conversation with his citizens. So, he essentially told the citizens of Mannheim — which has a population of a little over 300,000 — “If you have a good idea, find 10 other people who think it is a good idea and then write to me. I will come and see you personally and discuss that idea with you. And if we all agree that it is a good idea, I will finance it and you implement it.”
It was an incredible success. It turned around the way that power spoke to citizens in a simple way, with a simple structure, that was inexpensive. It brought about real change and injected new ideas to solve problems.
If I am a local government official, your point about the structural impediments could make me feel, perhaps, disempowered, for lack of a better word. I might be smart, motivated, and want to serve my country, yet it seems like many of the headwinds I am facing are embedded and beyond my power to change. What would you advise?
I think that is a question and a point of view that belongs to the past. We are now living in a transition of governance — a transition that is happening quickly, even if it is not keeping pace with some of the challenges we are facing.
We are moving away from a state-centric governance model — and I am talking about all levels, not just at the national level — to multi-sector, multi-party, polycentric, or whatever you want to call it, models of governance. There are going to be, and there are already in certain places, many more people around the policy-setting table and the decision-making table than there were before. Part of this transition is a growing awareness of the integrated nature of our daily lives, a recognition of how different issues need to be looked at in a collaborative, integrated manner.
It is clear that all of these big existential problems we are faced with can only be dealt with if we collaborate in ways that we have never collaborated before. Necessity will keep pushing us in this direction. - Michael Møller
If you look at some of the international organisations that have multi-party, multi-sector governance structures, they are demonstrably more effective, having more impact and being less wasteful in their resources than the traditional ones. They set the tone and they set the example.
Some might say, particularly in countries experiencing growing polarisation, that inviting more people to the decision-making table could be a recipe for gridlock.
Reality has a way of imposing itself on everybody sooner rather than later. If you want an example of that, look at Europe. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you could have argued that the very European ideal was disintegrating and there was less cooperation and coordination among the 27 EU member states. And then, in less than a week, we saw a drastic fundamental change in the way that Europe works, in its priorities, its willingness to collaborate and cooperate.
It is clear that all of these big existential problems we are faced with can only be dealt with if we collaborate in ways that we have never collaborated before; if we have a new kind of multilateral system that is more integrated, less siloed, and less reactive. And this is what is happening. Necessity will keep pushing us in this direction.
It also seems that in certain countries, there are powerful forces — retreats from globalisation, the rise of polarisation — pulling in the opposite direction.
Of course there are some countries that think they can go it alone. But they cannot, and that reckoning is coming sooner rather than later.
No single country, not even the wealthiest or most powerful, can solve our great existential problems on their own. So to me, this is a temporary state of affairs. Maybe I am too optimistic but my sense is that we are in the midst of a governance transition where a lot of traditional governance structures are going to loosen their grip on power.
I appreciate that this change will take time. There are a lot of entrenched bureaucracies. And if there is one tribe of people on the planet who do not like change, it is bureaucrats. I remember we once did a Myers-Briggs personality analysis for all the UN staff in New York and to my horror — and to the horror of quite a lot of other people — it turned out that 85% of us were in the category that said, essentially, “I like to be left alone, and I do not like change.” That obviously was eye-opening and saw us completely shift how we recruited people.
But it was very telling, and I think you would find similar resistance to change in many other bureaucracies. Change is a process. It takes time, it is not easy, and it requires strong political leadership.
You mention the need to work together. Perhaps the defining issue on which the world needs to work together is climate change. And for many people, climate change highlights both the power of the UN and its limitations. It has brought the world together to build consensus and raise awareness. Yet the impressive pledges the UN has been able to inspire — such as the Paris Agreement, which was finalised at COP26 in Glasgow last year — have not been fully translated into action. What is your sense of the role the UN has played — and can play going forward — on issues as complex, contentious and important as climate change?
The criticism you cite there is based on a misunderstanding of the UN that is pervasive and global. You have to think of the UN as a club of members who pay for the club and decide what the club does. And so these members agree on certain objectives — as they have done on climate change, on disarmament, on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — and then they all individually go home and some of them do something about it and others do not. The strength of the UN stands and falls with the coherence of its membership.
I think people also fail to make the distinction between what is happening on the political side of the UN — the Security Council, for instance — and what is happening quietly on the ground, carried out by organisations such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the World Bank.
The fragmentation and deadlock in the political system of the UN is not reflected in the technical multilateral system. On that side — in health, in implementation, in humanitarian work — you have a lot happening.
For example, the UNDP has created 130 innovation labs in 130 countries, all working to inject new technologies and new training into these countries and their governments. These local units are not staffed by international members; they are staffed by smart, young, local people who want to help their country.
To give you a different example I was involved with, when I was in office at the UN, we created the SDG Lab. This was around 2015, in the early days after the SDGs had been launched. There were initiatives all over the place trying to achieve them and nobody was really connecting any dots. We created an ecosystem of close to 500 partners: nongovernmental organisations, members of the business community, academics, governments, everybody with the will and the wherewithal to help solve problems and connect those dots.
One day, we had a man from Niger come to the Lab. The country had a new president, and that new president had decided to connect 20,000 villages to the internet. There was no electricity in those villages, this representative had no budget, no technicians, and no specialised knowledge. And it occurred to me that this was the perfect occasion to test drive what we wanted to do with this SDG Lab, so I invited him into a group of all the organisations in town. He made his case, and you had organisations who had never set foot in Niger put up their hands and say, “I can help you with that.” They provided technical assistance, helped with fundraising. Two years later, he chose the town furthest away from the capital, thousands of kilometres away, to install electricity and the internet. And the next day, the lives of the 5,000 people there were completely changed.
Those overlooked parts of the UN system that you mention are how many local government officials interact with the UN. They receive input from the UNDP, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in addition to bilateral and independent sources. It can be a challenge for them to know which ones to listen to, and which advice to prioritise. If you were working in the public sector, who would you listen to, and why?
The UN over the past 10 years has worked hard to become a one-stop-shop in these countries — providing one country office where you have all of these actors, so you get a much more consistent, coherent, concerted approach. In many of these countries, the embassies of the different donor countries also come with advice, money, and projects. Increasingly, the UN is collaborating and integrating all of these issues so that we minimise overlap and waste. It is not perfect, but it is a long way away from where it was before.
Another challenge is the sheer volume of information officials receive today, which they are supposed to digest in the face of shifting priorities and days full of meetings. How did you manage to stay up to date?
I was never alone. I had a team. It is a matter of delegating and dividing up tasks. The amount of information is massive and only growing. Part of the experience that comes as you move up the ladder is learning to sift the information and extract what is most pertinent to your immediate priorities. Your job as a leader is to make sure that you not only know how to do it, but that you have the right people around you that can help you do that.
What should a governance practitioner start doing if they want to contribute to, and be well-positioned for, this governance transition?
Well, first of all, they should be ready to include others and talk to others, and certainly they should learn how to listen. You need to allow for conversation with other actors, particularly those you are supposed to serve, and find ways to integrate suggestions. It is not that difficult, but it is counterintuitive to most people who get into any kind of powerful position.
Also, they should educate themselves, understand the complex causes of problems and the network of solutions we have to apply to solve them. It is no good talking about poverty, for example, if you do not talk about gender, education, health, and a whole series of other factors that are integral to creating poverty in the first place. The sliced-salami approach to problem-solving never worked very well, but it simply does not work at all now.
CIG expresses appreciation to Apolitical for their support for this interview.
Michael Møller has dedicated his life as an international civil servant in the United Nations for four decades, serving in different capacities in New York, Mexico, Iran, Haiti, Cyprus, and Geneva. In 2013-2019, he served as the UN Director-General in Geneva and as Secretary-General of the Conference of Disarmament. He is now the Chairman of the Diplomacy Forum of the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator Foundation, and a member of the Executive Board of the Kofi Annan Foundation. Born in 1952 in Copenhagen, Denmark, he earned a Master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University, U.S., and a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Sussex, U.K.