Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Interview: Thomas Weiss

Why the next Secretary General needs to shake up the UN system

The UN needs to return to its roots in the aftermath of the Second World War when it was at the heart of global cooperation and not “a liberal toy”. Thomas G. Weiss at the City University of New York challenges the next Secretary General.

Thomas Weiss, Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York
Photo: Development Today

Weiss says that substantial changes in the UN system usually occur during the first six to 12 months of a new Secretary General’s term. Both Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992 and Kofi Annan in 1997 and 2002 lived up to that at the beginning of their terms. But this has not been the case for the current UN chief Ban Ki-moon. 

“I am afraid [he] is not my favourite representative of the world body over the last seven decades, mainly because he has chosen to define his role as one of keeping 193 member states happy all of the time.”

Weiss was recently in Copenhagen and Oslo, discussing UN reform with Nordic officials. In an interview with Development Today, he criticises the current Secretary General for skirting around tough issues.

Ban is pushing climate change, but “who besides a handful Republican senators does not think climate change is a problem?” he asks. At the same time, Ban is not confronting China, India and the United States, the biggest greenhouse gas polluters.


Ban’s performance stands in contrast with predecessors like Dag Hammarskjöld and Kofi Annan who were prepared to “irritate” states. “Ban Ki-moon has shied totally away from that,” says Weiss.

In his academic work, which includes a book entitled What’s Wrong With the United Nations and How to Fix It (Cambridge, 2008), Weiss has revisited the World War II origins of the UN when it was not “a liberal toy”, as he puts it, but a commitment to institutionalised cooperation. 

As Ban’s term now comes to an end Weiss proposes opening up the selection process for a new UN chief. He is pushing the idea together with an alliance of organisations under the banner: “1 for 7 billion”. Selecting a new UN chief is global politics at the highest level. Weiss is not optimistic about a transparent process, but thinks it is possible to get potential candidates to make clear pledges about two big issues they could actually do something about:

1) What is the candidate’s vision about how to make the UN development system work more effectively, cohesively and coherently?

 2) What kind of people should the UN recruit and what kinds of contracts should they have?

A Secretary General can make important changes on both those issues.

“I would like to see that being part of the pitch … [and] afterwards there is a small chance that we can hold them a little bit accountable,” he says.

A key problem of the UN System is how donors set it up with specialised agencies and competing development organisations like UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR and so on. Weiss say they do not work together, and they all have their own cultures, executive heads and governing boards.

“Most importantly, they all raise their funds from exactly the same people. I think the competition for these funds is counter-productive and wasteful,” he says.

For UN officials, their agencies and careers are dependent on the influx of funds and implementation of new projects. “The incentive system does not reward you for collaboration, it rewards you for going your own way,” he says.

A new UN Secretary General should push for changes at headquarters.

“The system cannot continue as it has for 70 years. There has to be something like a UN office,” Weiss says.

He notes that few of the proposals from the Delivering as One reform initiative of 2006 were implemented. An exception is the restructuring of UN Women, where four individual units where folded into one. Weiss calls it historic and says it gives some hope.

“The reform would have been even better had UNFPA also become part of that, because that is the main operational part.”

Weiss says this kind of consolidation really needs to happen, but it is being rejected as impossible. “It is impossible because donors put up with it. If governments spoke as one I think you could get a whole lot more out of this system and deliver many more benefits to people on the ground,” he says.

Over the past decade, new institutions have emerged on the outside of the UN system like the Global Fund and the vaccine alliance Gavi, both of which operate closely with the Gates Foundation. Critics say this undermines the UN system.

“My take on it is that competition is a good idea and the UN needs to understand why Gavi exists, why Bill Gates exists and why Norway wants to invest in that instead of the WHO,” says Weiss.


The UN continues to operate as if the world has not changed. The UN continues to be an aid-driven system, while other flows like foreign investment and growing tax and commodity revenues are becoming increasingly important, marginalising the UN.

“The UN system will not disappear. It will just become a kind of relic of little significance in terms of total flows and deliveries. It will not play the central role it could and should play, unless it begins to operate differently.” Weiss suggests that if the UN changes, Bill Gates might even invest in it.

Weiss has been discussing his ideas with Nordic UN policy makers. In Copenhagen, he spoke with Mogens Lykketoft, a Danish MP who will serve as President of the UN General Assembly starting in September. In Oslo, he spoke frankly to officials at the Foreign Ministry.

The American academic is not enthusiastic about Foreign Minister Børge Brende’s “UN 70: A New Agenda”, which targets candidates for the job of UN chief. Such a reform project should be raising hard questions, says Weiss. It needs “a sharp edge” and should include proposals that other like-minded countries cannot ignore. “If you want to make a difference to the system, you have to be willing to irritate people,” Weiss says. There are simply too many initiatives that no one is against and everyone is for.

All this said, Weiss is pessimistic about the chances of making significant changes in the UN architecture since all previous instances of major institutional reform have grown out of world-wide conflicts. Not even the end of the Cold War caused the UN institutions to change.

“Here we are 25 years later muddling along in the same way. I would like to think that human beings have learned something over the course of our existence and that I do not need to recommend World War III in order to get a development system that works better than the one we have now.”


Weiss acknowledges that there are other factors causing institutional change like ideas and technologies; Gavi and the Gates Foundation being examples.

“We could have more and more of those. The problem is that more isolated individual efforts may not add up. It is that realisation that has made me really uncomfortable about saying: Yeah, one more Gavi … Let thousands of Gavis bloom!”

Weiss does not believe that “a thousand Gavis” would be able to stop the next Ebola epidemic, halt atrocities, prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions or the next Syria. They might be helpful and essential for certain individuals, but not for the planet as a whole.

“That is why I am increasingly persuaded that we really need to shake up the institutions we have and push them in the directions imagined back in 1942 and 1945,” Weiss says.