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Every country is facing tough choices on how to prioritise government spending, and with increasing pressure on aid budgets international institutions will soon face similar choices.

Last year, the UK succeeded in finding efficiency savings of around five percent and is on track to meet this figure both this year and next year. The UN now needs to adopt similar tough efficiency targets to help it lead international efforts to reduce global poverty, respond to climate change and build peaceful, stable states.

If realised, a target of twenty five percent in efficiency savings over the next five years would help get more children into school, ensure better access to healthcare and put more peacekeepers on the frontline of efforts to stabilise conflict-torn nations.

The UN’s achievements have been considerable. Through the Montreal Protocol it has protected the ozone layer. Polio has been virtually eradicated. More than 400,000 ex-combatants have been disarmed. None of these achievements would have been possible by states acting alone.

However, in the UN’s strength also lies its weakness. While the breadth of its membership gives it a unique legitimacy, the sheer number of agencies, programmes, funds, commissions and other bodies they spawn so frequently, means they often add up to less than the sum of their parts.

More than a third of the UN teams based within individual countries include ten or more separate UN agencies amongst their membership. In some cases that figure rises to more than twenty. Not only does this lead to confusion on the ground and a duplication of administration costs, but crucially it makes it far harder for poorer countries to engage meaningfully with the UN.

Along with its frontline staff, each UN office will have its own buying arm, its own transport department, its own human resources, IT and financial sections.

Some UN offices have already embraced new ways of working that channel more money into securing better results for poor people. Tanzania’s UN team, for example, is likely to see savings of around $1 million this year alone as a result of modernising its procurement and IT programme.

Different UN development agencies, programmes and the like, spend between eight and nineteen percent of their annual budgets on administration or management. A reduction of just one percentage point in administration costs would result in annual savings of tens of millions of dollars.

Then there’s procurement. The UK’s central procurement agency, The Office for Government Commerce, realised savings of hundreds of millions of pounds within its first two years. The UN buys goods and services to a total value of approximately $9 billion each year. If, by smarter procurement, it could negotiate a mere one percent saving on everything it buys, it could save millions. This is an opportunity begging to be explored.

Critically, these savings will then be available to be redirected back into the field where they can benefit the very people who need it most.

I want countries facing the toughest challenges to benefit from these savings, with the UN’s brightest and best leading the international effort to help them, able to draw on special funding to direct UN agencies to deal with the most pressing tasks.

The UK is a great believer in the UN and all it stands for. Yet, no institution, however powerful, can afford to remain static. It must respond to emerging needs and pressures. Where we see evidence of reform we have proved that we are ready to recognise it. Today I will announce a three year contribution to the UN’s humanitarian emergency fund, which provides rapid, effective funding to respond to disasters such as earthquakes, famine and war. Now we need to see that same commitment matched in other areas.

As a global player, the UN has no equal. There are times, however, that it runs the risk of being its own worst enemy. It is at those times that it needs its closest friends to tell it some home truths, even if those messages are sometimes difficult to hear.

When addressing the needs of the world’s poorest, what matters is not size nor numbers, but focus and clarity of purpose. We have the opportunity now to reinvigorate the UN so that it remains relevant and ready to deal with the challenges of the next decade and beyond. We must seize that opportunity with both hands.

Gareth Thomas is Minister for International Development


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