ILO is a specialized agency of the United Nations

271st Session
Geneva, March 1998


Developments in the United Nations
in 1997-98

UN reform: Implications for the ILO

1. While the UN has undertaken numerous reform efforts in its 52 years of existence, the latest round merits special attention. In part this is because the Secretary-General was elected on a platform of reform and because the reform process has had some success in the past year. More importantly for the ILO, the member States of the UN have before them a set of proposals which call for the possibility of changes in the entire system, including changes in the very mandates and charters of the various parts.

2. The basis for the reform debate in the UN General Assembly has been the Secretary-General's report of 19 July 1997 entitled "Renewing the United Nations: A programme for reform" (commonly referred to as his "Track II proposals"). The report consisted in 29 actions on which the Secretary-General had determined that he had the authority to take action but was consulting the membership, and 15 recommendations which required decisions by the General Assembly. On 12 November the General Assembly adopted a resolution approving the actions that the Secretary-General was taking within his existing authority, and requested that he submit a report on the implementation of these actions at the next session of the General Assembly. On 19 December the General Assembly adopted a second resolution which covered a wide range of measures, including new approaches to policy formulation; peace, security and disarmament; economic and social affairs; development cooperation; humanitarian affairs; financing the Organization; management; and longer term changes. While some of his recommendations were approved for immediate implementation, most of them involved a request for further information or further deliberation by the General Assembly and related UN bodies in the coming year.

3. The reform process has several goals. First and foremost, it is a reflection of the desire to instill a greater "unity of purpose" in the UN system. Secondly, although there are peace, security and disarmament issues in the reform package, the drive to instill this unity of purpose is largely focused on the economic and social concerns of the system. Thirdly, there is a strong emphasis on development as the top priority of the UN, with an awareness of the changing paradigms in socio-economic development philosophy and thinking encompassing "greater political and economic openness as well as a sensitivity for social and environmental concerns". Fourthly, there is an acknowledged need to "build bridges of cooperation and the necessary partnership for development between governments, the private sector, civil society and regional and global organizations".

4. A fifth element, which is of considerable importance to the ILO, is the way in which the UN reform process is addressing the normative work of the UN system in general and the issue of human rights in particular. Many of the reform proposals that have been put forward in recent years have suggested that the specialized agencies should concentrate on their normative activities and that the UN itself should assume coordinated responsibility for the operational activities of the system. The implications of these five elements are described in more detail below.

Unity of purpose

(a) The concept

5. Unity of purpose and improved coherence are at the heart of the reform plan. The Secretary-General has repeatedly said throughout this past year, in defending and explaining his reform proposals, that reform is a process, but he started his first year as Secretary-General by also warning that "long-term shifts at the national and international level alike imply that fundamental change is in store for the workings of intergovernmental organizations". The UN, he said, "must undergo fundamental, not piecemeal, reform". In the view of the Secretary-General, the inter-sectoral or trans-sectoral character of policy issues facing the UN are compelling a fundamental change in the system. These new policy issues include sustainable development, post-conflict peace-building, emergency relief operations, and the link between humanitarian assistance and development cooperation. Most of these are of relevance to the ILO, but one can anticipate that others, such as employment and sustainable livelihoods, will directly involve the ILO's mandate.

6. One of the problems facing the UN is that its sectoral organizations "have broadened their activities to take on a more holistic approach", which has "compounded problems created by the fragmentation of existing structures". While the Secretary-General has expressed an appreciation for the historical decision to create a decentralized UN system, he seems to believe that policy issues have become so inter-sectoral or trans-sectoral that they cannot be managed effectively in a system where the various units are essentially autonomous entities. Therefore, the first step identified to launch fundamental reform was "to create the appropriate secretariat structures that will permit the Organization to act as one within and across its diverse areas of activities".

7. The Secretary-General was quick to point out that "Acting as one does not mean moving in lock step. Nor does it imply denying the specific attributes of any component part". The implication is that coherence through centralized coordination is a desirable characteristic for all components of the system.

8. Establishing a new post of Deputy Secretary-General is the most visible of these structural changes. But there have also been others, most of which have not required approval by the General Assembly. The Secretary-General has created a Senior Management Group, a Strategic Planning Unit, four sectoral Executive Committees, the UN Development Group and a new Department of Economic and Social Affairs. All of this is important for the ILO's relationship with the UN system, but one should take special note of what is happening with the UN Development Group (addressed below) and with the new Department of Economic and Social Affairs (also addressed below). These are largely initiatives within the existing authority of the Secretary-General and therefore relate to the UN itself as well as its funds and programmes. They do not as yet directly involve the specialized agencies or the rest of the broader UN system.

(b) The issue management system

9. Another set of proposals involving coordination is directed at the way in which the UN system at large would change the way it operates within the ACC. Specifically, the Secretary-General has proposed that the ACC adopt an "issue management system". Although the ACC already performs a coordinating function, there is a perceived need for more active, cooperative management of those issues where the activities or mandates of more than one organization are involved. For each particular situation or issue, the ACC would establish a task force or working party, to include only those organizations with an interest and/or capacity in the area concerned.

10. Some of these groups would operate on an ongoing basis, while others would address the need for coordination for a specified period of time. In each case, there would be a lead organization which would provide secretariat services for the effort. All participants would be required to share information on their respective plans and activities, to inform and consult all participants concerning new initiatives, to contribute to an overall planning framework and to consult with each other on priorities and complementarities.

11. A precursor of this type of issue management was the inter-agency task forces, such as the ACC Task Force on Employment and Sustainable Livelihoods chaired by the ILO. There continues to be interest in what the task forces have produced, and there will be a special session of ECOSOC in May to review follow-up on major international conferences, including the work of these task forces. The Secretary-General has asked both the Executive Committee for Development Cooperation and the Executive Committee for Economic and Social Affairs to prepare lists of where issue management networks might be fruitfully established, including the identification of appropriate lead agencies.

(c) Longer term initiatives

12. Finally, the Secretary-General has proposed a longer term initiative for the promotion of unity of purpose in the system, and that is the possible establishment of a high-level ministerial commission to examine the need for possible amendments to the Charter and the treaties from which the specialized agencies derive their mandates. The General Assembly has invited the Secretary-General to elaborate on this proposal, along with a few others involving long-term changes, taking into account the views of governments, and to present them to the Assembly by the end of March 1998. The other proposals include a Millennium Assembly for the year 2000, and the Secretary-General has described the high-level ministerial commission as something that might report its findings to such a Millennium Assembly. In his press release following the second General Assembly resolution, he said: "In my judgement, the Millennium Assembly should review and reassess what the UN has endeavoured to achieve as well as the means by which it has sought to achieve its ends, with an eye on how further to close the gap between aspiration and accomplishment. It should identify promising opportunities as well as significant shortcomings. It should re-examine the continued viability of the juridically-based fragmentation that exists within the UN family as a whole. And it should provide focused strategic guidance for the UN in the era ahead".

13. Also included in this set of proposals is a Millennium Forum (a separate companion event of representatives of civil society), a new concept of trusteeship which encompasses a broadened relationship between the UN and civil society and a proposal for "sunset provisions" which would set specific time-limits for new mandates and institutional machinery. The Assembly expects to include in its provisional agenda for its next session an item entitled "United Nations reform: Measures and proposals" when it would then address the further elaboration of these proposals. The Millennium Assembly in the year 2000 would be in addition to the special session of the General Assembly for five-year follow-up on the Social Summit, as well as a review process for the Fourth World Conference on Women.

14. Thus, the ongoing reform process reflects an interest in pulling the various pieces of the UN system (and other elements of the international community) closer together under the leadership of the centre. This is especially true of the proposals for reform on economic and social affairs and development, and it also includes UN relations with civil society.

Economic and social affairs

15. In the area of economic and social affairs, the ILO will be very much affected by the evolving role and scope of the new Department of Economic and Social Affairs. This department is intended to have "core competencies" in "an integrated approach to development, sustainable development, social development, the advancement, rights and empowerment of women, demographic and statistical work, and issues arising from integrated follow-up on recent UN conferences". The Secretary-General has created an Executive Committee on Economic and Social Affairs, which is chaired by the head of this department and which includes the heads of UNCTAD, UNEP and the regional commissions. One of this Committee's first tasks was to identify where overlapping and duplicative activities between the department and UNCTAD could be eliminated. This new department is also an important arena for identifying how coordination throughout the UN system can be implemented through an issue management system which clearly identifies the relevant lead agencies. Furthermore, this department is also intended to have an identifiable inter-agency affairs unit to service the ACC and promote the continuous exchange of information and consultation throughout the UN system.

16. The ILO's own responsibilities for leadership within the UN system on employment and core labour standards, as articulated in the Social Summit and elsewhere, will need to be coordinated through this department. The ILO has already worked closely with this department in the coordination of preparations for the Commission on Social Development. The ILO served as the task manager at its 1997 session when full employment and sustainable livelihoods were considered and has continued to work closely with the department on the Commission's 1998 session. The department has also called on the ILO to participate in various seminars and workshops to make analytical contributions on social exclusion, popular participation, the measurement of underemployment, poverty eradication and other employment-related issues.

17. The monitoring of cross-cutting issues from major international conferences is also the designated responsibility of the ECOSOC in the Secretary-General's reform proposals. These major international conferences, "taken together," said the Secretary-General "represent a framework for an integrated, systemic approach for socio-economic development in its widest sense". There were several proposals to improve the coordination function of ECOSOC, more emphasis on cross-cutting themes and through other administrative improvements, but most of these were referred to ECOSOC for its next session, with a request to report back to the General Assembly in the autumn of 1998.

18. ECOSOC, in any case, will have a broadened role in addressing issues of relevance to the ILO, yet the framework for the ILO and other specialized agencies to participate in ECOSOC is fairly limited: ECOSOC will have a special session in May concerning coordination of follow-up on major international conferences. The ILO has not been directly involved in planning for this session, although the ILO and others are being given an opportunity to comment on what the UN secretariat has proposed as the agenda and outline background material for this session. This is, of course, the normal operating procedure for ECOSOC sessions in general, but the fact that this special session is intended to focus on the Council's coordination role in follow-up on major international conferences, together with the fact that the ILO and the other specialized agencies do have substantive follow-up responsibilities, highlights the dilemma of coordination by the Council without the full involvement of the specialized agencies in preparations for the Council's work. The Council, it should be noted, is serviced by a secretariat in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The ILO will therefore also need to interact with this department in regard to ECOSOC concerns and perhaps find new ways to participate in ECOSOC activities.

Development cooperation

19. It is in the area of enhanced development cooperation that various initiatives seem to be moving the most quickly. The members of the UN Development Group -- UNDP, UNFPA and UNICEF -- have been instructed to organize their executive board meetings in tandem and to coordinate their budgets. The group also is spearheading a series of coordination initiatives at the country level, and this is where the greatest momentum can be seen.

20. The Secretary-General has urged the integration of development programmes by various UN entities into a common planning, programming and resource mobilization framework. In late summer last year, the UN Development Group launched a series of pilot programmes in some ten countries for the UN funds and programmes to formulate a UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF). This has since been expanded to another nine countries, making a total so far of 19 countries.

21. While the UNDAF was intended to apply only to the UN funds and programmes in the first instance, it would appear that its implementation has the potential to become all-encompassing. It is also intended to serve as the basis for follow-up on recent international conferences. The specialized agencies have been invited to participate as volunteers in this exercise, and the ILO has chosen to do so in some, but not all of the countries where UNDAFs are being put into place.

22. Along with the UNDAF project, the UN Development Group is also working on strengthening the capacity of the resident coordinator at the country level to act as the UN's team leader. There is a great push to integrate country-level operations and the achievement of greater cohesion in the representation of the UN at the country level.(1)  The resident coordinator would operate as a de facto "UN Ambassador" who will present credentials to the Head of State, while the other agency representatives will present credentials to sectoral cooperating ministries. This could mean that contacts of other agency representatives with governments and other groups in a country might be subject to instructions of the resident coordinator. Agency programmes of work might also have to be cleared through the resident coordinators if governments came to view the UNDAF as encompassing all UN programming in their countries. With the special tripartite structure of the ILO, this raises serious problems of access and cooperation. A related concern has to do with the idea of a common "UN House" in each country which the ILO has tended to approach cautiously for reasons related to the access of its constituents.

Relations with civil society

23. The Secretary-General's ideas about the changing relationship between the UN and civil society are key elements of his reform proposals. Not only does the Secretary-General call generally for a process of enlargement of international cooperation involving NGOs as actual shapers of policy, but he specifically highlights the need for improved mechanisms for continuing the dialogue between representatives of business and the UN. He has even suggested that the ACC should set up a "jointly funded inter-agency business liaison service, to be named the United Nations Enterprise Liaison Service", similar in scope to the Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS).

24. The General Assembly's reactions to the Secretary-General's proposals on civil society have shown that this remains an area of reform where more information is needed before any significant changes can effectively be considered. For example, in its second resolution on UN reform, adopted on 19 December, which calls for the elaboration of various points, reference was made to the need for further clarification on the new concept of trusteeship as an arena of the UN that might formally involve civil society in the UN structure. On the same day the General Assembly also adopted a separate "draft decision" on non-governmental organizations. In that decision, the General Assembly requested the Secretary-General to prepare and circulate a report "on existing arrangements and practices for the interaction of non-governmental organizations in all United Nations activities; the legal and financial implications of modifications in the current arrangements for participation of non-governmental organizations to enhance their participation in the United Nations; and the participation of non-governmental organizations from all regions, particularly from developing countries". It appears that a prime motivation for this decision was a concern about the lack of a sound foundation of information and analysis on NGOs and their role in civil society.

25. The special attention given to the private sector is attributable in part to the view that the emergence of civil society in UN settings is largely driven by "two interlocking processes -- the quest for a more democratic, transparent, accountable and enabling governance -- and the increasing preponderance of market-based approaches to national and global economic management". These processes have led to what the Secretary-General calls the "declining role of the State" and the "new and broader responsibilities in market and civil society actors in the pursuit of growth and well-being". Therefore, he has engaged in considerable outreach to the business community in its perceived role as representative of the private sector. The Director-General participated in one such event, a luncheon organized by the Secretary-General in cooperation with the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum, and, at the request of the Secretary-General, prepared a proposal to host a special brainstorming session at the Turin Centre on the changing relationship between the private sector and the UN system. This approach has been accepted and is on the verge of being implemented. This development on outreach to the private sector should be of special concern to the ILO and its tripartite constituents. This and other instances of innovative approaches aiming at involving civil society indicate the relevance of bringing to bear the specific ILO experience of tripartism on the broader debate.

Normative responsibilities and the promotion of human rights

26. Although the Secretary-General did not suggest any specific systemic reforms in his Track I or Track II proposals, he certainly intends systemic issues to be addressed, and the General Assembly has asked the Secretary-General to develop more fully his proposals on the ways in which such systemic issues might be addressed. The Secretary-General will no doubt take into account proposals made by various countries or groupings. One issue that appears in these systemic reform proposals is the suggestion that the specialized agencies should focus their activities on their normative work, while the operational activities of the system should be concentrated in the UN itself. A distinction between normative and operational work is likely to be a leading idea in the debate on how the UN system might be modified.

27. It is not entirely clear what is meant by the distinction between "normative" and "operational" work. It would seem that "normative" work implies standard setting, the formulation of policy, the articulation of what people ought to be doing, their rights and obligations. "Operational" work implies the developmental activities of the UN system, the implementation of actual programmes of technical assistance, but also, presumably, the execution of policy and the application of standards and guidelines. Many proposals on reform have recommended the consolidation of operational activities in economic and social affairs within the UN secretariat. The specialized agencies would then be limited primarily to normative and guideline-setting roles, and would be expected to operate as centres of excellence focused primarily on their normative tasks and, in the process, to develop new forms of collaboration with the UN.

28. A full separation of normative and operational activities would have severe consequences for the ILO. ILO standards often require operational activities for the full implementation in practice of the principles they embody. Indeed, technical cooperation is increasingly seen as an essential contribution to the application of standards. At the same time, operational activities contribute to the ILO's substantive knowledge of issues and can provide essential input to the development of new standards, as the case of IPEC and the proposed new standards on extreme forms of child labour demonstrates. The assignment of operational activities to the UN would cut these links, and at the same time would reduce the access of employers' and workers' organizations to ILO assistance -- and quite probably support to ministries of labour as well.

29. An important element in the reform debate will be the role of the commitments that have emerged from recent major UN conferences. These have been instrumental in the advancement of norms and agreements, and they are therefore a crucial source for any all-encompassing set of norms which the UN itself, and specifically the ECOSOC, should be responsible for coordinating and integrating on behalf of the UN system. Thus, even though there is a role for the specialized agencies to play in terms of their existing normative responsibilities, this would need to be adjusted to the new context of enhanced coordination by ECOSOC.

30. In the year of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the issue of mainstreaming human rights is also being raised in the context of the entire UN system. For the ILO, this is especially important, as its normative work is so closely tied to the advancement of fundamental human rights. There is a clear linkage between the Universal Declaration and the ILO's core Conventions. Furthermore, the ILO's efforts to develop a Declaration concerning the promotion of fundamental principles and rights must be seen as a normative task with human rights implications. Certainly, the fact that this Declaration is focusing on those principles that were also acknowledged at the Social Summit as core labour standards -- and which therefore have received normative reinforcement from a major UN conference -- would suggest that the ILO has an important leadership responsibility in this distinctive area of its mandate, within the UN system, for the advancement of such human rights concerns.


31. The reform of the UN system holds a number of opportunities for the ILO. The Director-General has consistently taken the position that the ILO should be open to cooperation and supportive of measures to enhance efficiency and effectiveness. The ILO has supported reform in ways that follow from its mandate. For example, the ILO's role as task manager for the ACC Task Force on Employment and Sustainable Livelihoods has enhanced its system-wide reputation in dealing with employment issues. Since ACC task forces have become the model for issue management, this is likely to place the ILO in a position to participate even more effectively in the future. Similarly, ILO support for the Secretary-General's initiative to encourage cooperation between the UN and the business community is based on the ILO's privileged relations with the private sector and its tripartite structure.

32. At the same time, UN reform presents a number of challenges and potential problems in areas that are essential to ILO principles and action. Unity of purpose is an important goal, for example, but it should not become an excuse for centralized decision-making in which the specialized expertise of the ILO might be ignored. Even more importantly, UN organs are no substitute for the ILO Governing Body or the International Labour Conference. At the same time, UN relations with civil society need to take the proper role of employers' and workers' organizations into account.

33. The Director-General has argued forcefully for a model of the UN system based on functional specialization and decentralization of authority, coupled with flexible measures for cooperation and joint action where appropriate. This modern organizational model contrasts sharply with that of a centralized bureaucracy. It is based on a strong role for the specialized agencies, an approach that has served the UN system well. The Director-General considers that it is essential to retain a mandate for the specialized agencies that applies not just to standard-setting, but to a coherent set of issues and means of action. This will permit the ILO to support the implementation of its standards through the diverse forms of assistance that are needed and expected by its constituents.

34. In view of the fundamental importance of UN reform issues for the future of the ILO and taking into account that most questions raised in the present document will certainly be the subject of debate during the next meeting of the ACC (27-28 March 1998), the Governing Body may wish to hold a thorough exchange of views on UN reform, and to provide guidance to the Director-General on how its opportunities and challenges should be approached.

Geneva, 4 March 1998.

1. See GB.271/PFA/7/5 .

Updated by VC. Approved by NdW. Last update: 26 January 2000.