No.1 - February 2013

by Stephen Browne and Thomas G. Weiss

How Relevant Are the UN’s Regional Commissions?


The harsh reality for the UN’s five regional commissions has been that without significant amounts of resources for regional reconstruction, institution-building, or the creation of infrastructure, their achievements in terms of fostering regional cooperation have been minimal. Much of their activity consists of convening meetings, which generally result in declarations and agreements of limited practical significance.  Even the role of the commissions in mobilizing and giving voice to regional opinions has been marginal.

The regional commissions were placed in a negative spotlight in the mid-2000s, when the UN secretary-general created the High-level Panel on UN System-wide Coherence to propose a set of reforms for the development system. The panel was chaired by three serving prime ministers, one of whom (from a developing country) wanted to abolish the regional commissions. The proposal did not find its way into the 2007 final report, however.

Further concerns about the relevance of the commissions were highlighted by two recent global perception surveys undertaken by FUNDS. The surveys, in 2010 and 2012, canvassed by means of a questionnaire a total of over 6,500 people from all regions and across all major occupational groups. The respondents were asked to rate the relevance of all the UN’s main development organizations, and the results quite clearly placed the regional commissions at the bottom of the ratings.

Of the respondents from governments of developed countries, more than 80 percent rate the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF as relevant, but fewer than half rated the regional commissions that way. The commissions fare better with developing country governments, but only ECLAC (the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) is given a favorable rating higher than 60 percent.

Does it matter that there is widespread concern about the relevance of the UN’s regional commissions? They would all surely claim to be doing useful work, even if it is little more than frequent exchanges of experience and the signing of agreements. The commissions duplicate, but do not detract from, the activities of the rest of the UN development system, almost all of which have their own regional structures. They do not raise controversial issues; they are invariably uncritical of member governments.

Like all UN organizations, regional commissions are considered too-friendly-to-fail, and in the absence of any objective performance criteria by which to assess individual organizations, no UN organization has ever been closed (only occasionally merged). Together the regional commissions cost global tax-payers US$ 400 million per year and employ some 2,500 individuals. However, these numbers are trivial by the standards of international organizations.

So the regional commissions could continue indefinitely. The only real cost is to the UN’s declining reputation as a serious development interlocutor.

Stephen Browne is a Fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and co-Director of FUNDS.  His first UN job was at ESCAP (the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) in Bangkok, which he left after failing to discover its role.

Thomas G. Weiss is the Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, Presidential Professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center, and co-Director of FUNDS.

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