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Business - Written by on Monday, February 2, 2009 16:31 - 5 Comments

United Nations 2.0

I had an interesting chat this morning with a colleague who is trying to get wikinomics infused into the culture and operations of the United Nations and finding it tough going so far.

Like many observers of the international scene, I find it frustrating to watch international organizations like the United Nations fail to shake-off the sclerosis and bureaucratic inertia that have marred attempts to get anywhere near meeting the millennium development goals by 2015. As my colleague rightly pointed out, there was so much optimism surrounding the Rio Earth Summit in 1992–a time when the United Nations had a much more positive public profile and, seemingly at least, the clout to make things happen. No more.

Described by my colleague as “closed and insular,” the UN is quickly losing its convening power and ultimately its relevance in addressing the global challenges that matter. Its power and authority have been usurped; by the US’s unilateralism on one hand, and by a multitude of more nimble and innovative stakeholder networks that have emerged to fill the leadership void—networks that compete with the UN and other international organizations for attention, loyalty and funds. If there was ever a time when the UN needed to embrace open source principles, this is it.

To be fair to the many good people who work hard for the UN, they are hardly operating in a benign environment. Eight years of neo-conservative attacks and unfavorable news media coverage have denigrated its image and perhaps even eroded its confidence. It’s also fair to say that making consensus decisions with 192 members on the board of directors is hardly a walk in the park, particularly when some of those board members are not very sympathetic to your cause.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, it won’t matter if the UN cedes leadership to new global “organizations” and networks so long as someone can get the job done. But my sense is that the job will not get done without the involvement of an international body that represents the world’s national governments. So in the spirit of renewing the United Nations, I’m offering up the following five six ideas for starters:

  1. Hold a series of large-scale digital conversations (along the lines of Habitat Jam) on the each of the millennium development goals (MDG) to help develop new ideas, restore confidence, and engage the public. Set up an Ideastorm for each MDG to continue the dialog.
  2. Start building a virtual citizen assembly with representatives from each country. I don’t see this as a “world parliament” as others have suggested, but as more of watch dog whose principle responsibility would be to hold agencies within the United Nations system accountable. See Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, for example (thanks Tony for the link).
  3. Develop a transparency toolkit and encourage social entrepreneurs to build new web-based applications to help track progress (or lack of progress) towards the MDGs, much the way the United Kingdom and the District of Columbia have done with their mash-up contests.
  4. Stop producing stale policy documents and white papers and start leveraging rich, interactive media to carry-out the UN’s education and advocacy work.
  5. Establish an international clearinghouse of sorts that would help foster greater coordination and knowledge sharing between the multitude of international organizations, aid agencies, NGOs, charities and social entrepreneurs that are engaged in international development efforts.
  6. Experiment with InnoCentive and other talent marketplaces to help bolster the problem-solving capacity of UN agencies. Solution Exchange in India was developed by a local UN agency and could serve as a model for a broader collaboration platform.

United Nations 2.0 may sound far-fetched, but as my colleague aptly put it “he who cautions every step covers little ground.” Please add your own ideas in the comments section.


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Stuart Berman
Feb 2, 2009 17:24

Too bad you are taking an approach that views technology as the solution to a problem that is not technological in nature.

The UN is not a victim of neocon or negative press rather it is the nature of what the organization is. Consider that this organization forbids only Israel from sitting on the Security Council or had determined that Zionism was racism.

In essence the value of the UN is for various nations to have a forum to meet rather than go to war. Its purpose is not to determine how to solve all problems.

For a better Wikinomics approach look at the proposals by Thomas PM Barnett (author of The Pentagon’s New Map, etc) who asserts that it makes more sense for policy decisions to come from a body that has at its best interest global stability such as the G20. In other words the countries that contribute the most to the global ecomomy get the biggest say.

John Kavanagh
Feb 2, 2009 18:11

Like many beauractic entity, the UN lacks merit-based hiring, with positions currently allocated geographically. Furthermore, many players at the UN leverage diplomatic immunity to avoid punishment for criminal behavior.

Feb 3, 2009 7:23

I would strongly encourage you to check out a more professional proposal for a world parliament than the one to which you link above. RyansWorld seems a bit disconnected from the real policy world.

I would suggest you investigate the current Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly, which has recently secured the endorsement of over 600 current or former Members of Parliament. In many ways, this initially advisory body would serve the role you suggest, eventually establishing itself as a genuine global parliament much as its European counterpart did.

Anthony D. Williams
Feb 4, 2009 10:08

Thanks Tony for the suggestion. You’re right it is a much more credible proposal and more along the lines of what I was looking for.

Feb 6, 2009 3:36

“he who cautions every step covers little ground.”

… and he who steps on a landmine covers much ground :-)

Seriously though, the United Nations was designed for the explicit purpose of bureaucratic inertia. We don’t want a new and interesting set of human rights popping up as the latest twitter fad sweeps through, we want one simple and constant set of human rights.

Now available in paperback!
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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