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Exploring the Essential Role of Bureaucracy in Achieving Effective Multilateralism

6 August 2023

By Katja Hemmerich


How the Fifth Committee keeps the lights on at the UN.


5 unlight lightbulbs and one lit lightbulb

Much has been written about the decline of multilateralism, especially in relation to the Security Council and the war in Ukraine. Yet, in its last session, the General Assembly (GA) was still able to find consensus agreements on UN budgets (albeit at the last minute), agreement on human resources guidance for the Secretariat for the first time in five years, and compromise agreements on unexpected and controversial issues like the MINUSMA withdrawal. Difficult as it has been to find agreement on budget issues, member states are clearly still able to do that despite their divisions.

With the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) undertaking its review of the 2024 proposed programme and budget, our spotlight is on the UN Secretariat’s budget process and how its very bureaucratic procedures are actually a tool to help build consensus. In doing so, we explore whether bureaucracy may actually be a necessary evil that makes multilateralism work.

To understand why bureaucratic procedures may actually be helpful, it’s necessary to understand the unique features of a multilateral budgeting process, like the Secretariat’s which considers the programme of work for all Secretariat departments and agrees on assessed funding for those programmes. Because assessed funding is essentially a mandatory contribution required of each member state in the General Assembly, the Fifth Committee aims for the highest level of agreement across its members - ideally by consensus.

Why the UN Secretariat's budget process is unique

While many people assume the UN's budget process is analogous to that of national governments, it’s a false analogy. Both the structure and the implications for member state negotiators, are very different than for political parties in a national legislature.

In a national budget process, the aim of the process is to allocate tax and other governmental revenues to programme priorities and determine an agreeable level of debt to incur. In the UN, there are no tax revenues, nor can debt be incurred. Because it is an assessed budget, in essence, agreement on the budget means that at the end, each member state needs to pull out their ‘wallet’ and put their money where their mouth is. Imagine if political parties in a legislature actually needed to pay a share of the final agreed budget, and you start to understand how complex and potentially contentious the Secretariat budget process can actually be.

Consider, also, that the political parties in this analogy are loose groupings of member states in the Fifth Committee with varying degrees of unity and discipline. The G77, which is the largest group is generally quite good at keeping its membership on message, and China also tends to align itself with that group. The Western European and Other Group (WEOG), which collectively is the biggest contributor, is less unified, especially outside the European Union countries. The United States, like Russia tends to follow its own positions, with the UK increasingly doing the same since Brexit.

The third unique and complicating factor is that despite the groupings, consensus decision-making means that any one member state has the power to block agreement if they have substantive concerns on a programming direction or on the size or type of budget allocation. Few, if any national processes, essentially give a veto to individual parliamentarians. As the authors of a heavy, but insightful book, “Managing Money and Discord in the UN: Budgeting and Bureaucracy” explain, the unique structure of the budget process in the UN means that:

"Budget negotiations are as much negotiations between member states as they are between member states and the bureaucracy." – Managing Money and Discord in the UN, pg. 24

A more realistic analogy for the UN budget process is when a large group of siblings inherit their parents' house and need to renovate it together. They need to reconcile their substantive design ideas and ability to pay before they agree on the contractor and sign a contract with him or her.

"Through budgeting, the delegation of tasks and the provision of the required resources from principal(s) to agent(s) are thus regularly and routinely re-evaluated and re-negotiated, usually under predefined procedural rules."Managing Money and Discord in the UN, pg. 22

How 'proceduralization' helps consensus-building

The procedural rules that structure these repeated 'contracting' exercises, therefore provide an important framework for member state discussions - without which agreement would be highly unlikely.


UN decision making flowchart
UN decision making flowchart

Proceduralization’ of budget discussions sets out specific process through which Secretariat departments can explain to all member states their interpretation of how mandates should be implemented and what that will cost, while creating set opportunities for feedback from technical experts like the ACABQ and member states (via the Committee for Programme and Coordination (CPC) and the Fifth Committee). The feedback loops allow signaling of where there is (dis)agreeement and for new information or perspectives to be injected to help find mutually agreeable solutions. The deadlines for each step creates predictability in the process to allow all stakeholders to plan their engagement and it also defines the specific timelines for when negotiations need to happen and agreements must be found.

Bureaucratic as these procedures may be, the recent budget reforms which aimed to streamline procedures, illustrated their importance. Signals from the CPC, for instance, are no longer captured in the formal written programme and budget document because of the shortened one year timeline, which has also significantly reduced the time for negotiations between member states. Thus, it is not surprising that member states have repeatedly extended negotiations on the regular and peacekeeping budgets in recent years until the 11th hour at the end of each respective fiscal year. As the authors of Managing Money and Discord in the UN point out, streamlining of procedures makes sense when member states tend to have more unified or similar preferences, whereas increased proceduralization is helpful in allowing member states to reconcile a vast divergence of views and preferences.

Another solution for reconciling different substantive priorities among member states is segmenting different elements of the programme or budget. A typical way of doing this is through extra-budgetary (XB) funding. This is often initiated by member states that have specific programme priorities, for which they know agreement amongst all GA members is highly unlikely. These member states then tend to pursue those priorities with the relevant department by donating XB funds for specific projects, thereby eliminating the need for agreement by the full GA membership on those projects.

From an operational perspective this can be a winning solution both for the member state and the department involved. Yet, it entails larger governance risks at the organizational level, since the organization may be pursuing multiple and potentially conflicting objectives without comprehensive oversight. This type of segmentation has been undertaken across the UN system quite significantly since the 1990s, and UN entities have the highest proportion of earmarked XB funding of all international organizations. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that the ACABQ is taking a growing interest in what extra-budgetary funding is provided to departments and for what purpose - much as this may be a frustration for those using XB funding to create flexible operational solutions.

How to use procedures to obtain consensus

The reality is that bureaucracy will always be part of the process, and the dreaded procedures and routines are what allow member states to find ways to bridge their differences. So they are a necessary evil for all stakeholders. Our analysis, however, also hints at how to make the bureaucratic procedures useful for stakeholders, even if they are cumbersome. After all, they are literally keeping the lights on at the UN, despite the growing fractures in the international system.

We highlight some specific considerations for the both Secretariat staff and member state delegates to make the process of finding consensus just a little bit easier.


  • Timely feedback loops are important tools for finding agreement. Starting early and creating collaborative or informal feedback loops between the Secretariat and across member state groupings early in the process can help make the formal decision-making easier. The COE Working Group illustrated this very well in its last session, for instance.


  • Secretariat staff - especially those proposing changes - should therefore consider ways to give member states an informal heads up and get feedback as early as possible, i.e. well before the formal budget process, to increase their chances of finding agreement with and across member states.


  • Member state delegates who can ensure consistent signaling and feedback across all their government's contacts with the relevant UN departments will increase the likelihood of having that feedback considered in compromise solutions. This is especially important for programmes where the head of a department is outside New York and engaging with diplomats locally, i.e. the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva or the UN Environmental Programme in Nairobi, or if technical departments in the government are liaising directly with UN entities.


  • Proposed programme budgets are first and foremost political documents. Comprehensive strategic plans at department level which includes all sources of funding are a more effective planning tool - that if used correctly, can help manage the political process. If the departmental leadership at all levels has a shared understanding of the strategic plan, there is a higher likelihood of consistent and effective messaging and responses when dealing with the the ACABQ, Fifth Committee and informal discussions with member states.


  • Budget officers are the glue holding this whole complicated process together. By enforcing deadlines, sharing feedback and suggestions on less controversial language, they are not being bureaucratic for the sake of it, rather they are trying to keep the process as predictable and transparent as possible to increase the chances of finding consensus across a very heterogeneous set of stakeholders. Whoever you are in the process, it’s in your interest to meet those deadlines, and by doing so, you decrease the risk of difficulties in getting the budget passed.

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