Christine Lagarde's appointment to the IMF has reopened calls for greater representivity at the UN

The elevation of French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to the post of managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was criticised by participants at a high-level debate at the United Nations in New York. To these critics this appointment represented part of an anachronistic "global apartheid" in which a European has always headed the IMF and an American the World Bank. With the developing world accounting for 80% of the world population and 50% of world trade, they argued that such an unjust system could weaken the legitimacy of the Bretton Woods system.

The New York meeting was organised by Joseph Deiss, the dynamic Swiss president of the 192-member UN general assembly, with the aim of promoting effective multilateral approaches to managing global challenges and helping to shape UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon's forthcoming report on global economic governance.

The meeting debated how to strengthen the multilateral system of global governance and forge a more effective financial architecture following the failure of the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to respond effectively to the global financial crisis of 2008.

Powerful members of the UN have often preferred a secretary general — the revered "Pope on the East River" — is more "secretary" than "general". They appear to have found one in the current incumbent, who was recently easily re-elected to a second five-year term in spite of grumblings about a lacklustre style that critics complained had eroded the centrality of the UN in international politics.

Ban opened the New York meeting by noting that, though the world economy was more interdependent, globalisation still put some states at a disadvantage and in a position in which they did not have as much influence in steering the global ship. He noted that the weight of developing countries was still not properly reflected in the World Bank and IMF and called for a more efficient multilateral system.

The South Korean diplomat, however, praised the emergence of the Group of 20 (G-20), in which South Africa is the only African member. Ban also called for a stronger 54-member UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) and the need to ensure that the interests of the world's poorest and most vulnerable members were taken into account by implementing initiatives such as the millennium development goals.

Danilo Türk, the president of Slovenia and a former UN assistant secretary general, noted the paradox of global governance being expected to deliver results in spite of the lack of a global government. He called for UN reform based on the four "Rs": rebalancing the powerful UN security council (increasing its members from 15 to 25); refocusing the general assembly (through improving its agenda and working methods); recalibrating Ecosoc (to act as a bridge between the UN and G-20); and reinforcing the human rights council (with a focus on the right to development). Pascal Lamy, the cerebral French director general of the WTO, noted that globalisation was unstoppable and argued for its continuing role as an engine for technological progress. He called for better management of the global commons through stronger leadership, legitimacy and efficiency, demanding that global financial bodies be more transparent and accountable, while suggesting that Ecosoc assume a more strategic role in economic governance.

These discussions were joined by powerful and smaller states. The US, which pays about a fifth of the UN budget, called for the organisation to improve its management to ensure better value for money. Russia pushed for a stronger Ecosoc and the reform of the World Bank and IMF. France called for the reform of Ecosoc as well as stronger links between the UN and G-20. China — posturing as a champion of the developing world with which it has traditionally worked in the general assembly — advocated a greater role for developing countries in international financial institutions, as well as for the Bretton Woods institutions and G-20 to prioritise development issues.

Some of these comments, however, represented the "organised hypocrisy" at the heart of multilateral diplomacy. In spite of the calls of the powerful for a stronger Ecosoc, former UN secretary general, Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, noted in 2009 that several "great powers" were content with a weak economic role for the UN, preferring to make decisions in the less democratic Bretton Woods institutions and WTO in which they wielded disproportionate influence.

The countries of the "global South" joined the diplomatic battle in New York, with several "revisionist" states challenging the status quo. Argentina called for the reform of the international financial architecture and for the UN to be given the resources to play the central role in global economic governance. Egypt advocated an expansion of the G-20 to make it more representative. Cuba criticised the growing socioeconomic inequalities in the world, called for social justice and dismissed the "myth" of a self-correcting market. Venezuela championed an ethic of solidarity and inclusiveness.

A few wealthy states also advocated reform of the international system: Japan, the second-largest contributor to the UN, called for the reform of the security council and a more effective peace-building commission, while Singapore promoted reform of the Bretton Woods institutions and an end to increasing economic protectionism. The genial former Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorin, made a strong case for the reform of the UN security council, which, he noted, lacked legitimacy, was untransparent and functioned in a vicious environment in which the veto-wielding permanent five members (the US, Russia, China, France and Britain) often acted in an unaccountable manner.

As a fellow panellist I added my voice to the debate, lamenting the fact that Africa and Latin America remained the only major regions of the world without permanent representation on the security council and calling for more effective UN peacekeeping in Africa.

The pugnacious Indian representative at the UN criticised Nato's "mission creep" in Libya, which, he noted, had not been sanctioned by the council's limited civilian-protection mandate.

These lively debates represented what the Irish UN scholar-practitioner, Conor Cruise O'Brien, famously described in 1968 as a "sacred drama". The "dialogue of the deaf" which has characterised north-south relations since the Cold War era continues to lend discourses at the UN a surreal air of gamesmanship played out by loquacious diplomats in dark suits. The issues at stake are, however, of great consequence for the world's wretched masses.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and editor of From Global Apartheid to Global Village: Africa and the United Nations


From Global Apartheid to Global Village represents the first comprehensive attempt to examine the role of the United Nations in Africa over the last six decades.

© 2018 Centre for Conflict Resolution 

Centre for Conflict Resolution, Coornhoop, 2 Dixton Road, Observatory 7925, Cape Town, South Africa

 Tel: +27 (0)21 689 1005 | Fax: +27 (0)21 689 1003