UN Innovation: A Business Model for Solving Global Problems

By Orr, Robert | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

UN Innovation: A Business Model for Solving Global Problems


Orr, Robert, Harvard International Review


The founders of the United Nations established the organization to stop wars and facilitate international cooperation by promoting security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and rule of law. These continue to be at the core of the United Nations's mission, but whereas before the challenges in the international system tended to be localized--limited to a specific geographic region and requiring the engagement of a limited number of state actors--this is no longer the case. Today's agenda is not just international, but increasingly global. A range of challenges like terrorism, climate change, and global health span the globe and cannot be solved by any single national government or even set of governments. These public goods challenges cross-national borders, are contagious, and affect everyone everywhere. They are complex in nature and their impact is not limited to a single sector, but rather affect many sectors, creating feedback and multiplier effects.

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The United Nations, with its universal membership and authority on a wide range of substantive areas, is a natural home for dealing with these issues. Historically, however, national decision-making processes have not made full use of the potential of the United Nations to assist them in managing emerging global risks and threats. The United Nations has risen to the challenge in recent years by developing a new model for facilitating and coordinating international engagement to provide global public goods.

A New Business Model

The new UN model has emerged through a process of evolutionary learning. In the 1980s and 1990s, efforts and initiatives to address transnational challenges were launched within states, within society, and even by entities belonging to the UN system. However, not all these efforts succeeded, mainly because actors operated in isolation and sometimes even at cross purposes.

The 2005 World Summit constituted a watershed: it helped define not only the nature of the types of international challenges that the world would increasingly have to face, but also the tectonic shifts that were underway in terms of how issues would need to be resolved. Those at the United Nations closely involved with organizing and managing this process began to see that the United Nations could potentially play a critical role in mobilizing action to deal with the hardest of the global issues.

In tackling these most difficult issues, the following became key elements of successful efforts: first, defining "what needs to be done by whom and why" by developing a "global strategy" that would leverage the normative and technical expertise of the UN system working together; second, using the convening authority of the United Nations to build multi-stakeholder alliances, including governments, civil society, and private sector actors; third, engaging leaders in these organizations at the highest levels; fourth, using the Secretary-General's good offices to facilitate negotiations and reach agreements; and finally, using the United Nations as the foundation for an implementation platform.

Given his authority, the Secretary-General was obviously uniquely placed to be the catalyst that would mobilize joint action to forge consensus around a "new" global agenda and a new approach to achieve it. And he had a core team that could support him in identifying the targeted interventions that were necessary to build consensus and momentum.

Three recent examples of initiatives undertaken by the Secretary-General illustrate this new model of engagement: the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, the United Nations' work toward developing a global strategy to address climate change, and the UN Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health.

UN Action on Counter-Terrorism

Counter-terrorism has long been one of the most sensitive, most closely held areas for international engagement. …

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UN Innovation: A Business Model for Solving Global Problems
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