Time to relocate? Making global institutions resilient to pressure and fit for the future
The record of the past week following the inauguration of the new President of the USA shows how big the risk is of keeping the UN headquarters and that of the IMF and World Bank so firmly in the USA. Donald Trump has clearly signalled that he has no interest in the global challenges of poverty, rising inequality, climate change, migration, armed conflict, and other international development topics that define the constituencies of global public organisations more than any others. The new US administration rather seeks isolationism and retrenchment as a way to opt out of the consequences and impacts of its own economic paradigm.
Trump’s reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy, the search for cuts of up to or beyond 40% in the US contribution to the UN budget, and the recently enacted travel bans may cripple not only key parts of its operations such as peacekeeping or advancing women’s rights. It will also severely limit the ability of the UN and the Washington based Bretton Woods Institutions to recruit and maintain a globally diverse and professionally qualified body of staff who speak and work on behalf those in greatest need of support. Those with origins in ‘undesirable’ countries may face severe restrictions to travel and how to live their lives where their jobs are based. Anyone criticising or challenging the Trump administration even from within these institutions may be seen as the US governments opponent rather than part of a necessary debate in a democracy. Would a legal but politically unwelcome organisation be defended in its work on human rights including freedom of speech and association? It may not become immediately visible at the top level, but ordinary staff in global public organisations based in the USA may well not be able to execute their day to day jobs on behalf of the world without hindrance.
Preserving this ability and countering risks of dependency and pressure is key for the UN and other agencies. The location of a headquarter also sets the tone, outlook and cultural sensitivity of an organisation. As long as the UN remains on the East River, and the IMF and World Bank in the heart of the Washington DC central business district, their attention may continue to be, or given their worries about their unpleasant landlord, even become increasingly focused on the USA. Yet their real constituents and interests are elsewhere.
Are there easy and fast solutions? No, but there are countries in which the rule of law and democratic culture weighs more than currently in the US government. There are a good handful of other UN agency locations even if the list is still skewed to the North. The UN and similar agencies may want to go further and decentralise not only field operations but also headquarters of agencies and places of political decision-deliberation to more locations closer to their constituents in humanitarian and development aid as well as those most affected by climate change. This may also give the UN the option to determine the location of its Secretariat more flexibly.
Changing location of the UN Secretariat and other agencies will not take away the risk to budgets, and it may well take longer than even a two term Trump presidency will last. Yet the threat to the independence and global focus of the UN is real and may well reoccur in the future. Making the UN system ‘future fit’ may require it to be more flexible from where its central organisational units work, look for the freedoms it needs, and balance better who it listens to. It may also make more countries value the UN more, and create a broader and less imbalanced web of financial contributors.