Strengthening the UN system:
The case for a Committee of the Heads of Governing Bodies

by Dr Harris Gleckman


Political leadership of the UN system

The UN System’s Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) comprises 31 executive heads of the United Nations and its funds and programmes, specialized agencies, Bretton Woods Institutions (The World Bank and IMF), and associated organizations (the WTO, UNOPS and the IAEA). According to its website, the CEB is the “highest-level coordination forum of the United Nations system”. This should not be the case.

The highest level coordination structure should involve the heads of the governing bodies of the UN system, not the senior administrators. The highest level coordination of the UN system needs to be at the intergovernmental level. Such a body, a Committee of the Heads of Governing Bodies (CHGB), would provide a platform for the UN system bodies to talk directly with each other at the political level. Direct intergovernmental dialogue and decision-making is especially necessary for contemporary global crises, which cross organizational boundaries. A CHGB could tackle UN system wide policy and financial matters that the CEB, as an administrative body, lacks the political authority to address. One such crucial issue that impacts the entire UN system is the systematic under-financing of the core obligations of the system and its component organizations.

In order to avoid an explicit challenge to organizational turf, governments in one governing body are disinclined to formally address governments in another intergovernmental body, even if often some of the same governments are represented on both sides. The work-around at the moment is that each governing body conveys their views to their chief executive officer, who can convey this message to another chief executive officer, who in turn can decide what they will pass on to their governing body. If the latter governing body considers that they can contribute to an issue, they routinely rely on their chief executive officer to send back a message by this circuitous route.

While the Chief Executives Board can deal, as the CEB website says, with ‘management efficiencies’, ‘harmonization of business practices’, and ‘staff safety and security’, the proposed CHGB should deal with overall policy directions of the global governance system, cross-ministerial coordination between governing bodies, the financing of the global multilateral system, and the joint identification of and response to under-governed global issues.

Why hasn’t there been a CHGB already?

Why isn’t there already a formal intergovernmental committee of this kind? The short answer is that governments have intentionally fragmented the multilateral system to keep the UN relatively weak vis-à-vis national governments, particularly those national governments which have major economic and military power. But there is also a more practical domestic reason. Each part of the UN system draws its governance from a different key constituency within national governments (i.e. health ministers go to WHO; labour officials go to ILO; foreign ministry officials represent countries in New York). While a ministry of foreign affairs or department of state can formally coordinate national positions across domestic ministries, the dynamics of domestic ministries are such that each ministry likes to have its ‘own’ international organization, particularly the most powerful national ministries that deal with trade, economics, and finance. Of course, at the same time governments will say that the international organizations themselves should coordinate with each other, even if the national delegations have not coordinated governmental positions on a given subject in their own capitals.

Over time the staffs of each separate organization come to develop an organizational ‘patriotism’ and act to champion their organization over other organizations. One key driver of this organizational competition, which extends even to the annual inter-organizational sports games, is the need to be able to say that their organizational vision, structure and delivery are the most appropriate for governments and philanthropic donors to provide extra-budgetary funds to.

The CEB structure does not do away with this organizational patriotism. The chief executives know that at the CEB they can attend to common managerial issues and some programmatic concerns. But they always know that they can keep their organizational independence and flexibility because their intergovernmental board can be encouraged to strengthen organizational autonomy or at least not mandate that their organization follow guidance from other intergovernmental bodies.

How to get a CHGB established, and its agenda set

How could a CHGB be put in place without requiring a modification of the UN charter or of the formal founding document of any intergovernmental body? The CEB has been established through a resolution of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and depends a lot for its authority and effectiveness on the convening power of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the “first among equals” chief executive of the UN system. Similarly, a possible route for creating the CHGB would have the President of the General Assembly extend an invitation to the Presidents or Chairs of the governing bodies of the same 31 organizations who meet at the chief executives level to share their views on how the multilateral system can best address one cross-cutting global issue per year. The annual meeting of the CHGB could take place in late January, following the end of the very busy period for the President of the UN General Assembly (September to December) or in July before the summer ‘diplomatic’ holidays. It could be hosted by an organization outside of New York. The staffing for a CHGB can be provided jointly by the professionals in the Office of the President of the General Assembly and their colleagues in the equivalent body for the host organization each time.

The first topic for this annual consultation could well be an urgent multi-disciplinary and multi-organizational issue such as the climate emergency. The topic for the following year could be agreed at the conclusion of the CHGB’s annual meeting. The simple agenda for a three day consultation could have three parts – (1) organizational reflections on the key topic; (2) issues of importance that one organization feels should be considered by the intergovernmental machinery of other organizations; and (3) common financing requirements. Under item (1) the organizational reflection could be done by interventions by the heads of each intergovernmental body explaining what their organization has planned to do on the given topic in the next 3 to 5 years and what other organizations might do to enhance the effective implementation of these plans. Following CEB practice, most sessions will be open to senior organizational staff with one session reserved exclusively for the governing body heads.

As most chairs or presidents of intergovernmental bodies are selected based on internal organizational realities, the delegates to each intergovernmental body would probably want to have a discussion in their intergovernmental body to provide guidance to their president or chair who will be meeting with the other chairs and presidents. In addition, the governing body will probably want to have a regular agenda item to hear the recommendations of its president or chair on the outcome of the CHGB. This interngovernmental meeting or agenda item in a regular board meeting, which could take place at ministerial level in each organization, can by itself be very beneficial in focusing the attention of the delegates at each organization on a key system-wide global crisis.

Will it be an easy ride?

One can expect opposition to this proposal. It will come from four distinct sources. First, because of the existing organizational patriotism (and, to be honest, organizational anxieties), any suggestion that ‘their’ governing body might be consulting with other governing bodies to determine ‘their’ organizational priorities will not be very welcome by individual body staffers, and possibly also delegates. Second, the senior executives of the specialized agencies, funds, programs, Bretton Woods Institutions and other related bodies will also be unhappy that ’their’ highest level CEB will become appropriately the second highest level UN system body. The third source of likely opposition will be from major countries, which still share the desire to keep the UN system fragmented so that they can more effectively exert bilateral power, even if this works to the detriment of tackling global issues. And finally one can expect challenges from multinational corporations and their associations, as a more unified policy body might make efforts to constrain corporate control of globalization.

Benefits for global governance

In spite of the expected opposition, a new Committee of Heads of Governing Bodies can result in some significant benefits for global governance. A decision to establish such a committee could signal a dramatic re-commitment to multilateralism in the UN’s 75th anniversary celebrations. Amongst the expected benefits of this committee is that it would act as a counter-balance to the increased use of corporate-government / public-private partnerships that has been creeping into global governance arrangements in the post-Cold War years. The proposed CHGB would establish a platform to ensure that there is a clear institutional basis for governing a wide range of globally demanding issues and it would position the international community to be better able to handle complex cross-disciplinary global challenges. A new highest level coordination mechanism could also permit a comprehensive review and strengthening of the finances of the multilateral system and the UN system’s coordinated engagement with all the informal global governance arrangements that have emerged in the absence of effective intergovernmental decision-making.


Harris Gleckman is a senior fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability, UMass-Boston, and director of Benchmark Environmental Consulting. His latest study, Multistakeholder Governance and Democracy: A Global Challenge, was published by Routledge in 2018. As the chief of the New York office of UNCTAD, he accompanied Rubens Ricupero, the Secretary-General of UNCTAD, to CEB meetings and participated in inter-agency coordination meetings. This article was contributed in the context of the UN2100 Initiative of FOGGS.