“Without legitimacy” says Roland Rich, Executive of the United Nations Development Fund, “the UN is just another gathering.”
But United Nation’s policy makers, academics, and regular folks like me and you don’t really know what legitimacy means. Further, no one is quite sure how it grows, recedes, and where it hangs out.
These questions have propelled the United Nations University, the UN’s “think tank”, to host a conference focused on defining the abstract concept of legitimacy.
If, as Roland Rich has said, legitimacy is what makes the UN run, than it’s an important question with important ramifications.
Without legitimacy the UN couldn’t help other countries and they’d be pushed to the sidelines while world goverments did as they pleased.
I went to one of the conference’s panel discussions entitled Legitimacy in Civil Society and the aforementioned Roland Rich, Ian Hurd, Jean-Marc Coicaud, and Valerie Sperling were in attendance, eager to define their concept of legitimacy. The affair was held in a temporary building that rested on the United Nation’s lawn. 
The panel’s collective thesis was simple: the UN needs to work with more NGOs to gain legitimacy.
This is the case because NGOs better define and address problems in impoverished areas. The UN needs to embrace their know-how and partner with them so they can help form a position of knowledge. If the UN doesn’t, it will lose the respect of locals and the organization will appear to be bumbling beaurcacy that misspends crucial funds.
Hurd moderated the discussion and started things off by defining legitimacy, more or less. “It’s a belief,” he said, “in the rightfulness of authority.” But, he added, “We still don’t know what it means and how we define it.”
Coicaud, director of the UN University, didn’t let legitimacy’s illusive meaning get him down. He explained that the UN started working with NGOs in the early 90s and it allowed the UN to expand its scope of operations while it helped policy makers tackle real needs, not simply perceived ones. With greater assistance the UN has more legitimacy as an organization.
However, Coicuad notes, there were draw backs to working with NGOs. The UN mainly worked with Western NGOs and they didn’t always reflect the needs of an afflicted population. Further, NGOs working with the UN became less productive because of red-tape and many left disheartened.
Coicaud concludes that the negative tensions need to be resolved if the UN wants to expand its partnerships with NGOs so they can preserve and develop their legitimacy. Perhaps, Cocicaud proposed, the best way to do that is was to create a UN parliament that will oversee the UN’s collaboration with NGOs.
But Coicaud warns that this might only raise more questions and debate. Who, for instance, would hold power and what matters would even be deemed important?
Valerie Sperling takes the argument a step farther. She says that the UN needs to create more mechanisms that ensure UN policies and staffers can be held accountable to the people they are serving. These networks of checks and balances will keep UN workers honest and prove to afflicted states that they are operating on behalf of a ‘rightful authority’.
She notes that the UN loses its legitimacy when UN peace keepers engage in sex crimes as they did in Bosnia in 1995. She further argues that the UN can only acquire more legitimacy if the UN provides people with safe routes to report UN mishaps and crimes. After the Bosnia Crisis the UN did create some channels for people to report criminal peace keepers, but it was a late gesture that did far too little.
Sperling’s line is easy to grasp, but implementing it can be hard—especially in the UN which is a leviathan organization that has to account for thousands of political agendas.
But all of these organizational problems could be ironed out if the UN evolved. “The UN’s international design was based on the league of nations which was created in 1919…2011 is different than 1919 ,” says Roland Rich. He says that the UN needs to reshape itself in order to work with NGOs and employ their legitimacy.
“The UN’s monopoly on international discourse is gone,” Rich says and he’s right. The UN is no longer the only forum which countries can interact and talk and that’s why it needs to look within itself and change—especially if it wants to increase its legitimacy.
Roland Rich’s views are based on Thomas Weiss vision of what a better UN would look like. Weiss, a scholar at CUNY, argues the UN should be broken up into three parts to increase efficiency. The first part should deal with the general council and large matters of state. The second part would be composed of the secretariat and administrative types while the third part would collaborate and reach out to international NGOs.
In this system the third UN would help generate big ideas and the first UN would give them international credibility by rubber stamping them.
This system would allow the UN to expand its NGO outreach as well as allow room for the different UN governing bodies to build channels of accountability.
But Rich goes farther than Weiss and argues the third UN should also reach out to Multi-National Corporations. When he said this, most people in the tightly packed audience shifted in their seats.
No one in the room was completely comfortable with working with profit-obsessed companies. But, Rich argued, in today’s world corporate social responsibility is something all corporations believe in because it helps them polish their brands. Why not, Rich asks, take advantage of their back-handed efforts to do good?
The crowd still grumbled, but the collected raised eyebrows revealed that the attending UN staffers weren’t opposed to the idea of extra help.
As the conference drew to a close Hurd lamented the fact that the room wasn’t any closer to the sniffing out the definition of the word legitimacy—but he was happy to report that the discussion let some good ideas get together. Now the UN needs the right leadership to push change so it can remain a modern, dynamic, and developing organization.
 One staffer said under his breath, “If it’s temporary at the UN, that means it’s permanent.”