Global leaders - Mark Malloch Brown

Mark Malloch Brown was Kofi Annan’s right hand man at the United Nations, first as his Chief of Staff and then as Deputy Secretary-General. He has advised the UK government on the United Nations, Africa and Asia, becoming Lord Malloch-Brown. In this in-depth interview, conducted by the IBA’s Director of Content, James Lewis, he discusses turmoil in the Middle East, reform of the UN, and the future of global governance.

James Lewis (JL): We’ll talk about global governance, other big issues, reform of the United Nations [UN], the need for political vision – and events between Israel and Gaza really bring all of that into sharp focus. Perhaps you can share with us your assessment.

Mark Malloch Brown (MMB): Often, if one’s a retired international affairs type, one sounds a little boring when one says ‘in my day …’ But when it comes to Israel and Palestine, one actually has every excuse for saying ‘in my day’. Because never has there been a crisis which is so circular. We’ve been there before, almost whatever happens.

You know, Israel has, before now, stood on the cusp of invasion of the Palestinian territories. It, before now, has invaded and occupied those territories. We’ve just seen it, time after time, and the frustration is that it’s as though no lessons are learnt, while other parts of the world have, over recent decades, in glorious revolutions in many cases, collected the political courage to resolve their disputes.

In the case of the Middle East, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think the frustration for all of us on the outside is, why does it have to go so many rounds? Why does it have to continuously repeat itself? When will Israel learn that there is not a military solution to containing the threat of Gaza?

And when will those in Gaza learn that they have no choice but to find a modus vivendi, a peace agreement with Israel, which allows both sides to prosper and bring up their families in peace and security, as those of us in the rest of the world are largely able to do? And so, you know, it brings back old ghosts, this conflict, and old frustrations.

JL: You’re clear that the United Nations needs to be reformed. The situation in Syria was already making that a pressing need; you’re saying we’ve got a recurring problem. You and Kofi Annan really had this as your project, reform of the United Nations; what did you want? What were you aiming for?

MMB: Well, we were starting from the proposition that here is an organisation which had pretty much not changed since its early beginnings in the 1940s. Certainly the humanitarian and development operations had grown in scale, but the fundamental governance of the whole system remained largely as it had originally been set up.


The World Bank has been on a steady decline because of this rise of investment capital going into the developing world from so many other sources. Today, frankly, it’s a shadow of its former self

And, over time, there come the inevitable, sort of, barnacles of middle age, and they grow up around the machinery, making it even less responsive and effective. And so we felt, look, here’s a very different world; there are new emerging powers who are not represented enough in the councils and decision-making of the UN.

There are non-state actors such as NGOs, but also groups, such as lawyers, business and so on, all of whom should have a critical voice in the building of a new global society. And yet, the UN wasn’t really organised to allow that voice to be heard and channelled into advice or decisions.

Above all, the organisation was not right-sized for its times. The general ‘hit’ on the UN is vast, unaccountable bureaucracy and, in truth, in its total, it’s rather smaller than the city government of Vienna, or the fire department of New York.

So we needed, in our view, to rebuild a UN which was more representative of its time, more effective at taking on a growing global agenda; an organisation which could use the great wave of globalisation to take it to a position where it became the manifest institution for managing this new global integration that had occurred.

JL: Picking up on that, and coming back to Syria as well, you’ve described the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ [R2P], as very much a Kofi Annan project, and it responds to the points you’re making about a sense of optimism, and yet, we see the situation in Syria. Does that mean that R2P is dead in the water?

MMB: It’s taken a serious amount of beneath -the-water-level damage.

JL: Is it fatal?

MMB: I don’t think so. My defence of the current condition of the UN is: it isn’t working well, but in an era of globalisation, global management arrangements are indispensable. Now, it’s certainly possible that the UN could fall by the wayside, and a new network of institutions and arrangements come up.

You’re seeing some of that in the emergence of things like the G20. But if you take the problem that responsibility to protect was trying to address, which is that the human rights and welfare of people is, at times, too important to be trusted to their governments, that idea is very clearly one which isn’t going to go away. It’s at the basis of an awful lot of the development of international law.

The idea is that, at a global level, not just a national level, institutions need to be accountable to people and principles and values, and to show consistency in how they treat people. And responsibility to protect was about what happens when you get a major state/people breakdown, and a government turns on its own people, or a portion of those people.

JL: Describing Syria, almost.

MMB: Well, which describes Syria. And, you know, and when that happens, the doctrine, which is really at this stage a lot of articles in learned law journals, and books by academics and policy makers, myself included, but in terms of actual, adopted international law, it’s a paragraph or two in General Assembly Resolutions and suchlike.

JL: It’s very much nascent.

MMB: It’s nascent. And, you know, in fact, the first real reference to it in the Security Council Resolution was Libya. And in a sense, there also lay the seeds of the current problem because it got slipped into the Libyan resolution, and strangely, the Russians and Chinese barely commented on it.

It went racing through, despite their historic suspicion of it. And then of course, when it was seen as, in their eyes, yet again opening the door to a western intervention and military action which went, in their view, way beyond what the Resolution had anticipated, it raised all the old spectres again, of this being a doctrine not of global equity and global human rights importance, but rather a thin-end-of-the-wedge vehicle for western intervention.

JL: You would say that the Security Council really does need to be reformed now. This institution goes back to 1945. The Security Council particularly reflects the order as it was then. Things have changed. Are we likely to see change – would Britain give up its permanent seat, for example? Should Germany be on there? Brazil, India?

MMB: I certainly think that Brazil and India have to come on, as two of the three that you’ve mentioned. I think the German issue probably needs to be taken account of through a more effective European representation. You know, Europe seems to always think that its inability to pick who should represent it means that the rest of the world is willing to put up with just having more Europeans there.

In the case of the Middle East, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think the frustration for all of us on the outside is, why does it have to go so many rounds? Why does it have to continuously repeat itself?

Frankly, I don’t think the world is ready at the moment to add Germany to France and Britain as a third European permanent member. It was still possible a few years ago when this came up, and Germany was one of the group of countries asking that. I think Germany’s moment may have, in that sense, passed.

Sometimes time and delay is not exactly the enemy of progress that one anticipates. And I actually think any UN Security Council reform adopted now, in some ways, would be wiser and more mature than what I – and others – were pressing for some five years back.

The reason for that is that it’s become clearer and clearer that reform has to be on two tracks: not just reform of membership, but reform of procedures, use of the veto, how items can be introduced, enforcement, and agreement on what the enforcement capabilities of the Council are. So it needs a general retooling and updating.

And then, within that, on the membership, perhaps rather than adding permanent new members, we try to move to a place where all members are elected on a ‘long-term lease’ basis. You know, 15 or 20 years, because today’s world is a bit of a rollercoaster. Those who are up now are not necessarily always going to be up.

JL: With the IMF [International Monetary Fund]and the World Bank, there is that problem, isn’t there, that you have an American and a European head at the Washington base that are unaccountable. Do they really act in the interests of the poor, or are they acting in the interests of the market? And they’re unaccountable while they’re doing that: what’s your feeling?

MMB: Well, it is strange, because, you know, both institutions have always been much better run than their critics give them credit for, and staffed by people with a real commitment, a vocational commitment, in the case of the World Bank, to reducing poverty; and in the case of the IMF to financial stability and growth, and other good things. They are actually remarkable institutions, the modern international ‘mandarinate’ if you like.

But they have always struggled to escape the label that they are western dominated. Look at the boards of both. They’ve managed to achieve, in the membership of their two boards, a lot more reform and shift of ownership than we managed at the UN in the Security Council. And yet, despite all that hard work, they’re still routinely dismissed as unaccountable and out of touch, and all the rest. Whereas the UN, with a governance model dating from the mid-1940s, somehow is seen as more representative and legitimate.

So they struggle. And, in truth, while the world goes on changing, a few years ago, the IMF looked as though it was largely played out, and now, a good old-fashioned long-running financial crisis in, of all places, Europe, has brought the IMF swinging back into vogue.

The World Bank – which, when I was lucky enough to work there, was at the height of its authority and power – has been on a steady decline, and not because I left, I hasten to say, but just because of this rise of investment capital going into the developing world from so many other sources, which has squeezed it in an unanticipated way. Today, frankly, it’s a shadow of its former self.

JL: Before we move on to focus on the Millennium Development Goals, which is an important project for you, and one that’s very much on the agenda, I just wanted to come back to finish off on the Middle East, really. We started talking about…

MMB: We’d never finish on the Middle East!

JL: We’d never finish, no. But I wanted to just read a section from your book – which predated the Arab Spring really – and come up to date, if we can.

You say: ‘The Arab world’s political future lay like a fallen tree across a path to its economic development. Until it was cleared, it would have no progress, no stability.’ As I said, that was before the Arab Spring: what’s your view now, two years on from when the Arab Spring started?

MMB: What lay behind those words was an extraordinary group of books that we commissioned when I headed the UN Development Programme, called the Arab Human Development Report. And an astonishing group of Arab authors wrote these reports, and my job was to go and be the poor suit who had to explain to Arab ambassadors why we had engaged in what they saw as a hostile act against them.

But you know, these books, as I say, with Arab authors, declared that the Arab world had these three big deficits: a deficit of democracy, a deficit of gender – the marginalisation of women in economy and society – and a deficit of secular education, and a lot of rote Muslim teaching, but without the kind of, if you like, post-enlightenment scientific secular education that had been such a spur to Western development.

And as a Westerner one could never get away with this kind of critique, so a group of Arab authors, again, writing for UNDP in this case, but with that umbrella of UN legitimacy, wrote something which, within a week or so, had downloaded a million copies in Arabic over the internet. It lit up the airwaves of the new satellite television stations like Al Jazeera, that were pretty new in the region at the time.

And so I became, through this process, deeply convinced that, in the Arab region – and I’d make this case across the whole world – when the politics stultifies and when it gets stuck (which is different to saying, it has to all be democratic, good democrat though I am) but when systems stultify, there’s no accountability, there’s no change, the system becomes more and more unresponsive to the growing demands of a youth, then you are set for a fall. And that’s what’s happened in that world.

There is a strangely powerful call in the language around the Millenium Development Goals about democracy being an enabling condition for reaching them. 2000 was a moment of great optimism. It was before 9/11, and Iraq; it was after the collapse of the Berlin Wall

Now, having also lived through the change in Eastern Europe, what I’d say is that these changes… are not overnight fairy stories.

With Eastern Europe, I watched it take ten years to move from post-communist chaos, weak governments, you know, coming in, one after another, to something akin to the stability of their Western European neighbours. And I’m sure something similar will happen in the Arab world. But I think we will continue to see a lot of instability of government in countries like Egypt or Libya, or even Tunisia.

And, you know, there’ll be a lot of ‘we-told-you-so’ from neo-conservatives and other groups. But in truth, if this journey only takes ten years, the people of the region will be very privileged, because actually, it’s a flash in time.

And if, at the end of it, there is an Egypt which is more akin to Turkey, you know, a big secular country with a dynamic market, and high rates of growth, but with a very respectful Islamic quality to its governance, if that’s its point of stability in a democratic rule of law system ten years from now, whatever happens in the meantime will, I suspect, be a price worth paying.

JL:  The core of what we need to discuss is the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). You played a strong role in writing these. It was something that Kofi Annan really pushed hard.

I think you’d be more critical; you said that they were rushed. Ban Ki-moon has brought it back onto the agenda, because we’re approaching 2015, which is when the eight goals were meant to have been reached. He’s putting together his task force to look at it, co-chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, I believe. The question is, if you were writing the MDGs now, and you had more time, what would you add? What would be in there?

MMB: Well, I think the first thing to say is, they probably wouldn’t be as good. That’s not an entirely flippant remark: it’s precisely because they were done in a rather hurried way, without a sense of the historical importance that would quickly become attached to them, that they were... They liberally borrowed from things that others had written before, but had been written principally by a group of western policy types, clustered around an organisation called the OECDDAC – the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development].

And you know, they’d taken these things out of a bunch of global conferences in the 1990s, around the environment, women, reproductive health, other things, and put them together. But because they had put them together, they didn’t have this global legitimacy. It goes back to what I was talking about earlier, in the UN.

We were able to borrow from that, add some things which weren’t there and, I’m sorry to say, take some things out, which we just recognised we could not get through the UN by consensus.

JL: What did you take out?

MMB: Well, you know, the family planning stuff is fudged because of the conservatism that you would anticipate on that. We didn’t have a democracy goal, because again, that would have been deeply resisted, but actually there is a strangely powerful call in the language around the MDGs, in the document, about democracy being an enabling condition for reaching them.

But perhaps more important than the process of how it was done [were] the times in which it was done, which, in two ways, were very different to now. The good thing about 2000 was, it was a moment of great optimism about the world and the coming millennium. It was before 9/11, and Iraq; it was after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

There was a sense that we were embarking on a new era of global cooperation and stability, and everybody was going to get richer together, and you know, some people even foolishly declared history dead.

This sort of myth, of “problem Africa”, has hung heavily over the kind of private investment which could help move things forward. That, though, is really, dramatically changing

JL: Development is the eighth of the Millennium Development Goals. Why is there such a problem in achieving that? And the goal, to make it explicit, is to develop a global partnership for development.

MMB: It was a weak goal, because, while President Bush at the time was rather keen on these goals for reasons of his own genuine personal philanthropy and care about these kinds of issues, but also some political stuff...

The conference to organise the funding of the goals took place in Mexico, and he felt that he’d rather let Mexico down, because he’d been preoccupied by other issues since becoming president.

And he was, in the same way that President Obama is now about a tilt to Asia; President Bush, on election, had been about a tilt to Latin America and Mexico.

So you know, for all sorts of local and personal reasons, he was rather in favour. But many in his administration were not. And Goal 8, which suggested there was a global obligation on the rich to help the poor, really rubbed up against the edge of American particularism, if you like, and exceptionalism.

The United States, to this day, has not signed the [UN] Convention on the Rights of the Child – it is almost the only country that hasn’t. It has not accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. So there were problems getting a stronger Goal 8. I hope, this time, that will be easier.

And that’s where the world is going to be easier this time round; there’s a lot more agreement about development, and what makes for successful development, the need for collaboration around issues of global trade, and global intellectual property, and global laws and frameworks and all the rest.

JL: That all seems to have taken off in Asia, it seems to be a relative economic success story, particularly China and India. And it’s been instrumental in meeting the first of the MDGs to halve extreme poverty, but Africa’s the problem. And I’m just wondering whether the private sector is put off by political risk in Africa, or what the issue is.

MMB: You’re right. Africa’s MDG problems remain huge, because it’s the only continent in the world whose population will double by 2015 from one billion to two billion. But until this point, there have actually been more very poor people in India than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa because it’s a matter of size.

And you know, the actual MDG performance in Africa has been much more varied, with much more good news than the popular myth allows. You’ve got about half the countries of Africa, between a third and a half, who have made really significant progress. Tanzania will achieve the goal of universal primary education by 2015; a lot of others will halve poverty, actually, believe it or not.

And so it’s a much more significant success story – even though it’s patchy – than people believe. But you’re right. This sort of myth, of ‘problem Africa’, has hung heavily over the kind of private investment which could help move things forward. That, though, is really, dramatically changing.

I always think of London as Africa’s extra-territorial, additional commercial city. I chair the Royal African Society, and so have a fairly good finger on the pulse of all the law firms, all the private equity firms, all the multinationals which are building businesses in Africa out of London, or at least, supported by services out of London.

Half of the top ten growing economies in the world, in terms of annual growth rates, are African countries. It’s exhibiting some of the early-stage growth of Southeast Asia, at the time I lived there in the 1980s. And you’re starting to see a self-sustaining growth curve, driven significantly by the development of new energy and oil resources in Africa, but not exclusively, and with a middle-class narrative beside that, of people moving to cities, becoming middle-class, needing the goods and services the middle classes need, wanting the infrastructure that middle classes need.

So, in everything from banking to insurance, to cement production, to mobile communications, to travel and tourism, you’re starting to see dramatically higher rates of growth in Africa.

It’s a changing story. This is not just a story about bleak, unending poverty. It’s a story about countries getting onto the bottom line of economic transformation. 

This is an edited version of the interview. It can be viewed in full at