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UN Funds, Programmes, and Specialized Agencies: Making Sense of the Alphabet Soup

The United Nations System and Specialized Agencies
The United Nations System Provided by the UN Department of Public Information

Once you get beyond the six primary organs, the UN system can seem like an endless array of acronyms: ICAO, WMO, UNCTAD and many more. Understanding what the letters mean, what these agencies do, and how they work together may appear to be a daunting task. It doesn’t need to be, though. This post explains what the UN funds and specialized agencies are, how they are related, and how to make sense of them in a Model UN context. While you might hear these organizations grouped as  Funds, Programmes, and Specialized Agencies, there are really only two types of entities.

Specialized agencies are independent, autonomous organizations that are part of the broader United Nations system. Specialized agencies may implement projects or serve as international standard-setting bodies. Specialized agencies have their own charters, which states must agree to in order to become members. These agencies control their respective membership criteria, so membership in them  is independent of the United Nations Membership process. Specialized agencies are funded by assessed (or mandatory) contributions from their members. They also have an independent agency head who directs their activities and almost always have a governing board elected by and from  the general membership.

Funds and programmes usually focus on a specific, technical area of work and complete specific on-the-ground projects as directed by a steering committee of UN Member States (usually composed of donors and recipients). They are funded solely through voluntary contributions from Member States and are typically staffed by the UN Secretariat.

Specialized agencies

When the United Nations was created in the 1940s, the initial Member States recognized that there were many issues poorly suited for deliberations in the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and the Security Council. Many of the issues were highly technical—such as the interoperability of postal systems—or required the cooperation of stakeholders not represented in those three bodies—for example,  international labor law. The solution was the creation of specialized and technical agencies. The specialized agencies are independent organizations tasked with discussing these issues, setting international standards and implementing projects around the world.

A key role of these agencies is international standard-setting. Among other things, these agencies ensure that our technology and services work once we cross an international border. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) ensures that international airlines have consistent policies and that flight operators use the same systems for communication and tracking. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) coordinates use of the radio spectrum, manages international satellite orbits and standardizes cell phone technologies. Its mission has grown substantially since its charting as the International Telegraph Union in 1865.

Several of the specialized agencies predated the creation of the United Nations system. The second oldest is the Universal Postal Union, created in 1874 to coordinate postal policies and ensure cross-border delivery of mail. Another is the International Labour Organization, created as part of the League of Nations in 1919. It sets international labor standards and has a unique tripartite representation structure with governments, businesses, and workers all represented in deliberations. Many other organizations were created in and after the 1940s. Two of the most well known are the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group, which set international monetary policy, facilitate trade and support economic development. Today, there are more than a dozen specialized and technical agencies.

The key word with all these specialized agencies is “autonomous.” These agencies do not report to the General Assembly or ECOSOC, and their agency head does not report to the Secretary-General. Their work is directed by their governing board and the budget that governing board approves. While they are autonomous, the specialized agencies coordinate with the United Nations and each other. One of ECOSOC’s mandates is coordinating UN activities and policies with the specialized agencies. The heads of the Specialized Agencies also meet with the Secretary-General regularly. Many specialized agencies share resources and engage in joint work.

Funds and programmes

The UN funds and programmes are comparatively simple: they are initiatives of the UN system funded by voluntary contributions and aimed at specific problems around the world. Much of the United Nations’ best known work is done by its funds and programmes.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are two of the best known. UNICEF provides development assistance and humanitarian aid for children and mothers in developing countries. It provides health, emergency food assistance and much more. The WFP provides food and nutrition assistance around the world, particularly in areas experiencing drought, famine or other humanitarian crises.

Unlike the specialized agencies, the funds and programmes are not fully autonomous. While they may have a steering committee that approves the budget and strategic direction, the heads of all the funds and programmes are accountable to the Secretary-General. But even more important, they are given direction by their funders. Unlike specialized agencies or the majority of the UN Secretariat’s work, all contributions to funds and programmes are voluntary. Some of these contributions support general operations, but many donors provide resources to support specific activities or work. This is particularly evident for organizations providing humanitarian assistance, like the WFP or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Donors will often earmark contributions for work in a specific country or crisis.

What about the others?

There are a handful of entities that are neither funds nor specialized agencies—they are simply other international organizations that have close ties to the United Nations. They often coordinate closely with parts of the United Nations system, even while they do not participate formally in the UN system itself. The most notable are the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Trade Organization. Each of these organizations has a different reason for not being part of the UN system, though all three are in regular communication with the Secretariat. Many organize joint projects or work with UN entities.

So what does this mean for Model UN?

Representatives often ask why the General Assembly or ECOSOC cannot issue orders to the World Bank, UNESCO or UNICEF. The answer is pretty simple. Specialized agencies are autonomous and report directly to their own governing board. UN funds and programmes are supported by voluntary contributions, and they often have their own budget approved by their steering committee and the Secretary-General. Just as with Member States, however, a body can invite, request, and encourage specialized agencies, programmes and funds to do something.

It is better to think about the opportunities rather than the limitations, though. And the opportunities are many. In resolutions, representatives can invite actions by the specialized agencies or funds. They can encourage specialized agencies to consider developing standards around a poorly regulated area. At AMUN, representatives can also invite experts from specialized agencies to testify before their body. These are all excellent resources in resolving the complex issues confronted across the United Nations system. Similarly, the General Assembly and ECOSOC can encourage funds and programmes to examine particular issues or to approach their work in a new way.

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