United Nations

Flag of the United Nations

The United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 in the aftermath of the Second World War, in order to keep world peace and ensure in­ter­na­ti­o­nal security. It was also intended to promote social progress, improve living conditions and promote human rights. The 193 sovereign member states are bound by the basic principles laid out in the Charter of the United Nations - an agreement under in­ter­na­ti­o­nal law which spells out the rights and obligations of all members states in their capacity as part of the in­ter­na­ti­o­nal community.

The United Nations (UN) is financed by members' contributions in line with the key drawn up by the General Assembly. For the period 2008 – 2009 the in­ter­na­ti­o­nal community agreed on a total budget of 4.17 billion US dollars. This is used to finance activities, personnel and the main organs of the organisation.

These main organs are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Court of Justice and the General Secretariat. With the exception of the In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Court of Justice, which is based in The Hague (Netherlands), all main organs of the UN are based in New York.

The General Assembly of the UN

The General Assembly is the highest organ of the United Nations. Every member state has a vote within the Assembly. The General Assembly can debate all in­ter­na­ti­o­nal affairs covered by the Charter of the United Nations. These include in­ter­na­ti­o­nal security, global de­vel­op­ment and in­ter­na­ti­o­nal co­op­er­a­tion in the fields of economics, social affairs, education, health, culture and human rights, i.e. all major topics of de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion.

The General Assembly meets every year in autumn for its ordinary annual meeting. At other times it meets as required. At the General Assembly, every country can voice its point of view and then all nations must agree on what action is to be taken on major issues. The decisions of the General Assembly are not legally binding on member states but have the character of recommendations.

The Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) consists of 54 member states which are elected by the General Assembly for a three-year term of office. The Council discusses and coordinates the work of the UN in the fields of economic, social, cultural and humanitarian affairs. It addresses recommendations to the General Assembly, the member states and the specialised agencies.

ECOSOC works with 14 specialised agencies, 11 de­vel­op­ment funds and programmes, five regional commissions, and various technical commissions and committees. The decisions of ECOSOC are not legally binding on members states but have the character of recommendations.

Funds and programmes

The funds and programmes are the true de­vel­op­ment organisations of the UN. They include in particular the United Nations De­vel­op­ment Programme (UNDP), the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the United Nations De­vel­op­ment Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and the United Nations Volunteers programme (UNV). They are funded by voluntary contributions.

The specialised agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Industrial De­vel­op­ment Organization (UNIDO), are primarily responsible for setting in­ter­na­ti­o­nal standards and norms, and monitoring these as necessary. They are financed from the compulsory contributions of members according to a pre-determined key. In addition, they implement de­vel­op­ment projects on a lesser scale, and receive voluntary contributions to allow them to do so. They are contractually linked to the UN, but do not report to the General Assembly.

The United Nations and its specialised agencies, programmes and funds together make up the so-called "United Nations system".

United Nations De­vel­op­ment Group

In 1997, on the initiative of the UN Secretary-General, the United Nations De­vel­op­ment Group (UNDG) was founded. Within this Group all programmes, funds and specialised agencies of the UN system dealing with de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion work together. The aim is to bundle funds, experience and forces. First successes can be seen already: the number of joint programmes and shared offices is rising. The steering role is played by a UN Resident Coordinator.

The German government supports this de­vel­op­ment. The BMZ is financing UNDG pilot measures at country level, and is working in particular to strengthen the coordination role of the UN Resident Coordinator. The rights and obligations of the Resident Coordinator must be extended to enable the United Nations to present a common image and act as one body in partner countries.


Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the member states have created a number of UN development organisations, in order to give the UN the means to respond adequately to newly emerged challenges such as climate change and urbanisation. As a result, though, the UN architecture has become fairly complex, making it more difficult for the UN to speak with one voice on develop­ment policy. The uncertainty of funding arrange­ments has clearly played a part in this frag­men­ta­tion. Numerous United Nations activities are funded by voluntary contributions from member states, which hampers the individual organisations in their agenda setting.

In 2005, therefore, the UN Secretary-General was charged by member states with the task of producing proposals for improving co­ope­ra­tion among the various UN organisations. Assisted by a high-level panel of experts, the Secretary-General presented concrete reform proposals in 2006. This led to the merger of four organisations working on women's issues and gender equality into one organisation – UN Women – in 2010. UN Women is considered a success in more ways than one. On the one hand, the organisation prevents overlap in one of the UN's core areas. On the other hand, it unites existing capacities under one roof, making the United Nations' work on women's issues more effective.

Cooperation at the national level, too, has seen major reforms. The core principle underpinning the reforms here is Delivering as One. All UN or­ga­ni­sa­tions operating in a developing country are to work together on one country-specific programme and within one budget framework, sharing one office headed by the UN Resident Coordinator. The new procedures were first tested and evaluated during a multi-annual pilot phase. A decision by the member states in 2012 then gave the green light to put the Delivering as One approach into practice in those partner countries that wish to use it.

Germany’s work with the United Nations

Germany is a key player in shaping the work of the United Nations in all areas. Since 2001, the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany has reported to the Deutsche Bundestag every two years on its work with the United Nations. The latest report, which was signed off by the Cabinet on 15 August 2012, covers Germany’s UN-related activities in the two-year period of 2010 to 2011. The report comments on the role that Germany played at the MDG Summit and the fourth conference on the least developed countries, and in the founding of UN Women, to name but a few examples.

More information

UN Reforms

Cover: Fit for purpose? UN Development Reform in the Post-2015 Context


United Nations

United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017
Phone: +1 / 212 / 9 63 12 34
Fax: +1 / 212 / 9 63 48 79


External Links

BMZ glossary

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