from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

From Norm-Takers to Norm-Makers

Making African Voices More Effective at the United Nations

A diplomat walks through the main doors of the assembly building at the UN headquarters in New York, on September 17, 2015. Mike Segar/Reuters

African UN member states should act as unifiers and conveners rather than dividers. More coordination could help them overcome the structural challenges they face at the United Nations.

July 27, 2020

A diplomat walks through the main doors of the assembly building at the UN headquarters in New York, on September 17, 2015. Mike Segar/Reuters

This Global Governance Working Paper is a feature of the Council of Councils (CoC), an initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations. Targeting critical global problems where new, creative thinking is needed, the working papers identify new principles, rules, or institutional arrangements that can improve international cooperation by addressing long-standing or emerging global problems. The views and recommendations are the opinion of the author only. They do not necessarily represent a consensus of the CoC members, and they are not the positions of the supporting institutions. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on policy issues and has no affiliation with the U.S. government.

The Challenge

Gustavo de Carvalho

Senior Researcher, Institute for Security Studies (ISS)

In recent years, in a world of fiscal austerity and distrust, multilateral organizations are being subjected to increased scrutiny. The UN system, in particular, has been called on to more effectively respond to global peace and security challenges. In response, the United Nations has tried to reform some of its Secretariat structures, including creating and merging departments, harmonizing structures, encouraging interagency collaboration, and introducing new functions. However, these reforms are still largely incomplete, and policymakers continue to question the political and financial effectiveness of the UN system. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified those UN structural challenges, at a time when many governments are increasingly drifting away from multilateralism. Africa will have the most to lose if global multilateral institutions like the United Nations are weakened.

More on:

United Nations

African Union

Global Governance

Diplomacy and International Institutions

United Nations General Assembly

Multilateralism matters particularly for less powerful states, including many in Africa, because it allows them to pool resources and ideas, and to search for common approaches that lead to more effective outcomes for the larger membership. Despite constant structural and strategic barriers, African countries have increasingly worked toward showcasing coordinated and unified continental positions. Such approaches show Africa’s willingness to receive global rules as well as pursue more influence in creating international norms. Yet much work remains to be done to increase African voices in global norms.


African member states can reach their full potential to influence various UN decision-making processes by pursuing four recommendations:

Use the sizable African UN membership as leverage to increase its influence to promote cooperation and collaboration within the United Nations. First and foremost, while African countries individually possess limited influence in the UN system, collectively, they can increase their ability to negotiate with other countries to better benefit Africa as a whole.

When the United Nations was created seventy-five years ago, only a small number of African countries were independent. Out of the original UN members in 1945, only four were African countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, and South Africa. In 2020, African states compose 28 percent of UN membership, with 54 out of its 193 members. Africa also holds three of the ten nonpermanent seats in the UN Security Council.

During 2019, more than 50 percent of Security Council meetings, 64 percent of all Security Council resolutions, and 73 percent of its resolutions with Chapter VII mandates—actions with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression—concerned African peace and security issues. In every year since 2011, African issues counted for at least 50 percent of all Security Council meetings and 60 percent of its resolutions.

More on:

United Nations

African Union

Global Governance

Diplomacy and International Institutions

United Nations General Assembly

Despite the emphasis on African issues by the United Nations at large, many UN member states still do not adequately recognize the continent’s collective geopolitical relevance or clout. Most of the serious disputes among the Security Council’s five permanent members remain centered on the Middle East and North Africa.

To increase cooperation and collaboration, and ultimately their influence, African member states have prioritized common approaches at the United Nations in recent years, particularly since the creation of the African Union (AU) in 2002. Since then, the African caucus increasingly provides a mechanism to coordinate positions, especially through their role in the UN General Assembly, the UN Peacebuilding Commission, and the Security Council through its three elected members (the A3).

The fifty-four UN member states from the African continent are vastly different in terms of size and economic and political power projections, as well as diplomatic capacity. Based on such diversity of national interests, reaching consensus on all issues is virtually impossible. Despite that, when working together, African member states can help shape the debate at the United Nations and break geopolitical barriers. Through its considerable presence in UN decision-making bodies, African unity provides further leverage in influencing outcomes, especially on African matters.

As part of a concerted effort, African member states can show unity through a variety of approaches. They can issue joint statements, provide common continental stances, and define joint negotiating positions for outcome documents. At the United Nations, coordinating AU positions can foster more unified approaches. For example, the adoption of the Common African Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda provided leverage for the continent in negotiations on what eventually became the Sustainable Development Goals.

At the United Nations, coordinating AU positions can foster more unified approaches.

Even when such joint positions are found at the AU level, they sometimes fail to guide countries’ positions in the actual UN negotiations. In 2020, controversial campaigns of African candidates for important multilateral organs, such as the UN Security Council and the World Trade Organization, highlighted the need to create mechanisms to ensure better joint African decision-making processes.

For example, the 2020 campaign to replace South Africa as part of the A3 on the UN Security Council led to a public and heated campaign between Kenya and Djibouti. The campaign focused on defining the most legitimate process in identifying common AU candidates. Djibouti raised questions over the AU’s mechanisms for endorsing an African candidacy. Kenya, which argued it was the legitimate AU candidate, struggled to secure a two-thirds majority in the first electoral round but was eventually elected for the 2021–22 Security Council term.

Despite such challenges, recent experiences in which the A3 positioned themselves as a coherent collective actor in the Security Council still provide an important development and should be further reinforced. In 2019, the A3 delivered an unprecedented sixteen joint statements in the Security Council both during country-specific and thematic debates. This led to a more coherent A3 approach, then composed of Equatorial Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and South Africa, leading to some successes. For example, in June 2019, the A3 was able to break Security Council deadlocks to effectively shape its press statement on Sudan to reflect the AU Peace and Security Council decision to suspend the membership of the Sudanese government.

This approach can only continue to be successful if both the African caucus and the A3 strengthen their coordination through more regular interactions between the UN headquarters in New York; AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and other African capitals, fostered by the A3. While the composition of the A3 changes every year, the wider African caucus remains the same; therefore, they should be constantly collaborating as a means to show continuity of approaches in different spheres of the UN system.

Additionally, agreements among African member states are often tested by the interests of the United Nation’s powerful members. Countries including France and the United Kingdom, and more recently China, play an influential role in Africa, often making it difficult to achieve a common approach. Therefore, the stronger African unity is, the harder it will be for other UN member states, especially the Security Council’s five permanent members, to oppose its positions and divide the group.

Be more active by defining strategic concepts and priorities in the United Nations. UN peacekeeping is one of the most relevant and visible UN responses to conflict, and an increase in African participation in peace operations is an example of how African member states could achieve a wider voice. Seven out of thirteen UN peacekeeping operations are in Africa, and almost 50 percent of all UN peacekeepers come from one of the thirty-six African member states that are troop or police contributing countries. However, as one UN observer highlighted, while it is more common to see “African states discussing peacekeeping issues when it relates to their own roles as troop-contributing countries or when it relates to AU-UN relations, one sees little African participation in broader conceptual and practical peacekeeping discussions.”

UN peacekeeping is one of the most relevant and visible UN responses to conflict.

African member states require increased joint commitments in defining UN priorities, strategies, and approaches. These commitments can assist with conceptual contributions to the advancement of global public goods in the peace and security realm, placing African countries in a position where they can better shape and develop international norms.

With increasingly constrained resources for deploying large UN peace operations, the push for more cost-effective options is paramount. With many UN peace operations coming to an end or subjected to mandate renewal that could lead to their drawdown, the future of peace operations is critical. These kinds of discussions should be driven more by African member states.

Recent experiences in ad hoc security operations, such as the Group of Five for the Sahel and the Multinational Joint Task Force, show that alternative approaches by African member states can further contribute to the debate around the future of peace operations. While ad hoc security initiative operations have limitations—including financing, logistics, and command and control—they demonstrate the importance of enhancing the effectiveness of peace operations and their relationships with member states and regional organizations.

African member states have driven the sustainable and predictable financing of AU peace support operations, particularly through UN-assessed contribution. This has been a contentious issue since the first resolution on AU-UN relations was adopted in 2008. In recent years, this matter has dominated the AU-UN agenda and highlights two sides of a complex discussion. On the one hand, it shows the need for African member states to commit to more active approaches toward peace and security, including stronger financial commitments. One the other hand, it highlights that because the UN Security Council considers many African conflicts threats to international peace and security, countries outside Africa also have a responsibility to provide ongoing resources to resolve them.

However, such emphasis on financing has diverted the attention of the United Nations from other developments regarding a stronger African role in conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction, and development and peace-building. The AU and United Nations still have limited interaction in peace-building matters. African member states have much work to do to ensure closer collaboration on initiatives to address the structural causes of conflicts, thereby reducing the likelihood of conflicts.

Address diplomatic capacity constraints at the UN headquarters. While the United Nations is often seen as a venue for high-level politics, the bureaucratic capacity and bandwidth of African member states themselves, and the role played by their respective permanent missions to the United Nations, have unrealized potential. By more actively supporting each other’s representatives at the UN headquarters, African members states can help coordinate among themselves and identify ways of overcoming structural challenges.

African members states can help coordinate among themselves and identify ways of overcoming structural challenges.

Historically, African member states have smaller missions in New York. This impairs their ability to follow a large number of issues, including the extensive agenda of the UN General Assembly. The capacity deficits of the missions become even more visible when countries join the UN Security Council. Reduced staffing means that the mission could be unable to follow all topics on the Security Council agenda with the same depth.

African delegations in New York tend to be small and thinly stretched over the broad range of agenda items. Therefore, boosting coordinating institutions, such as the AU Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations, provides a space where African member states can rely on institutional memory, substantive capacity, and convening power.

While some countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, or South Africa can bolster their individual capacity when joining the Security Council, many other smaller African member states join the Security Council with a reduced or even inadequate number of dedicated diplomats. African member states with more diplomatic capacity could therefore act as unifiers and conveners rather than dividers.

Make better use of African expertise within the UN Secretariat. The presence and interaction of specific member states within the UN Secretariat is an important element of influence in the UN system. Some countries tend to deploy or encourage many of their nationals to pursue powerful positions within the Secretariat. However, African member states do not view these positions within the UN Secretariat in the same way. African nationals compose around 42 percent of the entire UN bureaucracy (excluding agencies and funds). But most of these staff are posted to UN civilian functions in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Sudan.

A better way to assess the positions held by African nationals is to consider the number of Africans in leadership positions within the UN Secretariat in New York, which is composed of around six thousand staff. Certainly, senior appointments at the UN are often driven by a mix of power and money that member states observe. Countries with greater influence at international organizations will be more successful advocating for their nationals for senior positions.

In 2017, Professors Paul Novosad and Eric Wecker assessed how individual countries have been able to secure more UN leadership positions. While small, rich democracies, such as Nordic countries, tend to be more effective in placing their nationals in senior UN positions, a number of small African member states have also been successful. According to Novosad and Wecker’s analysis, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Tunisia, Botswana, Burundi, Senegal, and Somalia are among the top twenty most overrepresented countries in leadership positions. This kind of presence should not be underestimated, but further studies would be required to assess the effect this overrepresentation of (mostly) smaller African states would have on the overall performance of the United Nations. 

African diplomats would benefit more from the expertise and capacity that the UN bureaucracy can provide.

In discussions in New York, UN Secretariat staff are often disappointed that African diplomats do not always seek as much Secretariat expertise and advice as do diplomats from larger powers. African diplomats would benefit more from the expertise and capacity that the UN bureaucracy can provide through information, analysis, and institutional memory. Despite fairly strong representation in leadership positions, African diplomats should still interact more with their African counterparts in New York.


At a time when the COVID-19 crisis is changing the world, multilateralism particularly matters to those member states that have the most to lose with the decreasing use and relevance of collective commitments.

In recent years, Africa has provided creative and proactive responses to strengthen multilateralism, like establishing the AU. The continent has also shown that beyond the development of rules, its member states can indeed become more active in strengthening the quality of multilateral responses to peace and security. Therefore, African member states have space to increasingly focus on their role in influencing the system to better address their needs. By doing so, they will allow Africa to move beyond simply receiving normative roles, effectively becoming more active as part of the group of countries that most effectively set the norms that will shape the future of the international system.


This paper has benefited from numerous comments and suggestions from Council of Councils members, in particular Bernardo Venturi (Institute of International Affairs), Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, (South African Institute of International Affairs), Melanie Müller and Judith Vorrath (German Institute for International and Security Affairs), Sina Schlimmer and Alain Antil (French Institute of International Relations), Silvia Perazzo (Argentine Council for International Relations), Shannon K. O’Neil, Terrence Mullan, John Campbell, and Michelle Gavin (Council on Foreign Relations), and Jędrzej Czerep (Polish Institute of International Affairs).

Top Stories on CFR


Israel has made eliminating the threat from the Gaza-based militant group a central war aim, but it’s not entirely clear at what point that condition will be met.  


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.