Global Policy Forum

Institutions and Processes of Social and Economic Policy Making at the UN

The Economic and Social Council
Picture Credit: UN

The United Nations works on a wide range of social and economic policy issues. Within the UN, the 54-member Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the primary intergovernmental organ working on these issues, but it has neither the clout nor the prestige of its smaller twin, the Security Council. ECOSOC has fifteen functional and regional commissions - intergovernmental bodies that are sometimes brilliantly innovative and sometimes hopelessly mundane. At the UN Secretariat's Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), hundreds of professional staff prepare conferences, carry out research and write policy documents in support of UN initiatives. Beyond the UN proper, there are a number of Specialized Agencies, Funds and Programmes, many of which work on social and economic issues. Some of the leading organizations are the World Health Organization (WHO), the Children's Fund (UNICEF), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Development Programme (UNDP). Only very loosely-related to the UN are the Washington-based Bretton Woods Institutions -- the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. More conservative and more directly under the influence of rich governments, these institutions are often seen as the black sheep of the UN family. However, because they suit the policy needs of the US and other rich countries, they prove consistently more powerful than the UN agencies. Increasingly, UN system agencies work together with the Bretton Woods Institutions on conservative common programs known as "policy congruence."

Overview | UN Organs | UN Programmes & Funds | UN Specialized Agencies | Other UN Entities | Research Institutes



Organizational Chart of the UN System

This organizational chart of the UN system summarizes the diversity of the UN family. It illustrates the relations between and within its different organs.

The United Nations and Global Social-Economic Policy: Global Keynesianism for a New Era (October 1996)

An analytical essay published by Global Policy Forum's Executive Director James A. Paul. (Global Policy Forum)

The UN in Brief: What the UN Does for Development

An overview of the work of UN agencies, programmes and funds involved in social and economic policy making.


UN Organs


United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

Article 7 of the UN Charter states that ECOSOC is a principal organ of the UN Charter, and is the most important organ dealing with social and economic policy at the UN. ECOSOC has 54 members and coordinates the social and economic policy work of the UN Secretariat, its Specialized Agencies and receives reports from the UN Programmes and Funds. But the Charter places ECOSOC - unlike the Security Council - under the authority of the General Assembly, allowing the body only to issue policy recommendations to the UN system and member states, but not to make key decisions. ECOSOC consults with academics, business sector representatives and more than 2,100 registered non-governmental organizations.

Members of ECOSOC

This table shows the composition of the Economic and Social Council's 54 members since 1997. Seats are allocated based on geographical representation: 14 to African states, 11 to Asian states, 6 to Eastern European states, 10 to Latin American and Caribbean States, and 13 to Western European and other States.

Subsidiary Bodies of ECOSOC

ECOSOC has established 15 Commissions working in the economic and social fields to perform its many functions, ranging from human rights issues to educational advancement. These include ten Functional Commissions, which meet in yearly sessions, and five Regional Commissions established to foster a stronger link between these regions and the UN system.


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