United Nations partnerships with business: A quest for a renewed legitimacy in the age of global governance. The case of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


International Relations


Stuart Thorson


United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Corporate social responsibility, Partnerships, Business, Legitimacy, Global governance

Subject Categories

Growth and Development | International Economics | International Relations


The development of links of cooperation between the UN and corporate actors leads to the following research problem: How partnerships with the corporate sector influence the UN? In this research, the dimensions of impact are observed at three levels. At the macro level, impact is observed through the role transforming role of the UN in global governance. At the organizational level, impact is observed through the UN transforming capacity to deliver of normative and operational services. At the individual level, impact is observed through the transformation of UN staff satisfaction and capacity to learn. The case study, based on the description of UNCTAD experience in the field of business partnerships, reveals that partnerships have a major impact on the nature of UNCTAD legitimacy.

I derive for these observations that UN legitimacy is affected by processes of transformation at the global, organizational and individual level. Legitimacy is no longer a static historical and symbolic given. Legitimacy is redefined by the UN capacity to solve problems at the global level with a broad range of stakeholders, by the improvement of internal functioning and by the satisfaction of UN staff. Partnerships create a renewed political legitimacy based on a wider participation of UN stakeholders. Finally, partnerships generate an hybrid legitimacy based on performance in service delivery and on ethical and political values.

Mechanisms of governance will not be sustainable on the long run without a transformed global framework of legitimacy. Public and private actors involved in global governance need new indicators of legitimacy to structure their relationships. Such a framework should reflect a transfer of political values to the corporate sector and a transfer of business values to the UN. This research conceptualizes partnerships as a type of governance mechanism. Such mechanisms can only be characterized with organizational and political attributes. Partnerships are the results of specific organizational and political arrangements. On the long run, the consequences of partnerships are a transformation of UN organizational culture, structure, leadership and political role. More generally the UN is becoming a more strategic organization. What has an impact on staff required competencies.


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