SMALL STATES - Check out our new series on multilateralism and small states →

How Bad Is It? The UN Development System Needs an Overhaul


Voters in Libya
On July 7, 2012, Libyans voted in their first free election in decades, a process that the UN Development Program helped assist. NOEMAN AL SAYYAD/UNDP

The clamor for United Nations reform has not stopped since its first days in 1945. Although ideas for changing the UN rise and fall each year, the newest calls for an overhaul involve development, one of the largest sectors of the world body’s system. With a Kafkaesque bureaucracy consisting of at least 30 agencies and organizations, employing 50,000 people worldwide, the relevance and structure of the development arm are being questioned as its own inertia saps its ability to adapt as competitors arise.

In May, a scholarly effort to begin parsing what works and what doesn’t in this arena got its footing in the “New Challenges, New Partners, a New UN Development System?”conference held at the British forum Wilton Park, followed by one in New York in June. Both events were held off the record and convened by the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and its Geneva-based Future of the United Nations Development System project (FUNDS), sponsored by the Norwegian, Swiss and Dutch governments.

Two related reports (one of which is currently available to the public) were also offered to participants. At both conferences diplomats, academics and personnel from UN development agencies, nongovernmental groups and corporations had their say. The information from the conferences was made available to PassBlue.

The events centered on a 2012 survey gauging global perceptions of the UN’s development system, building on a 2010 survey. This year’s survey, done by Dalberg Research, a Danish firm, involved 3,345 respondents from 153 countries, about 14 percent of almost 26,000 questionnaires sent out. Twenty-two percent of the respondents came from developed countries (the “North”); 78 percent from developing countries (the “global South”); and about a fifth from middle-income countries like Mexico, Peru and Turkey as well as rising stars: Brazil, China, India and South Africa.

Development work accounts for 60 percent of the UN’s total yearly spending, employing people among an alphabet soup of funds, programs, offices and agencies, with headquarters in 15 countries and more than 1,000 separate country offices. That does not include commissions and research and training groups nor the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. A strong center, one of the reports says, would compensate for such dispersion but none exists. All parts of the system answer to the Economic and Social Council, a UN branch on par with the General Assembly and the Security Council. Lack of coordination and overlapping functions are the norm.

Not surprisingly, survey results showed a wide commitment to changing the development system, with some respondents suggesting radical transformation. Others called the system in “crisis,” because of fragmentation and emerging non-UN competitors, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The crisis appears to be hurting coherence systemwide. Too little cooperation both across and within agencies contributes to major shortcomings, while decentralization, ineffectiveness and vested interests hurt chances for innovation. Noncore funds of UN agencies, or earmarked money, prosper at the expense of core funds, so certain programs do well while administrative functions lag.

PassBlue Related Articles
You might be interested in these posts.
[display-posts taxonomy="category" tax_term="current" orderby="date" posts_per_page="3" wrapper="ul" content_class="pb-inpost-list" wrapper_class="pb-inpost-layout" exclude_current="true"]

Nevertheless, the development arm, the survey found, is an international necessity, with such ambitious initiatives as the Millennium Development Goals a prime example of the UN’s role as a main partner in providing humanitarian and other lifesaving services. Middle-income countries, like Brazil, are eager to pay for UN services in areas that they can’t fulfill alone.

Successful UN agencies

Some UN groups stand out: the survey found the most useful agencies are those specializing in health, education and human rights, with the World Health Organization, UNAIDS and Unicef at the top. The UN is also an important source of technical standards and expertise; and it is still considered an impartial, legitimate choice in helping the most sensitive regions amid the most heinous conditions.

Yet the report, “Making Change Happen: Enhancing the UN’s Contributions to Development,” to be published in August and written by Stephen Browne, a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute, and Thomas G. Weiss, director of the Ralph Bunche Institute, raised the relevance of the UN in setting standards, given some agencies’ age and new regulatory bodies like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, an American nongovernmental group.

The UN also offers “public goods,” statistical information, surveys and studies collected from its 193 member countries. Many observers consider Unicef’s regular assessment of children’s health, for example, the gold standard.

One intriguing survey result was respondents’ perceptions on whether the UN could reform itself as it copes with new development demands. Only 23 percent of those who responded were positive about the organization’s ability to do both; “pessimists” made up 19 percent; and “neutral” respondents came in at 58 percent. The more upbeat respondents tended to be young people working in the public sector in developing countries; the negative ones were seasoned people from developed countries working in non-UN international groups.

Optimists thought that the UN’s biggest problem was finances; pessimists considered structures, ineffectiveness and inflexibility to be the sore points. People from the North and the global South favored more financing for the UN, but those in the North called for fewer UN entities and those in the South suggested a single-system country representative.

As the economic and political power base shifts from the North toward the global South, the dynamics of development are being reconfigured, too. The normal distinction between donors of the North and recipients of the South is blurring, with such countries as South Africa able to provide aid while some European nations are barely managing their own debt payments. Whether emerging economies will fill development gaps remains to be seen.

Equally important, the focus by donors on the bottom line, a relatively new phenomenon in the UN system, has led to concerns about the openness and accountability of the agencies as well as their poor ability to promote their work. The increasing imbalance between core and earmarked funds (depending on the organization, a ratio ranging from 1 to 2 or 1 to 4) is a major reason behind the UN’s fragmentation, though designated donations can be helpful for crossover issues like gender equality.

Filipino cattle herders
Filipino cattle herders in Mindanao Province, Philippines. A 2012 survey has found that the development arm of the UN needs major reform. TANYA BINDRA

Two major disappointments

Both reports pointed to Delivering as One, an initiative conceived in 2006 to streamline UN work in the countries where it operates. The program has led to marginal efficiencies in just a few nations, falling far short of expectations. A classic example was the unification of UN offices in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, where the supposed central role of UN resident coordinators existed on paper, but agency rivalries in the headquarters scuttled the experiment.

UN Women, started in 2010, consolidated four small agencies concentrating on women, though it failed to pull in the most important source of financing, the UN Population Fund. UN Women’s  executive director, Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, is considered a rallying leader, but the agency ironically must build up its own  field network.

The Millennium Development Goals, which aim to improve people’s lives through eight agenda items by 2015, have helped the UN system stay focused since their inception in 2000. A new panel, to be led by Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, will study whether there is life for MDGs after 2015.

How can reform move ahead?

Discussions at Wilton Park and in New York veered from a “big bang” approach to incremental methods; from the short term (more money for budgets, a single UN leader in every program country) to the long term (more money, fewer agencies). Historic attempts at systemic change often required outside catalysts; sweeping reforms could mean redefining the Economic and Social Council as the central coordinator for the UN development arm, or merging agencies, like UN Women with the UN Population Fund.

Another structural possibility is having the secretary-general and all heads of funds, programs and agencies work a single term of up to six years so that the leaders can make bold changes without worrying about reappointment.

Pushing for reform can start by discussing the surveys’ findings at UN mission forums; setting up a single country finance mechanism to be run by a single country coordinator; speeding up earlier reform proposals, say, through Jan Eliasson, the new deputy secretary-general (credited for enacting reform when he was president of the General Assembly in 2005-2006); taking advantage of the new post-MDG panel; doing more surveys and expanding research; and building support with like-minded groups seeking change.

The one thing everyone agreed on at both conferences was that the sprawling development system desperately needed to be transformed.

Related articles

Jan Eliasson Named Deputy Secretary-General

New World Bank Leader Backs Anticorruption Campaign

A Top Economist Faults UNDP for Outmoded Policies

In Washington, a Seasoned Hand at the UN’s Development Office

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

How Bad Is It? The UN Development System Needs an Overhaul
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Related Posts
Global Connections Television, The only talk show if its kind in the world.


Subscribe to PassBlue


Don't miss a story

Subscribe now to send the smartest news

on the UN directly to your inbox.

Stay informed, stay connected!

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously