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The UN Development Program Should Revive What It Does Best


Helen Clark of UNDP
Helen Clark, the chief of the UN Development Program, in Bijagual, Costa Rica, visiting a community project in March 2013. ADRIANA ZUNIGA/UNDP COSTA RICA

Constant reform has characterized the United Nations Development Program throughout its existence, say the authors of two recent books on the agency. Change bespeaks an organization ready to adapt but also fundamentally uncertain about its proper role. It teeters between two sets of tensions. The first tension is between being both coordinator and competitor in the UN development system; the second tension is between exerting priorities from the center while being flexible in program countries. These tensions should be resolved and enable the UN Development Program (or UNDP) to be the UN’s human development organization.

The creation of the UN Development Program was motivated by a postwar logic that developing countries needed multilateral technical assistance to fill the gaps in institutions and skills required by what was then an ill-defined development process. With the support of the United States, the UN Expanded Program of Technical Assistance (or EPTA) was created in 1950 and a Special Fund was established in 1959 for preinvestment. When the EPTA and the Special Fund were merged into the UN Development Program in 1965, the UN development system had a consolidated source of resources to finance the technical assistance programs of the specialized agencies.

To continue reading the briefing, published by FUNDS, a research project of the City University of New York’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, click here.

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

Photo of Stephen Browne

Stephen Browne spent more than 30 years working in the UN system and now lectures on the UN. This essay is adapted from his latest book, “Aid and Influence: Patronage, Power and Politics,” published by Routledge in 2022.


Craig N. Murphy teaches at Wellesley College and the McCormack Graduate School of Global and Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.He is a former president of the International Studies Association and a past chairman of the Academic Council on the UN System. His books include “International Organization and Industrial Change: Global Governance Since 1850” and “The UN Development Programme: A Better Way?” Murphy has a B.A. from Grinnell College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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