GENEVA — For those with longer memories, the latest dip in resources for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the staff cutbacks and restructuring announced by its administrator, Helen Clark, in May are merely the onset of another cycle, just in time for the agency’s 50th anniversary but part of its history since its creation in 1965.
The downsizing of the organization about to take place may amount to the biggest structural upheaval it has experienced in the last several decades.
The hazards of funding development on a voluntary, year-by-year basis has little to do with actual development needs and thinking but much more to do with the illogical supply-sidedness of official development assistance in general. Resources are subject mainly to two factors: the health of donor aid budgets and the perceptions, justified or not, of organizational performance.
In this case, the timing of cutbacks also reflects Clark’s candidacy for UN secretary-general in 2016, to replace Ban Ki-moon, who is now in his second term and will not be appointed a third. The job is reserved in principle for Eastern Europe. But Clark, a New Zealander, is betting on gender trumping geography in her pursuit of favor with the Western donors that contribute most of UNDP’s core resources.
Just now, her organization is suffering from downturns in both donor budgets as well as performance. And as in all such past crises, there is a scramble to draw down the costs of administration and programming, with the threatened loss of many jobs. The crisis obviously matters to those who have been made redundant. But could it also be an opportunity for long-overdue reform of the organization, which was once designed to be the center of the system?
The UN Development Program is widely considered, even by many of its fans and past top managers, to be off-track. Intended as the central funding mechanism of UN development, it decided early on to pursue a strategy of going it alone as a self-financed development entity. Consequently, it began asking donors for money for its own activities rather than those of the UN organizations that it was supposed to support. Those organizations, seeing the decrease of UNDP funding for their own work, went after the same donors directly.
In short, UNDP was soon a direct competitor with the rest of the UN development system, taking whatever funding it could from whatever source. Its credibility as a coordinator could no longer be sustained, thus contributing to the growing centrifugal forces in the system and straining efforts to foster more coherence.
This organizational schizophrenia prevails today, poignantly described by a former UNDP administrator, Mark Malloch Brown, as the “institutional tensions between UNDP’s role as co-ordinator of the UN system and as development agency in its own right.”
A recent global survey by the FUNDS Project confirms the perceptions of a system that drastically needs reform through firmer integration. By a large margin (69 percent), the UN’s development organizations are seen as competing, not collaborating, for resources. The single greatest current challenge to the system is its internal organizational structure, the survey found; and the list of desirable future changes is topped by the need for common administrative platforms.
In the previous survey in 2012, a large majority of respondents called for “a single UN leader” (77 percent), “a single UN fund” (69 percent) and “a single UN program” (68 percent) in every program country. If past is prelude, such changes are pie in the sky.
The latest crisis is an opportunity to re-establish UNDP’s position at the heart of the development system as a coordinator, for which it already has more than enough core resources. By relinquishing its operations to more qualified functional members of the UN system, which collectively has far more depth of specialist expertise, UNDP could become the manager of a field network, bringing the rest of the system together around unified programs of national capacity building. In his classic 1969 “Capacity Study” of the UN Development Program, Sir Robert Jackson — a top official at the time and a giant in UN history— lamented the absence of a “central brain.”
In the drawn-out discussions on a post-2015 UN development agenda, the focus is on “the world we want,” but not yet on “the UN we want.” The current UN development system is far from having the operational mechanisms that the world needs. The wastefulness of competitively scrambling for funds to support many thousands of parallel and overlapping projects is reflected in the progressive marginalization of the UN and the UN Development Program. Alas, we still are looking for a central development brain.
For UNDP, for the system and, above all, for the countries served, the latest crisis could be an opportunity. Less could lead to substantially more.
This is an opinion essay.
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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.