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How Is the UN’s Development Machinery Perceived? Does Anyone Care?


Work for cash
A work for cash program sponsored by the UN Development Program, months after Typhoon Haiyan hit parts of Southeast Asia, particularly devastating the Philippines, on Nov. 8, 2013. LESLEY WRIGHT/UNDP PHILIPPINES

One year ago, the report of a high-level panel of world leaders and renowned development specialists proposed 12 goals and 50 indicators for the United Nation’s post-2015 agenda. These were already unwieldy numbers, but after a year and a half of juggling and negotiations, member states in New York on the Open Working Group (OWG) decided by acclamation after a nonstop, 29-hour marathon session late in July a supposedly “concise” list of 17 development goals and some 169 indicators. They will forward the text as recommendations to the General Assembly for decision in September 2015.

The final shape of the agenda is likely to include most of the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — “only” 8 goals and 60 indicators — in some form. It also is likely to embrace several new areas, the expression of “the world we want.” In addition, it will constitute a major challenge to the UN development system on which successful implementation will partly depend. While the OWG is congratulating itself on completing its job — a sadly typical criterion of UN success, staying in the same room and agreeing upon a laundry list — there has been precious little thought given to the really critical indicators of development progress, which could have formed a core agenda.

Perhaps as important, no thought has been given to the shape of the UN system itself and whether it is fit for whatever purpose is decided. Thus, this FUNDS Briefing provides pointers to “the UN we want” for the new era of development goals. As a guide to a desirable future configuration of the UN development system, it draws on an earlier 2014 global survey that indicates how the world organization is perceived, and how it needs to change. Combined with the results of similar surveys in 2010 and 2012, a total of some 10,000 informed, independently gathered responses are now available. The complete results of the survey are available here.

Four views emerge across the survey:

• The UN’s development functions are less crucial than such other functions as security, humanitarian action and setting global norms with teeth.

• The UN’s development organizations are still mostly relevant, but some are not particularly effective.

• The World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef consistently receive the highest rankings among operational agencies; regional commissions receive the lowest rankings.

• The UN faces two major institutional challenges: poor internal organization and the predominance of earmarked funding.

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.


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.


Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminent Scholar at Korea’s Kyung Hee University. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations” (with Tatiana Carayannis).


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