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New Development Goals: Can the UN Machinery Cope?


In December 2014, volunteers from the United Nations Development Program in Mongolia participated in a “Giving Tuesday” activity at a school for children from “vulnerable families,” as the UN put it. 

The United Nations is now discussing in a broad consultation process the sustainable development goals: a new universal set of ambitions for economic and social development, made up of targets and indicators that all countries are expected to use to frame their agendas and policies from 2015 to 2030, to be adopted by the General Assembly this fall. The SDGs, as they are abbreviated, follow the Millennium Development Goals, which have been the agreed-on goals for the last 15 years.

While the UN family as well as the global academia and the nongovernment organization networks are busy formulating catalogs of SDGs, little attention and little thought are being given to the organizational capacity of the UN development system to help countries to meet these goals.

Stephen Browne, a co-director of the Future of the UN Development System (FUNDS) project of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York, and Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science and director emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute and the other director of FUNDS, attempt as editors of their book, “Post-2015 Development: Making Change Happen,” to analyze the current state of the UN development system.

Based on extensive original research, this book captures in a single volume a comprehensive review of the UN’s performance in the field of development cooperation.

The book deals in four parts with the UN development system: Part I addresses the features of UN multilateralism, its historical roots and recent changes and trends; Part II deals with the organizational basis of the development system: funding, evaluation mechanisms and accountability features; Part III covers the expansion of tasks of the system from the former classic development assistance to complex peace-building efforts in war-torn societies; and Part IV focuses on the necessary reform measures to make the system fit for the present challenges.

Contributing authors of the anthology, such as Bjorn Skogmo, Graciana del Castillo and Silke Weinlich, offer extensive experience and familiarity — as practitioners and researchers — with the UN and development. They succeed in creating a highly informative portrait of the complex landscape of the UN, where programs and funds have lost their former leading role in international development assistance to the more commercially oriented International Monetary Fund and World Bank group, Skogmo wrote.

UN programs and funds have also lost their dominant role with “bilaterally oriented” donor countries, which prefer to channel their development aid increasingly through bilateral investments and projects, as doing so enables them to follow their national interests and priorities, Weinlich noted.

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The prevalence of national interests is the main cause of the low effectiveness of UN development efforts, which does not originate from institutional failures, as many critics of the UN system tend to argue, the contributing writers contend.

Given this point of view, the contributors’ advice for the UN is that it should not attempt to keep pace with its competitors in the economic field and should leave, Skogmo said, “many of the operational aspects of technical assistance to other actors, such as bilateral agencies, international commercial actors, and civil society groups.”

Instead, the UN family should focus on its genuine strengths; that is, to formulate and carry out integrated approaches to complex challenges regarding development, such as the promotion and protection of international law; in particular, human rights, and — one of the most urgent challenges — the peace-building efforts in war-torn post-conflict countries.

For a country to make the difficult transition from a war economy to a “normal” peace economy, a new comprehensive pragmatic concept coupled with carefully implemented economic measures are needed, and “the United Nations with its programs and agencies, is best placed to support countries in such a transition,” according to del Castillo.

Development gains are becoming more important in UN peace-building, as in any such operation, “peace and development are mutually reinforcing components,” wrote Michael von der Schulenburg, a former special envoy in Sierra Leone. Yet the UN’s operational capacities and management structures still lag behind the complex requirements of peace-building.

The author argues for a limited reform of the UN development system, confined to UN peace-building, as such reforms aimed at UN operations in conflict-ridden countries would be goal-oriented and “would not shake up the whole UN system and would not threaten vested national interests within the United Nations,” von der Schulenburg noted.

Such realistic analysis and evaluation is provided by all of the book’s contributing authors, in highly readable language. Starting from the common insight that the UN development system has not overcome its fragmentation, is insufficiently financed and increasingly sidelined by other, more effective development organizations, the authors recommend that the UN development system focus on four aspects: improve regarding research, evaluation, oversight and accountability; cooperate more instead of competing; develop a new, pragmatic “forward-looking strategic thinking” approach in dealing with the immense challenges facing the UN system, Browne and Weiss advised; and focus more on its core strength.

That is, the capacity to develop commonly accepted norms for international law, human-rights protection and functioning political systems.

The book provides a frank, detailed and informative description of the weaknesses and strong points of the UN development system. It is without doubt one of the best books written on the subject in recent years and is highly recommendable to all those who are interested in the world body as well as to those who are interested in sustainable development.

Post-2015 UN Development: Making Change Happen,” edited by Stephen Browne and Thomas G. Weiss; 9780415856638


Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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