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Reform Clouds Darken the Future of the UN Development Program


Achim Steiner, center, is a longtime specialist who now runs the UN Development Program, based in New York. The current restructuring of the UN may be sidelining Steiner, jeopardizing development work. 

As the first effects of Secretary-General António Guterres’s ambitious organizational reform plans become apparent, former and current officials of the United Nations Development Program see the future of the internationally influential agency as uncertain if not in peril.

Fears center on aspects of the reform plan for development that would allow more political interference by host governments in the work of the UNDP, as it’s called. The plan could also deter the agency from factoring in human-rights issues in country programs, after rights were stripped earlier from the Sustainable Development Goals.

The reform agenda was formally approved by the General Assembly in May 2018. Its most radical departure is the separation of the development program’s resident representative in a given country from a “resident coordinator” overseeing the UN’s work more broadly in the country, in close cooperation with the national government. Until now, the two functions were often combined in one person, with the development program’s representative — the “res-rep” — serving like a UN ambassador.

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Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, a former Nigerian cabinet minister, has been a driving force behind changes in how UNDP functions. She is now in charge of the UN’s development work, whose main job is to eradicate poverty. The resident coordinators will report to her and not, as in the past, to the UNDP administrator, the top official of the development agency, Achim Steiner.

In a speech to his executive board on Jan. 21, Steiner acknowledged that the new structure of UN development work will require significant staff changes. But he assured board members that “we made an extraordinary effort to re-staff UNDP’s leadership cadre at country level in minimal time. . . . This exercise marked one of the largest and most complex leadership recruitments in UNDP’s history.”

Steiner said he had recruited 140 candidates qualified to serve as resident representatives under UNDP control to compensate for the loss of those representatives who became resident coordinators, working for Mohammed. (Robert Piper of Australia is heading the transition team, reporting to Mohammed.)

Through all the reshuffling, Steiner reported, “Our RR [resident representative] candidate pool is now 50/50 gender balanced and equally geographically diverse.”

Stephen Browne, who has written a forthcoming book titled “UN Reform: Past, Present and Future,” has been a UNDP representative in Africa and a development official at the agency’s headquarters in New York. He is co-director with Thomas G. Weiss of the project at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center; and a lecturer on UN affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

Browne is among those international specialists concerned about the possible sidelining of Steiner, who became administrator of UNDP in June 2017.

Steiner, who was born in Brazil and is now a German national, has lived and worked in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. A graduate of Oxford University, he has stellar credentials for his job. He has been head of the UN Environment Program for a decade, the director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and secretary-general of the World Commission on Dams — dams being a topic of considerable controversy in development thinking.

“I have deep admiration for him,” Browne said in an interview from Geneva. “This guy knows what he’s talking about.” Steiner’s predecessor, Helen Clark, a former New Zealand prime minister who did not have a background in international development, is widely remembered as an ineffective if not disastrous administrator who devoted her final years in the job to campaigning unsuccessfully to succeed Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general.

Steiner has already been demoted in the new regime, which was put in place this month. “First of all, he’s lost the chairmanship of the UN Development Group,” Browne said.

That body unites 40 UN entities that work in sustainable development. “He’s now vice-chairman to the deputy secretary-general. And he no longer appoints the resident coordinators. That’s quite a significant loss.”

“UNDP is trying to think now what role it has,” Browne said. He added that the organization, which, like the UN more widely, recognizes that guaranteed rights for all members of a society play an integral part in every sector of development. The deputy secretary-general appears not to agree but seems more influenced by governments that want to avoid scrutiny.

The deputy ambassador for China, Wu Haitao, participating in the UN Development Program’s executive board meeting, Jan. 21, 2019. An expert on the UN agency said that human-rights work of the UN “is in huge trouble,” because of China’s influence. SUMAYA/AGHA/UNDP

In a speech to the global Women and Girls Rising conference in New York in September 2014, Mohammed, then the special adviser to Secretary-General Ban on forming the Sustainable Development Goals, said in answers to audience questions that LGBT rights were “off the table.” She avoided issues of women’s reproductive rights.

“The human rights agenda in the UN is in huge trouble,” Browne said. In the case of UNDP, he added: “The sort of sentiment came back from developing countries that the resident coordinator should keep clear of everything that wasn’t technical development. The immortal words ‘human rights’ never occurred.

“That’s China,” he said. “That’s China having its huge, insidious influence on the agenda of the UN, by cutting out all references to human rights.”

“The development system of the UN is crying out for a Nobel laureate-equivalent chief of development . . . instead of allowing politics to dictate,” Browne said.

Carlos Lopes, a former resident coordinator for UNDP in Zimbabwe and Brazil, is now a professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at Cape Town University. He had also has been director of the UN Staff College, which has campuses in Bonn, Germany, and Turin, Italy, and online.

Lopes was responsible for training country teams when, he said in a memo, “the world had shifted to big covenants that the UN had to promote across its field offices.” The shift from country-specific programs to global projects was not the first or last reform.

“My reading of the current process is that there is such a reform fatigue that it sparks an automatic skepticism, if not cynicism, about any new wave of changes,” Lopes wrote. “To do so without money, in fact with less money, takes any oxygen left.”

“Most UN agencies no longer battle for projects,” he said. “They battle for the advocacy space, pretending it is about policies. Some actually use the advocacy tools extremely well and end up influencing policy decisions.

“But most count events, brochures or attribution as indicators of performance. They are ready to sacrifice country knowledge — demand driven, difficult to fund — for global action, which is supply-driven and attractive for non-core funding.

“Recipient countries are not interested in what title different UN leaders in the country carry,” Lopes wrote. “I doubt they will have much to say (except for their representatives in New York or Geneva) about the separation of roles being introduced. They will not, nevertheless, give space for any representational role beyond development aid coordination.

“Under such circumstances,” he said, “this reform is basically about moving the boxes in the structure, not far from moving the chairs on the Titanic.”

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York (where PassBlue is a project) and director of the Independent Panel on Global Governance for Health at the University of Oslo, was the lead author and director of the UNDP Human Development Reports from 1995 to 2004. She has written extensively on human rights and development. In 2016, she was the winner of the American Political Science Association’s 2016 Best Book in Human Rights Scholarship.

Fukuda-Parr joined in an online chat with Lopes, with whom she has worked. “What you say about advocacy at the country level is the important issue for those of us with a developmental perspective,” she wrote to Lopes. “If we are to provide intellectual advice, we need a reform that will strengthen the UN system capacity to do so.

“I have always thought of the best of the UN as an organization that could provide intellectual resources (ideas, analysis, networks of knowledge) that are both technocratic and ethically grounded in universal values,” Fukuda-Parr said.

“It is individuals that make a difference. And if the UN plays a significant role in advocacy in some cases but not in others, it is where you have entrepreneurial individuals (as opposed to the paper-pushing bureaucrats) in the lead.

“With the rearrangement of the chairs,” she said, “my fear would be that there would be more politically motivated appointments as RCs [resident coordinators] and less ideas-driven entrepreneurial individuals committed to cosmopolitan values and knowledge of development.”

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

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Reform Clouds Darken the Future of the UN Development Program
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Sofia Ugaz
Sofia Ugaz
5 years ago

An important additional element in the evaluation of this Reform is its cost: 300 million USD p year. Money which will go to structure, not programmes for the poor.

5 years ago

some UN Res Coordinators are utterly incompetent and full of ego, only focused on their own career and next move, rather than on the country where they are posted, its needs, poverty eradication and development

Bill Buchann
Bill Buchann
5 years ago

I have worked for various UN Agencies in Developing countries while liaising with Resident Representatives/Resident Coordinators (I estimate 15 in all). I would have to say that the system seemed to work well in terms of assessing the countries’ aid needs and in administering guidance or overseeing aid programmes. At the same time, what Sherry Khan said has some truth and I’ve met a couple of Resident representative who were borderline professionals. I disagree, at least in my experience, that they “were political sinecures that functioned without oversight, often corrupt and self serving”

Looking at “Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, a former Nigerian cabinet minister, has been a driving force behind changes in how UNDP functions. She is now in charge of the UN’s development work, whose main job is to eradicate poverty. The resident coordinators will report to her and not, as in the past, to the UNDP administrator, the top official of the development agency, Achim Steiner.” One can well imagine that someone who has been a driving force behind a change, wants to be in charge too. But, are more levels of bureaucracy going to serve any purpose? Far better that the Resident Representative and Resident Coordinator be one and the same and, better too that they report directly to the UNDP Administrator. Poverty and national development are inextricably mixed. Where the a country ignores poverty, for example where the politically powerful are indecently wealthy through governing for their own benefit, it will take more than a Resident Coordinator or a new position to which they report, to achieve significant change.

It is nothing new that major world powers colluded in the formation and structure of the United Nations. So, it should be no surprise that this characterises the United Nations today. However, for those who care, it would hardly be showing sound judgement in practical affairs not to assume that the UN is once again changing for political reasons and, in doing so, is disadvantaging the very people who were supposed to benefit.

Greg Brown
Greg Brown
5 years ago

Troubling to see a highly respected journalist like Barbara Crossette do such a hatchet job. Achim Steiner,(together with some fawning cronies who are themselves looking forward to being hired by UNDP) has used you to misinform the world. The fact is Steiner was hired as he would ensure that the reforms succeed. Unfortunately UNDP since helen Clarks’s time has been the biggest obstacle to any reforms. She surrounded herself with low grade sycophants who behaved like attack dogs when any reforms was pushed for. Achim Steiner is behaving like a spoilt child. Ganging up against the DSG to undermine the SG’s reforms. Sad reflection on this mans’s integrity and loyalty as a civil servant. Besides the environment he has little knowledge of anything else. Amina keep moving forward. The UN development system is in desperate need for reform and you are making it happen. Amina Mohammed is doing a fantastic job. Thank you.

Sherry Khan
Sherry Khan
5 years ago

UNDP resident representatives have long been seen as problematic. They were political sinecures that functioned without oversight, often corrupt and self serving. Reform of the development pillar is long overdue to refocus on the individual and specific needs of various communities with programmes that are tailored to bring about the level of change needed for sustainability. Amina Mohamed has done an amazing job so far to bring development reform to align with a dynamic political and technological landscape. And, let us not forget that she is a development expert. Refer her WB credentials as well.

Adam Rogers
Adam Rogers
5 years ago

BC: Your comment on Ms. Clark follows a direct quote from Stephen Browne, and implies he said this about her. Wherever it came from, it seems impertinent and disrespectful, distracting from the valid points in your article.

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