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.
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 FutureUN.org 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.
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.”
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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.