Individual member states have always exerted a heavy influence on the United Nations. The dominance of individual powers is the nature of multilateralism, but in the UN system it is particularly marked. The Security Council can only do its job if the five veto-wielding members (the P5: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) are exemplary supporters of the UN Charter. But they are the most egregious offenders, so the Council is largely dysfunctional, as President Zelensky of Ukraine pointed out in a speech in April to the Council regarding its inability to take effective action against Russia.
Indeed, the UN is not in a good place, and its development system, a sprawling operation working across continents in poor and middle-income countries, is facing increasing negative media reports about its ethics and purpose.
In UN secretariats, the P5 have prevailed on successive secretaries-general to reserve favored posts for themselves. The US heads the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, as well as Unicef and the World Food Program; China, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Telecommunication Union; Russia has the relatively new Office of Counter-Terrorism, among others; France, the Department of Peace Operations; and Britain, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Given that most of these appointments are made by ministries of foreign affairs, they are based more on loyalty to P5 governments than on merit, against the spirit of UN Charter Articles 100 and 101.
Funding practices are the other main vector of influence. The UN Secretariat is financed through assessed contributions that designate percentages of the biennial budget to be paid by each member state, according to its economic size. But spending is micromanaged by bodies such as the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, which is dominated by the largest contributors and has to approve every post and its level. The secretary-general, designated as the chief administrative officer by the Charter, has limited authority even to reallocate resources.
Development activities are also strongly influenced by the major contributors and their dominance. Core contributions to development agencies, which can be used at their discretion, are stagnant or shrinking. The major donors earmark a growing proportion of their contributions by type and destination to reflect their own development agendas. Among multilateral organizations (including the European Union, the World Bank and the regional development banks), the proportion of earmarked funding to the UN is by far the highest — about 70 percent of total resources.
The major donors to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development attribute this high proportion to the domestic need for aid visibility, influence over the development agenda and closer oversight of spending — citing “perceived inefficiencies” of UN entities. The desire to patronize the UN development system thus reflects both a low level of confidence and a high capacity for bilateral influence. But earmarking, intended to circumvent UN inefficiency, actually undermines the system further.
The agency where earmarking has gone furthest is the all-purpose UN Development Program (UNDP), which receives barely a 10th of its funding as core. In spite of pioneering the normative paradigm of human development in the 1990s, the agency is so focused on growing its income that it will accept money conditionally from almost any source. For example, in 2006 it accepted its largest-ever bilateral donation from the Spanish government for what it called an “MDG Fund.” The priorities were not for the Millennium Development Goals but for eight “thematic windows” defined by the donor to benefit only 59 countries of interest to Spain.
More recently, just days after the full-blown invasion of Ukraine this winter, the Development Program accepted funding from the Russian government for a project of interest to the donor in Central Asia.
The agency takes money from other multilateral sources, like the Global Environment Facility and the Green Climate Fund, and from philanthropies like the Gates Foundation. But negative evaluations appear to justify donor mistrust of UN effectiveness. Environment programs highlighted poor accountability. An evaluation of UNDP projects funded by foundations in 2012 (in which this author was involved) found that “in most cases, it is difficult to associate partnership between UNDP and philanthropic foundations with demonstrable and positive developmental change.”
There is a growing number of tie-ups with large corporations as well. In Colombia, the UN development agency took money from a multinational oil company to benefit communities that would have been adversely affected by new drilling, an example of “blue-washing” of the private sector, for which the UN has often been criticized. “Well, welcome to reality,” was the recent response of Achim Steiner, the agency’s boss, to questions about its obsessive fund-raising focus.
Secretary-General António Guterres’s “repositioning” proposal for the UN to deliver on its 2030 agenda — the Sustainable Development Goals — stated that earmarked funds “often lead to unintended inefficiencies stemming from fragmentation, undue competition among entities and increased transaction costs for Governments.” In some cases, the proposal said, “they can result in investment in areas of need, but not necessarily those of the highest priority for Governments.”
The solution was a new “funding compact” to increase the share of core resources systemwide to at least 30 percent by 2023, double contributions to interagency pooled funds and increase agency-specific thematic funds. But such reform is hampered in practice by inherent contradictions in the motives of the major stakeholders, respectively: the big donors, the developing countries and the UN agency secretariats.
Apart from their misgivings about the usefulness of the UN in development, the governments of the principal donors are not unified themselves. Some express support in global debates for greater coherence and respect for the UN’s central values. But representatives of the same governments who sit on the respective governing bodies of the agencies continue to exert their influence through earmarking while professing to back the independence of those organizations.
Developing countries are equally torn in their approach to reform, since they enjoy the patronage that goes with a diverse system that twins their ministries with individual UN entities. Attempts by the UN to “deliver as one” — as the organization puts it — at the country level does not have universal support among developing countries.
Within the system itself, staff loyalties are strongly aligned with their individual organizations rather than with the more amorphous idea of a united family. Given the permanent preoccupation with resource mobilization — finding money — the performance of operational staff is judged according to their capacity for raising funds from donors, even if it means constantly expanding agency mandates. Fellow organizations in the UN are regarded as rivals rather than as potential collaborators.
The development system could help itself through more seamless internal alignment. Organizations follow different administrative practices, and some have bespoke information technology systems that inhibit interagency communications. Operating standards are not universal throughout the system, and in developing countries, some of which host 20 or more UN representative offices, administrative services are not shared.
Still, the most likely prospects for achieving more cohesion and relevance in the development system lie in country operations. Under the latest reforms, UN resident coordinators have been given more authority and resources. Their leadership is key, but the current generation of resident coordinators consists mostly of reappointed UNDP representatives rather than freshly recruited development specialists. Even when newly empowered resident coordinators are installed, local representatives continue to take their programming orders from capitals. The UN’s own analysis maintains that “UN resident coordinators consistently report that they have limited capacity and prerogative to avoid duplication of efforts in the country team.”
Earmarking continues to rise in the development system, some of it through multipartner trust funds. These pool the contributions of donors to support thematic priorities or countries. But they still account for less than 10 percent of UN operational financing. In May 2022, World Health Organization member states agreed to gradually increase core funding from 16 percent in 2021 to 50 percent by the end of the decade. Progress elsewhere is stuck. A recent report from the UN revealed that the proportion of voluntary core contributions to development have actually shrunk, compared with the level in 2017, and is further than ever from the 30 percent target.
These are not happy days for the UN. Of its four major functions, its development system has become the child of donors amid accusations of ineffectiveness; its peace operations are absent in the main theaters of conflict; and human-rights abuses are becoming more widespread. Only the UN’s humanitarian relief operations are showing rapid growth, but the biggest of the human crises that the UN is called on to ameliorate — including Ukraine, Yemen, Libya and Myanmar — are those the UN has proved unable to prevent.
This is an opinion essay.
We welcome your comments on this article. Can the UN Development Program be saved? If so, how?
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.