UN Development System reform: an unnecessary setback

This blog is written by Dr. Max-Otto Baumann, researcher at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), Bonn, and Andreas Grantner, graduate in International Development and Political Science, and intern at DIE as part of his Master’s degree in Political Science at Vienna University. From March to July 2016, Dr Baumann supported Prof. Töpfer in his capacity as co-chair of the ITA.


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has provided the field of international development cooperation with a new vision and political momentum. Implementing the agenda will be an immense challenge. At UN headquarters in New York, a reform process is underway to prepare the UN Development System for the era of sustainability. Following an 18-month dialogue between member states, in the course of which an Independent Team of Advisors (ITA) co-chaired by Klaus Töpfer and Juan Somavia has presented ambitious proposals to manage that change, the reform process will now enter into a second phase of intergovernmental negotiations in late 2016.

During an ECOSOC meeting in June, the Secretary-General explicitly acknowledged the work of the advisory group by stating: “I trust we will all benefit from this bold diagnostic work and consider their wide range of proposals.” At the beginning of August the Secretary-General published his report which is meant to inform the upcoming negotiations. Unfortunately, the ITA recommendations are only mentioned in a cursory fashion in its introduction. As a result, the report falls far behind member states’ willingness to reform as articulated during the dialogue phase.

ITA recommendations: More “system”, less bilateralism

There is unanimity among member states concerning the main reform goals: the efficiency, effectiveness and coherence of the UN development system need to be strengthened significantly. The ITA focused primarily on the headquarters level. Substantial improvements on this level would not only support country level delivery, but would mean a step-up for UN multilateralism as a whole.

The ITA’s key recommendations were: to establish a central executive leadership position for steering and managing the UN development system; this person (ideally at the rank of Deputy Secretary-General) would be in charge of the Resident Coordinator system which is currently run by UNDP (the Resident Coordinator is a kind of UN ambassador that coordinates the work of the various UN agencies in a developing country); to introduce a system-wide budget to allow for a better overview and planning of UN development cooperation; to introduce central pledging conferences to reverse the trend of “bilateralisation” caused by the rise in earmarked funds; the establishment of a system-wide Sustainable Development Board which would replace the executive boards of the various UN funds and programmes in the medium-term; and finally to strengthen ECOSOC for political governance of the global sustainability transformation.

All these recommendations are “bold and provocative” in the context of the UN – exactly what the ECOSOC bureau had asked from the ITA. Together, these recommendations have the potential to start a much-needed modernisation of UN development cooperation. At the same time, the ITA proposals follow the direction of previous reform proposals, and accordingly stand on the firm foundation of an expert consensus formed over decades.

The Secretary-General’s report: Incremental adjustments instead of a root treatment

While the report of the Secretary-General also calls for fundamental changes; for example, it demands a “cultural change” within the UN Development System and “new ways of organising”, it falls short of presenting transformative reforms commensurate with the goals outlined above. The proposals are almost exclusively of an incremental nature, staying well within current bounds.

Some of the proposals are to be welcomed: the report rightly asks for strengthening “pooled funding” to reduce the system’s fragmentation. Evaluating and rationalising the UN country presence (there are currently 1432 bureaus in 180 countries) is an urgent matter, as is strengthening the ties with international financial institutions to improve financing for development. Furthermore, the proposed initiation of a reflection process about the role of the UN in industrialised countries is definitely worth considering.

Almost all recommendations by the Secretary-General follow the principle of “self-coordination without authority”. Expressed pointedly, the report prescribes dental floss where a root treatment would be required.

A difficult reform process that calls for leadership

The report clearly bears the signature of the UN Development Group (UNDG), the 31 UN organisations and agencies that are active in the development sector. These proposals are mainly limited to the country level, with little consideration given to structural reforms at the level of headquarters. More ambitious reform ideas are rejected with reference to ongoing adjustments. This suggests that the system cannot reform itself; it takes a force from the outside to stop and reverse the current course of self-aggravating fragmentation and “bilateralisation”. But member states have found consensus only on abstract goals, not on specific reform proposals. There is a fear that “centralisation” – in New York, this term is like a red rag to a bull – infringes on the sovereignty or, at a minimum, the interests of member states.

Against this background, the Secretary-General’s report is a missed opportunity to provide top-level support for the reform process and the more ambitious proposals of the ITA in particular. The reform of the UN development system, the largest sector of the UN with $28B in revenue annually, touches on a core function of the UN: the struggle for a more sustainable and just world. Hence, the reform should be of direct concern for the Secretary-General. However, given that his term of office expires this year, he seems to have opted to avoid fixing an agenda for his successor.

Nevertheless, he could very well have lobbied for the most ambitious, yet realistic, reform options instead of gravitating to the smallest common denominator. As such, the hopes now rest with member states’ negotiating skills and the first 100 days of the incoming Secretary-General in which structural reforms can be initiated.

Be the first to comment on "UN Development System reform: an unnecessary setback"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*