A big, argumentative UN family?

17 May, 2012

Roger Williamson, Visiting Fellow, Institute of Development Studies , University of Sussex, writes:

On day two of the ‘New challenges, new partners, a new UN development system?’ conference, the UN family is behaving like a family – a big argumentative family. Nothing new there, then. You didn’t choose them, you can’t leave them, you know them too well, but do they get on your nerves. You choose your friends, but you have to sort things out and somehow get along with the family.

We should be celebrating the huge achievements in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – “the world’s biggest promise” – but others say they were too modest and reductionist as a measure of development and the goals on child and maternal health are badly off track.

Big powers in “sensible parent” mode want the organisations to shape up, concentrate on key tasks, not be all over the place with too many interests and not have overlapping mandates. Big powers want the organisation to be leaner, more focused and have more integrity. The Europeans (Yes, us models of economic management and cooperation!) get irritated by waste and the clash of management systems.

In any case, the big donors don’t channel that much through the UN. According to the OECD DAC, $140 billion in aid is mostly given bilaterally. $54 billion goes into the multilateral system of which $38 billion goes into core support. In all, the UN development system gets about $16.7 billion. With the exception of the US (who give a lot to the World Food Programme), big donors don’t like using the UN system. They think they do it better.

Then we get onto to the “shape up” agenda. There is noone quite like a family member to tell you, you ought to be leaner and concentrate on what you should be doing. In times of financial stringency, it’s always more convenient for someone else to tighten their belts to save you money. There is then also criticism of uncoordinated fundraising from bits of the system. But if you cut the budget, then using free market logic, the UN agencies are likely to join the fundraising free-for-all.

All institutions are partly dysfunctional, but we heard an inspiring example of how the UN really got into gear to help Pakistan after the major earthquake. The disaster response got into gear straightaway. Many lives were saved in the immediate aftermath of disaster. Substantial funds were raised immediately for the reconstruction effort.

There are institutional vested interests and overlapping mandates. Merging all the relevant agencies got done – but it was hard enough to do. And the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) (with the lead on family planning) stayed outside. What chance system-wide consolidation?

Then the conference got onto “what next” – do we have a new set of international development goals after 2015? There are three strategies around, 1) extend the deadline and fulfil the promises especially on MDGs 4 and 5 (child and maternal mortality), 2) MDG plus – add some additional goals, or new start, or 3) use a different methodology for example Sustainable Development Goals.

Since the formulation of the MDGs and the Millennium Summit, much has changed: awareness of the development impact of climate change, the energy, food security and economic crises, the rise of the BRICS, new donors entering the aid field. Trade, remittances, infrastructure needs, developing a more coherent system (a focus on human security?), a more coherent approach to industrialisation, fair trade, increasing the tax base and clamping down on leakage of huge sums to tax havens – there are so many good suggestions and urgent priorities. The message is always the same – do more, do it urgently, do it better on less.

There is a new focus on inequality and the damage it does. But absolute poverty is still a strong factor – even if most of the world’s really poor people now live in “middle income countries”. A sobering statistic brought us up short – still only 4% of Africans have an income of $10 dollars a day.

So there is much to consider – and good luck to the organisers who need to bring it all together in a couple of morning sessions. Work continues ……

 

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