Between incremental change and big vision

18 May, 2012

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

Day three of the ‘New challenges, new partners, a new UN development system?’ conference, was a day of taking stock and preliminary conclusions. Some of the off-the-record conversations remind me of the old Soviet joke about work culture and the implicit contract in a planned economy. “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”. It seems to me that “The Member States pretend to be objective, committed and totally supportive, and the UN pretends to work hard at coordination and reform”. In fact, one participant said the member states should take much more of the blame for lack of progress – looking at the UN is like looking in the mirror, if you don’t like what you see, don’t smash the mirror.

Attempting to sum up, the organisers made some telling points. In looking for UN reform and a more functional development system, the attempt should be made to distil the essence of multilateralism – what can the UN and the UN alone do from its position of universal state representation? For example: establishing norms and standard setting, certainly; unique convening power. How can results management be improved? Even the UNs allies are now looking for demonstrable outcomes as a result of their support. There is also a much more focused awareness that the future shape of the UN Development System will depend on key priorities chosen.

There was a strong plea for the Millennium Development Goals and a successor set of international development targets to focus efforts – but even here there are caveats. Any new targets must be supported by recipient countries – there must be buy-in. It is also not clear what the process should be for arriving at new targets, whether they should be sustainable development targets or indeed (in some quarters) whether the approach of taking measurable goals is the best way forward.

There is still a big analytical agenda to work on, before even the task of implementation begins.

  • Is it a crisis? Don’t smash the system – it is imperfect – but necessary. Perhaps this is a good moment for the reassertion of the UN.
  • The FUNDS survey identified profiles of the UN optimists, neutrals and sceptics. The sceptics tend to be on the input side from rich countries wanting more system efficiency. The optimists tend to come from the recipient side wanting more delivery and resources.
  • The Delivering as One exercise has shown mixed results, but some are positive.
  • The old language of North-South has become much more complex – there are still countries which are structurally weak, conflict-affected poor countries cannot achieve the MDGs, even the BRICS have significant numbers of poor people but are increasing in power. South-South partnership is increasing in importance, but some of the new donors also prefer bilateralism to multilateralism.
  • The MDGs have been a success – not least in terms of communication and focusing the world community. But there is no room for complacency, particularly on child and maternal health, and the “next steps” are not obvious.
  • Funding and results are being linked much more closely. But how do you demonstrate effectively that funding for capacity building has been well spent?
  • System wide coherence is essential for development – security, human rights, environment, trade all have their role. It was also suggested that the UN is uniquely placed to look at flows – migration
  • here is a big debate around core and non-core funding. How can predictability in funding be achieved and rational decisions planned when so much of the funding is short-term and tied?
  • Evolution of the system to take fuller account of the private sector, NGOs/Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Foundations are all active or potentially active players. NGOs are not just service delivery agents, but should be regarded as active partners.
  • Reforms will be needed in the short and medium- to long-term.

Participants agreed that the FUNDS initiative should continue to explore these and other issues related to the reform of the UN Development System. The professors among us concluded that there is much more research which needs to be done. As a Swedish (professor) friend of mine warns – you have to be careful of professors and their “conference-building measures”. As always, there was a spectrum among us between the organisational pragmatists and those with big aspirations. But one participant from the South drew inspiration from the fact that visionary goals like Brazil’s “Zero Hunger” can win elections and get international “buy in”.

You never know what is realistic until you push the limits of the possible.

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