Study: UN Development Needs Reform; US, Indian Ambassadors Agree

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A study compiling the results of two surveys on the need for reform of United Nations development activities was presented this week in the presence of US and Indian ambassadors who agreed on needed improvements, though with a North and South perspective.

The United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) Library organised a talk on 14 November in the context of a study released by the Future of the United Nations Development System (FUNDS) project, which is one of the ongoing activities at the US-based Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies co-editor of the study with the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

Invited to the talk on 14 November were US Ambassador Betty King and Indian Ambassador Dilip Sinha, as well as one of the authors of the study, Stephen Browne, and UNOG Director General Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

The study [pdf] entitled Making Change Happen: Enhancing the UN’s Contributions to Development was undertaken as the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is approaching.

The study analyses and summarises the results of two “global perception surveys” conducted by FUNDS in 2010 and 2012 with over 3,200 respondents from around the world.

Tokayev said the United Nations is at a crossroads when it comes to the future UN development system. Although the MDGs have brought “remarkable achievements,” the work is unfinished and challenges such as food insecurity, unstable markets and price volatility, and climate change, have to be addressed through a system that is both responsible, dynamic and tailored to address the needs.

Browne, presenting the findings of the study, said the development activities in the UN absorb about 60 percent of permanent staff. With 14 UN specialised agencies in charge of developing norms and standards, 5 regional commissions and 3 commissions under the UN secretariat, the UN is a large family. Browne said the study found three main challenges: organisational lack of cohesion, the declining relevance of the UN development system, and vested interests.

Among the issues faced by the UN development system are its institutional structure and its funding mechanism, with agencies competing with each other from the same donors, he said. The UN Development System (UNDS, as referenced in the study) ineffectiveness is illustrated by the growing number of alternatives such as large international non-governmental organisations, private foundations, regional unions, and corporate programmes, and a number of those alternatives “are perceived to be more approachable, responsive and cost effective than the UN,” according to the study.

Change is deemed necessary by all surveyed, said Browne. The UNDS has to take lessons from the evidence, Browne said, and maybe agree to pool funding, which would “be revolutionary” but would “create cohesion almost overnight.”

Vested Interests in Funding Not So Bad, US Ambassador Says

The US government, King said, believes that the UN is both indispensable and imperfect. There is no question that the UN is in need of structural reforms, she said. The multiplicity of the members of the UN family is hindering consistent decision-making and effectiveness of the programmes, she added.

The study, she said, focused on the downside of non-traditional funding sources and the fact that member states are earmarking their contribution to UN agencies. But this is a reaction brought by frustrated donors who felt they did not have control and very little leverage when all the money was pooled together, according to King.

A lot of donors decided to earmark and point out activities they wanted to fund. Governments face tighter scrutiny, and “people are going to demand better data on money being spent and results,” she said, adding that “ought to be seen as good.”

She took the example of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the world’s most successful donor. What Gates has done with his money has shown donor countries to get better results. “Now that the cat is out of the bag, there is no going back,” she said. “All donors are inclined to do this,” she added.

Multilateral actors such as the GAVI Alliance were able to harness innovation and private sector resources and apply them to programmes, she said. They have met the donor expectations and the needs of programmes at the same time. “We can’t argue with the success of that,” she said, adding that 45 percent of the WHO funding came from non-state sources.

Focus on Delivery Efficiency, Cost Reduction, Says India

Sinha said India has been on the forefront of the demand for UN reform. The UN needs to keep pace with the changing world, he said. India does a lot of work bilaterally, and uses the UN as well, but countries often feel that bilateral delivery is more efficient and cost effective, he said. “UN agencies have to look at delivery costs,” he added.

Efficiency in delivery is the most important factor that the UN has to keep in mind, Sinha said, and salaries and travel expenses should not monopolise the budget. Any organisation involved in the field of development should keep its headquarters costs as low as possible, he said, as money should be in the field. In the UN budget it is very difficult to find out that information, he said.

Sinha also said that projects today are less oriented towards infrastructure and this is hindering development as, for example, internet can only spread “when you have the infrastructure.” Food security also needs infrastructure in the form of irrigation facilities, he said. The multiplicity of UN agencies does not represent a problem if they do not overlap, and work towards a more efficient delivery system, he said.

However, many difficulties emerge from the lack of consensus among member states and the lack of clear direction, he said. Better coordination between countries and UN agencies is key to improving the delivery of the system, he said.

WIPO Average Score in Perception of Relevance

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is holding the 10th session of the Committee on Development and Intellectual Property (CDIP) from 12-16 November (IPW, WIPO, 15 November 2012).

According to the study which ranked the UNDS organisations’ relevance for today’s problems, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization were top of the list, while WIPO ranked 17th out of 31 organisations.

Catherine Saez may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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