A vision of UN development reform takes form, amid funding concerns

A view of the Manhattan skyline from the United Nations headquarters. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations is moving toward implementing a development reform strategy that will revamp in-country coordination, but experts and former U.N. officials say financing is still an issue ahead of the January 2019 reform launch.

The U.N. General Assembly formally approved the development reform in May, paving the way for negotiations on specific changes like a funding compact by member states.

The new Resident Coordinator system is at the heart of the reform strategy, intended to help streamline work across U.N. agencies, boosting their “accountability and overall coordination,” Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in a December 2017 report to the General Assembly.

UN approves reforms for a more transparent, efficient system

In May, the U.N. announced a new reform plan — with an emphasis on the resident coordinator system and synthesizing its work — that will formally launch in January 2019.

RCs, while also serving as United Nations Development Programme country heads, are responsible for coordinating U.N. agencies within countries where the U.N. operates. Under the reform plan, the roles would no longer be filled by UNDP officials, and instead will have independent offices and staff that report to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.

This key change in RCs’ work could help prevent duplication of U.N. efforts — a common critique of the organization’s in-country work — and encourage the U.N. to “work as a whole” within countries, said Sarah Cliffe, the director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and the former Assistant Secretary-General of civilian capacities at the U.N.

“This is a really important agreement for the U.N. It does one thing, which is absolutely key, in that it empowers the authority of the U.N. representatives on the ground in each country, in the field, to be able to have much more strategic direction and control over what the U.N. is doing and that should have a lot of benefits,” she explained.

But ahead of the planned January 2019 remodel, some analysts see cause for concern over how the plan will be sufficiently funded. Currently, the basic cost of the RC system — $175 million per year — is paid for by UNDP, and Guterres is calling for an increase of $80 million to the system. He is also asking for a discretionary integration fund of $270,000, on average, for each resident coordinator office, or $35 million for a fund that would cover the RCs in 129 countries.

But with the coordinators no longer under the UNDP umbrella, the entire $255 million budget is slated to come from member states. None of the funding has been secured yet.

Cliffe said the U.N. has been attempting to empower resident coordinators in this way for two decades, but without making the staff independent, it was never really successful.

The U.N. RC system has been in place, without any updates, since 1979. RCs are typically tasked with the dual job of leading UNDP country offices while coordinating other agencies.

Their effectiveness is said to vary, dependent on individual countries and the coordinators themselves. In some cases, it may be difficult for an RC to successfully coordinate agencies, especially if an RC might hold a D-1 staff category, but aim to organize different agency representatives who are at a higher D-2 level. And the time they allot to the coordination work ranges, Guterres wrote in his December update on development reform. While some RCs split their time between their dual positions, others could spend the vast majority of their time on system coordination.

“Governments for years have been saying the U.N. system within country is dysfunctional and it is dispersed,” said Karina Gerlach, a senior program adviser at CIC and the former chief of the Office of the Under-Secretary-General. She added that the fact that UNDP was writing the paychecks influenced the way RCs balanced their workload.

“Because there were no [independent] funds for coordinators, a lot of your performance reporting came on the basis of whether you could raise money for UNDP. UNDP activities always got more of a premium for obvious reasons,” said Gerlach.

This meant that large U.N. agencies might not see merit in looking to the RCs for support.

“It really rested so much on the personal capacity of the RCs to be collegial and bring people around,” Gerlach said. “There was supposedly a firewall between U.N. activities and the resident coordinator activities, but there wasn’t. It did not happen in reality.”

Guterres’ reform plan also calls for a funding compact to make good on the development agenda. All of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals remain off track for achievement by 2030, U.N. experts said last month. 

In the plan, Guterres requested an increase in the percentage of the U.N. secretariat's core budget allocated to agencies, with a goal of 30 percent within five years, up from 21.7 percent.

The General Assembly adopted a $5.396 billion budget in December for 2018-2019 — $285 million less than it received for the 2016-2017 budget period.

It is still unclear how this funding compact will materialize, said Cliffe, even as the need for more stable funding sources is present.

“At the moment, one of the problems with the U.N.’s financing is each agency negotiates separately, with no reference to the other agencies. Most of the financing is earmarked for short-term projects, not long-term projects,” she said.

“We cannot see what the end result would be in authorizing a funding compact between the U.N. development system as a whole and its main donors. That is a much more structured way of funding. What the GA agreement does is it authorizes the start of [negotiations], but it does not say what it is going to look like at the end.”

The reform plan also calls for governments to mobilize funding to achieve the 2030 development agenda, to better harmonize internal data collection mechanisms, and to place increased focus on particular SDGs with noted gaps in progress — mainly, SDGs that focus on water and sanitation, energy, industry and infrastructure, sustainable consumption and production, as well as gender.

This plan is one of the three, parallel reform strategies — including management and peace building — in play at the U.N.

Gerlach echoed the sentiment that funding might pose a problem for plan.

“I do believe that the trust fund idea is plausible and it can happen, but when you want to systematize it with everyone giving contributions and so on and so forth it will be more difficult because there are going to be member states who will say, ‘You like the system, you pay for it— but we are not going to pay for it,’” she said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.