United Nations Development Program Administrator Helen Clark during the ministerial meeting to mark the agency’s 50th anniversary. How can the UNDP help meet the sustainable development goals? Photo by: Freya Morales / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

Fifty years from now, the United Nations Development Program might look more like a knowledge-dealing think tank than the “face of the U.N.” on the ground around the world. But it has a few tasks to tackle before then.

UNDP will work on strengthening transparent governance that benefits all of society and helping countries adapt to the behemoth challenge of climate change, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark told Devex in New York ahead of the agency’s 50th anniversary ministerial meeting last week.

Since its creation in 1966, UNDP has been charged with leading the U.N.’s “global war on want.” But underneath the ambitious axiom, the agency has been engaged in the tough grind of examining changing drivers of poverty — and iterating on its original mission in order to address them.

“The way we’ve changed is reflected in the changes in the development context: More actors, more middle-income countries, and a lot of emerging challenges,” Clark told Devex.

Clark, who took the helm at UNDP in 2009, wasn’t the only one sharing what she thinks currently tops the agency’s list of priorities. Representatives of more than 120 countries, including presidents, prime ministers and ministers from more than 80 of them, convened at U.N. headquarters in New York last week to help determine how UNDP could best serve them in translating ambitious global commitments into concrete action.

It’s a long list that includes aiding in knowledge sharing and strengthening regional collaboration. But overall, feedback from representatives was constructive and reflected the respect and reputation for integrity that UNDP has strived to earn with Clark’s ambitious strategic plan. Once a central funding source for specialized U.N. agencies, leadership has worked to transform it into an implementer with in-house expertise that works collaboratively with local communities.

A move to the middle

Country representatives praised the role UNDP now plays in middle-income countries, a shift Clark also stressed to Devex. The agency was formed to address the needs of low-income nations, but the role of regional bureaus and the agency as a whole has had to keep pace as gross national incomes rise.

Lower-middle-income Moldova, where UNDP has aided in staff training, building transparent public administrative systems and empowering local government, is one such country.

A lack of good governance and nontransparent financial planning makes risk mitigation increasingly difficult, a representative from Moldova said at the ministerial, stressing their need for stronger institutional capacity to align with development priorities.

In other countries, assistance has taken the form of environmental and energy conservation promotion. The agency is supporting projects in Romania, for example, to revitalize urban areas and improve energy efficiency in low-income households.

Vasile Dîncu, minister of regional development and public administration for the upper middle income country, cited Romania’s “long and beautiful story” with UNDP starting in 1972, and thanked the agency for helping to identify the “right path forward for development.”

Dealing in knowledge

Other government representatives expressed interest in more knowledge-sharing initiatives and strengthening “south-south” collaboration, especially when it comes to resilience initiatives to address climate change, a “threat to sustaining human development” that UNDP is well positioned to help with, Clark said.

“We’re looking at the hills we have to climb to build resilience, to sustain human progress with dramatic natural forces aided by human intervention threatening to wipe out people’s prospects,” she told Devex.

Clark cited climate change’s impact on agriculture-dependent Ethiopia, a country with one of the fastest growing economies in Africa that is also experiencing the worst drought in half a century, and pointed to the severe weather that has the Philippines struggling to recover from one of the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded.

During the ministerial, Saint Lucia’s Alva Romanus Baptiste, minister of external affairs and international trade, also drew attention to small island nations and the feeling that instead of making progress, they’re “always trying to build what once existed” as infrastructure, like bridges, are regularly lost in floods. Building a backbone, like early warning systems, to withstand a changing environment will be crucial, Baptiste said.

Delegates repeatedly raised the issue of south-south cooperation across all contexts, as well as the need to share positive, practical experiences and innovations. Ghana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hanna Serwah Tetteh believes UNDP can be an effective institutional mechanism for learning across regions and “help us to know what will be the better fit in our circumstance and to better inform national planning,” she said.  

Conversation also turned to more regional collaborative frameworks for disasters, and whether, for example, Australia’s National Adaptation and Climate Change Research Facility could increase its work with research institutions in different regions.

And countries aren’t necessarily looking for what might be seen as traditional measures of knowledge sharing, like academic papers, but rather for "relevant countries policy makers' or practitioners' direct advice," said Zhanar Aizhanova, Kazakhstan’s minister of economic integration.

“I should own the outcome of the project and I should be able as a representative of government to enforce and implement this advice,” he said. “It will not be collecting dust.”

Its widespread, country-level presence and effective outreach to both government and civil society should allow UNDP to deliver on this desire. It’s that same reach that positions the agency to play a crucial role in supporting countries to make policy reforms to raise their own funds, manage them effectively and attract private sector investment. 

With the need for development finance never greater, there were calls during the ministerial for improving macroeconomic monitoring and access to long-term private capital for middle-income countries as well as aid in mobilizing resources domestically, perhaps by reforming tax practices.

While UNDP can help address these needs, Abdul Maal Abdul Muhith, Bangladesh’s minister of finance, urged countries to dig deeper into their own pockets.

“Forget about $3.5 trillion, think about what is required, what is possible for you,” Muhith said in reference to the estimated price tag per year for the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda.

A promise for more change

A few representatives also called for UNDP to take an even stronger role in ensuring integration and coherence within the larger U.N. system, an issue that is on Clark’s mind as well, especially as it relates to the transition from crisis response to development work.

“The old relief first, development later approach doesn’t work,” Clark told Devex. “Syria demonstrates beyond a doubt that it doesn’t work.”

UNDP’s work supporting host communities in Syria’s neighboring countries “will make us a better lead now and for the future with work in other such contexts,” she said.

And Clark promises more change. Now that she has delivered on the first part of her goal — the creation of a new strategy to promote an integrated results and resources framework as well as the structural changes within UNDP to support it — she has her eye on making sure the agency’s business model is consistent with reality.

That reality, she explained, is the imbalance between core, or government, funding and noncore funding, which consists of contributions by foundations, the private sector and individuals and is earmarked for specific programs.

“The more successful you are at noncore mobilization, the more successful you will be in general,” she said.

This year’s exercise, she said, will be to transition to a more robust business model that takes that imbalance into account and strives to make noncore resources more flexible and aligned with strategic plans and national priorities.

“We are not what we were in 1966 … what we are today is not what we will be in 2030,” Clark said in her closing remarks at the ministerial, adding that she won’t soon be forgetting Sierra Leone’s description of UNDP: an “SDG accelerator.”

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.