New UNDP administrator looks to define agency's value, create fresh strategic vision

Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Photo by: Devex

NEW YORK — As the entirety of the United Nations eyes reforms, the United Nations Development Programme is waiting on how those changes might dictate its future. But the agency with perhaps the broadest mandate is also developing plans of its own.

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The future of the UNDP will be informed by the reform agenda and by the Sustainable Development Goals, but “UNDP's value must be independent of some of the structural and organizational issues. Our core mission has to be clear; our function in the U.N. has to be articulated clearly,” Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator who took up the post in June, told Devex in an interview on Sunday.

While the agency works to create a new strategic plan, it’s looking to address major development challenges while maintaining its focus on providing governments with the best advice and access to best practices, he said.

“The idea that we're coming together to solve planetary problems, to recognize that income inequality can ultimately undermine economic progress and unsustainable development can destroy what we call development, these are core elements of the SDGs and they are central to the UNDP,” Steiner said. “I think that trust that UNDP enjoys is one of the great assets both for the organization, the countries but also for the U.N. system.”

Steiner acknowledges that change will be challenging but also that the U.N. and the agency he now leads must change.

“We have to change the focus of our work, we also have to change the way we deploy ourselves,” he said. “Clearly the world on the one hand looks to the UNDP as a central partner, as a backbone of the U.N.'s development system, at the same time we also see that we are not able to bring the different strands of the U.N. family together well enough.”

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Changes such as whether UNDP’s current resident coordinator system will continue, or what form it might take in the future, are up to member states and the secretary general. But the UNDP represents a platform for governments to seek services both within the agency and throughout the U.N. system, Steiner said. The question now is how the agency can better connect different parts of the U.N. to different ministries, or connect different countries with one another.

“I think our challenge right now is to make the sustainable development goals really drive change in the way national government organizational structures work but also how development is framed,” Steiner said. “The national conversation about development in every country needs to evolve alongside this notion of universality and integration that the SDGs represent and I think that is an immense task.”

UNDP will continue its focus on policy and governance and helping countries, including helping countries put in place the necessary institutional and policy frameworks. And it will also look to play a role in helping answer questions of how to finance development and climate goals.

“When we talk about SDG implementation or the Paris agreement, I think we have to face a very harsh reality: If we cannot answer the question of financing this transition, it will not happen,” he said.

So one role UNDP should take on, he added, is helping governments think through domestic resource mobilization — from fiscal policy and taxes to financial markets and how local financial systems are aligned with development objectives.

“What incentives do we have to create so that business and investors and banks don’t continue investing in yesterday’s economy but help countries to actually make that transition?” Steiner said. “UNDP, together with other institutions nationally and internationally, has a tremendous opportunity but also responsibility to assist governments in answering that question. Because if we cannot answer that then we are simply putting a very high bar that nobody can really jump over.”

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.