Steiner says new UNDP plan is not a cure-all, but a 'future-focused' push forward

Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Photo by: Freya Morales / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations Development Programme, one of the largest U.N. agencies responsible for reducing poverty and inequality, is backing a redesigned, “future-focused” plan that is necessary to face the world’s changing development and political challenges, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner told Devex.

UNDP rolled out its new strategic plan for 2018 through 2021 on Wednesday, and is now working to persuade member states to match its revamped strategy with an 11 percent growth in available resources, from about $23 billion to more than $25 billion over the next four years.

“This is the moment where member states and management of UNDP must also ask themselves: what is the future role of the U.N.'s development program? And I deliberately use the U.N.'s development program because it's not just about the organization,” Steiner explained in a sit-down interview with Devex in his Turtle Bay office, with a bird’s eye view of the U.N. headquarters across the street.

“I wanted to articulate a pathway for UNDP that is future focused, that recognizes that an institution like ours — big, multilateral, and public service based as it is — needs to face the challenge of being dynamic, of being accountable in terms of its effectiveness, but not to count beans and to cut costs.”

The UNDP, operating entirely with voluntary contributions primarily from donor governments, received close to $5 billion in financing in 2017 — offering an indication that the agency “obviously must be doing a lot of things right,” said Steiner, the former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. It also, however, has seen a recent decline in its total core resources.

Steiner’s appointment in April to lead UNDP — operating in about 170 countries with nearly 17,000 staff — presented a juncture, of sorts, to address some of the organization’s weakness, from administrative hurdles to lagging projects, as Steiner told the UNDP executive board this fall. “The arrival of a new administration is always a good moment in which both the member states and management take a step back reflect on what is working well and what needs to evolve,” Steiner said.

The new strategy provides another layer to the 2030 development agenda, which stresses a universal approach that leaves no one behind. It also sets the stage to respond to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres system-wide reform agenda, which remains in the works, but has called for greater synergy between U.N. agencies.

“An institution like ours — big, multilateral, and public service based as it is — needs to face the challenge of being dynamic, of being accountable in terms of its effectiveness”

— Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme

The potential practical implications of UNDP’s strategy will take time to materialize at the field and headquarter level, Steiner says. But the gist of the plan’s message is clear: International development silos need to be bridged, and the full impact of development work — and the cost of inaction — needs to be recognized.

That means, for starters, development work — and financing — should not be centered in just lower-income countries, nor should programmatic work on climate change, for example, be conducted in a vacuum, without considering the implications of other issues, such as gender inequality.

“Breaking down [the lines] is one way of putting it, connecting them is another — achieving synergies, just broadening the lens with which we look at the challenge of development,” explained Steiner.

The plan calls for UNDP to be “more nimble, innovative, and enterprising” in working to build resilience to crises and shocks and eradicate poverty by 2030, and it introduces a new framework for doing so with three development “settings.” These are eradicating poverty, structural transformations, and building resilience. This speaks to the recognition that what UNDP offers to countries must “cater to the very diverse needs” that exist, Steiner said.

“[The settings] try to move away from the polarization of: 'It's all about whether you're an LDC or a middle-income country,' and to say: 'Look there are different development settings in which our influence is needed, whether the focus is on poverty eradication, on structural transformation, or on managing risks and shocks and in strength and resilience.” Steiner said.

"[Inequality is] one of the most corrosive forces to national cohesion and peace and global security.”

While extreme poverty rates have halved since 1990, about 650 million people still live in extreme poverty. The majority of these people living in poverty are in countries such as India and China, which are considered middle income. Steiner called the rise of inequality in the past several decades “one of the most corrosive forces to national cohesion and peace and global security.”

“It's a harsh reality we face that, in a world where 1 percent own half the world's wealth, we are heading towards fractures, in the way we look at our societies in our lives that, more often than not, will tear us apart,” he said. “Because these are extremes that are very difficult to understand and certainly difficult to defend in a world where 800 million people still go hungry.”

Achieving gender equality and better use — and availability — of disaggregated data all factor into the plan.

“We also need to recognize that ... in trying to address issues of gender equality, of poverty eradication, of the hopelessness of youth when they look at future job prospects, you have to not only [have] defined terms of the problems, but also the enormous opportunities that are there,” he said. “What does technology offer us? What does a digital economy signal to a continent like Africa, where another billion people will join the current population over the next 30 to 40 years? We need to invest in future opportunities.”

Steiner cautioned against over-romanticizing the “power of development and development solutions,” to everything from global markets to migration. It remains, however, a necessary tool he hopes donors will recognize as UNDP seeks more support. “It is a relatively low cost investment in helping countries that are willing and ready to address these issues to move far faster and far more systemically in facing some of these challenges to their own national societal cohesion,” he said.

“If we are not willing to be part of addressing inequality, poverty, and some of the sustainability challenges we now face, then these problems start moving, in the form of migration, but also in terms of refugees and in terms of consequences on the global markets. This is part of the challenge of the 21st century,” he added.

Read more Devex coverage on the United Nations Development Programme.

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    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York 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.