Helen Clark: Conference on "Future of the UN Development System"

Nov 18, 2010

Talking Points for Rt. Hon. Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator and UNDG Chair
On the occasion of the Wilton Park Conference on
 “Future of the UN Development System”
Thursday, 18 November 2010, United Kingdom


The three pillars of the United Nations’ work are to promote peace and security, human rights, and development.  

The UN development system has for decades not only been a principal vehicle for driving action on the development pillar; its work has also underpinned progress on the other two pillars.

To continue playing these roles well into the future, and in response to the evolving global challenges our world faces, neither the UN development system nor the many other actors in development can continue with business as usual.

Partner countries demand and expect much of us all, and the challenges our world faces are greater than the capacity of any one actor to respond effectively.
The strengths of the system
The UN development system has many inherent strengths.
Let us consider the counter factual:

1.    If the UN development system did not exist, we would surely need to create from scratch a system with its wealth of knowledge and operational capacity to tackle interconnected global challenges.

The humanitarian arm of the system reaches more than ninety million people with food assistance in more than seventy countries; helps vaccinate forty per cent of the world’s children; and assists over 34 million refugees and others fleeing war, famine, or persecution.

But the breadth of our work will not always be seen in such quantitative measures. We contribute to economic and employment strategies and women’s empowerment. We support biodiversity conservation and the development of smart climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, together with the capacity to access the growing amounts of funding available for those purposes.

We help develop health and education systems around the world. We support the development of clean electoral processes and public administration, parliamentary scrutiny, human rights and transparency institutions, and the rule of law overall.

The UN development system has a neutral and long-term in-country presence. That is critical for building access to and trust with national partners. It gives us a platform from which to respond to emerging development needs and to support statebuilding and peacebuilding in the aftermath of crisis. UN responses in sensitive governance and post-crisis areas of work often have a better chance of being acceptable than do bilateral interventions.

Overall, the UN development system’s approach must be to support nationally owned and sustainable capacities, and to build resilient and stable institutions.  That helps lock in development results for the long term, reduces the need for ad hoc responses by the international community in the event of crisis, and, by using ODA in a catalytic way, ultimately provides higher returns.

2.    As well, if the UN development system did not exist, we would need to create from scratch a system with equal legitimacy, universality, and convening authority - one which draws its norms and standards from the UN charter and host of conventions, and one which contributes bold ideas of global significance and generates collective international action to implement them.

The norm setting role of the United Nations is taken very seriously by Member States, guiding action on everything from the protection of human rights to the HIV/AIDS response. Part of the UN development system’s work is to support states meeting those norms and standards.
The UN development system has a track record of innovative thinking and of producing proposals which translate into policies and action.  
Take the Millennium Development Goals, which over the past decade have inspired unprecedented focused efforts to raise the living standards of many hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
Another has been the articulation of the human development paradigm, which, over twenty years of Human Development Reports, has changed the way the world views and measures development.
Building on the system’s strengths

The big issue before us now is how the system can further capitalize on and leverage from its strengths, advance the necessary changes in its approach and delivery systems which are already underway, and initiate new ones wherever needed.
We need to be flexible and forward-leaning in our thinking and actions, and be continually innovating and open to change.

We must have strategic and focused leadership at all levels, be responsive to each country’s unique development needs, and draw on the full breadth of all the expertise which resides in the UN system and beyond.

Our UN system must aim to be recognized as a top provider of choice for development services, as what it can collectively offer is unmatched by what any NGO, foundation, or bilateral donor alone can provide.

Many internal and external assessments reflect well on the system’s overall efficiency, effectiveness, accountability, and transparency.

It is my strong view that bilateral resources for development will in many cases have a bigger impact when they are joined with those of other donors, and centered on a common strategy. As bilateral donors reduce the number of countries in which they themselves are active, contributions through the UN development system and its infrastructure are an obvious way of maintaining broader engagement.

Let me now highlight four ways in which we can make and are making changes.

First, we are continuing to improve how our agencies work together at the country level.

A lot more co-ordination goes on than the UN development system is generally given credit for. It is driven at the country level by the UN Country Teams, led by Resident Co-ordinators, and is supported by the UN Development Group at the global and regional levels.

There is more joint programming, and an emphasis on responding more collectively to national priorities.

The most advanced co-ordination is to be found in the eight Delivering as One pilots and in those countries which have voluntarily adopted this approach, along with a host of other countries which are benefiting from the MDG Achievement Fund established with support from Spain.

What makes the process around Delivering as One unique is that change is being driven from the country level up - fostering national ownership. Indeed, the process wouldn’t get off the ground if host countries did not want it.

The findings emerging from the country-led evaluations of the pilots suggest that the hard work of the last three years is paying off.  

For example, national partners and donors report that UN Country Teams in the pilot countries are increasingly responsive and aligned to national development priorities. This is critical – we need to move from being supply driven to being demand driven if we are to maintain our relevance. I shall return to this later.

National counterparts in the pilot countries are noting that they now have better access to and are benefiting from the full range of the mandates, expertise, and experience that the UN agencies collectively bring to the table.   

There is also evidence that the simplified and harmonized operational processes being developed will lead to reduced transaction costs, and to a more efficient and effective UN development system overall.

The message from the outcome document from the Hanoi conference of pilot and self starter countries in June was that “Delivering as One is the future for UN development activities.”

We are making the lessons learned from the pilots available to those countries which are interested, while we await the independent evaluation of them and further consideration of the approach by the General Assembly.

Second, from the headquarters level down, the UN Development Group is becoming more strategically focused. For the first time, Strategic Priorities have been promulgated – making it clear that MDG achievement and national responses to climate change, support for fragile and transition countries, seeing through Delivering as One pilots, and harmonizing business practices are top of our agenda.

Across the UNDG, we know that we have to join up our responses to complex challenges, drawing on our diverse expertise. We have to seek win:wins for poverty reduction and environmental protection – so that efforts to achieve one don’t undermine prospects of achieving the other.

There needs to be a strong equality focus in our work – seeking to reach those at the end of the road who have yet to see the benefits of development reach them.

The background documents for this meeting list reform initiatives related to the UN development system going back to 1966.

I note also that a survey conducted by the FutureUN project found that seventy per cent of respondents agreed or somewhat agreed that by 2025 there should be fewer UN agencies, and that a similar percentage thought that an overall global head of development should be appointed. That of course is not something that either the Secretary-General or I as Chair of the UN Development Group can effect – desirable as it may be.  These decisions lie with Member States.

What is within the power of those of us who lead the system is to get it to work better in support of national development agendas.

That means overcoming the sometimes irritating organizational tensions which arise in the interests of the greater good.

It means empowering Resident Co-ordinators to make the tough decisions needed to lead and prioritize the work of UN Country Teams.  The incentives we have in place to encourage more inter-agency collaboration are a step in the right direction.

It means a wholehearted commitment to more catalytic approaches. Too often our development agencies are too heavy on project management, and too light in their ability to provide strategic and policy advice and to transfer capacity to programme countries. This is not unique to the multilateral system - it limits our development impact across the board.   

Developing countries are now looking to us all to support their making a step change in their development prospects. We have to engage in ways which will help move whole nations forward, so that the sum of our efforts is truly greater than that of its parts, and so that we maintain relevant and responsive actors alongside their development.

Third, we must leverage from the UN’s founding Charter and its convening power to inspire, lead, and co-ordinate the efforts of others, building alliances and networks for the MDGs and sustainable development, and for peace and human rights. We should, in 21st Century parlance, become the ultimate social network.

With the UN development system’s global presence we are in a position to share knowledge and experience of what works in development around the world. Across the South itself there are many proven approaches and interventions which need to be shared more widely with others seeking solutions.

We need strong partnerships with the wide range of development actors – after all, there is enough work for us all across the multilateral system, bilateral actors from North and South, NGOs, foundations, civil society, and the private sector.

On the latter, I think there is huge potential to inspire more companies to develop more inclusive business models which will be positive for development.

Fourth, we must be on constant watch to ensure that we continue to deliver value for money.  We need to make system-wide efficiency gains wherever we can.

All our agencies need to meet high standards for communicating results, and articulating what the contribution is that we make to national development achievements.  Too often we have been shy about saying what was achieved because of a strong belief that credit rests with the countries concerned. Of course it does, but that should not stop us being specific about what our role in their success was.

I would reiterate our need for adequate and predictable funding for “core” resources. That is what enables us to plan ahead and adopt flexible and strategic management approaches best suited to helping countries achieve their long-term development goals.

But I must also enter a caveat on what we can achieve. In fragile countries, UN Country Teams cannot be expected to pick up all the non-military roles of a well-resourced peacekeeping mission when it departs, taking assessed contributions with it. Nor can we perform miracles where states lack effective governance and capacity – although a primary focus for us is to build both.


It is undoubtedly true that if we could begin again with a clean sheet of paper, the UN development architecture would be differently designed with fewer agencies. It has grown like Topsy over the years, with the international community proving to be better at creating new agencies than merging existing ones.  

What is within the UN development system’s power is to co-ordinate closely to get the most development impact.

Sustainable change in this area takes time and patience, and certainly involves more than one flick of a switch. It requires continued commitment from agency principals, and unwavering support from Member States.

That means Member States communicating their expectations of better co-ordination and improved performance consistently through the governing boards of the UN agencies, so that all agencies get the same message.

With Member State support and with continued good will and professionalism from members of the UN Development Group I am sure we can improve our effectiveness on an ongoing basis.

UNDP Around the world