Why does the UNDP exist?

A few years ago there were regular stories about the US failing to pay their full UN dues; the Senate refused to authorise the payments because of perceived waste on the part of the UN. In a bit of knee-jerk anti-Americanism I used to think this was a perfect example of the US refusing to play by international rules (also e.g. refusing to sign up to the ICC). Now I am not so sure. I suspect that many of the Senate’s objections were based on conservative ideologies with which I have little truck, but I do question why much of the UN system exists, and now I note that the new UK government has similar concerns.

My view is this; the UN is an incredibly important institution for international peace, law and order. If the UN did not exist we would have to invent it or something very similar. And much as some American libertarians may object, I think they should be as subject to international norms as everyone else. However, although the UN is hardly a perfectly equitable structure, it’s founding principles are about giving everyone (or at least every country) a voice and a stake. It is, by its own definition, far from a meritocratic institution.

I have never worked for any UN institution, but I have plenty of friends who have, and they all complain about stifling bureaucracy and a hideously inefficient organisation. Kofi Annan carried out various reforms which I am lead to believe improved things significantly, but there are still far too many time wasters and placemen from UN member countries whose paper qualifications somewhat flatter their actual abilities. Of course not all UN agency staff are a waste of space, but enough are to significantly hinder their operational effect. There are apparently more UN development agencies than there are developing countries! (HT: Owen Barder, see also Aid Watch.)

The Economist made an interesting argument (sorry no link) that bilateral agencies should get out of much of direct aid management, thus simplifying aid delivery for over-stretched recipient country governments, and let experts from the World Bank do it. I agree completely except that the World Bank’s record on many development projects is abysmal. (I am not in a position to comment on the Bank’s other functions at macroeconomic level and supporting the finances of developing countries.)

Bill Easterly has called for a more market oriented approach to aid and development, and I think this is part of  the solution. Massive, non-meritocratic, inefficient UN behemoths should get out of the way, and let smaller, nimbler actors who can actually deliver change in the field take over. Not all will succeed, but we need to allow for failure.

There is a joke here that upon returning from any business trip UN staff must fill out a trip report, the obligatory first sentence of which is “The trip was a success.” The UNDP and its brethren have not been a success. Some international political oversight is useful and needed, not least to prod governments who may not be actually doing the best by their citizens, e.g. Sudan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe. But not running the projects for which they clearly lack the management nous.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jon on June 18, 2013 at 5:22 am

    The purpose of UNDP is not to ‘provide international political oversight’ but to build the capacities of nations to run themselves effectively and democratically. If you are going to criticise the purpose of something, at least begin with an accurate understanding of what that purpose is. You muppet.


    • Hi Jon. Thanks for your comment. There are many organisations out there that seek to “build the capacities of nations to run themselves effectively and democratically”. None seem to be very effective, perhaps because that is a naively technocratic description of a thoroughly political process. The question is what does the UNDP bring to the table through being part of the UN? I venture to suggest that it has some added legitimacy because of the open forum nature of the UN, and that ultimate ownership by all UN member countries provides some kind of political oversight to the supposedly technocratic endeavour of development. It might be a good theory, but in practice it does not appear to work. If we accept there is at least a role for technocratic interventions, then such interventions are best guided by genuinely meritocratic institutions, which, from all that I hear, the UN is most definitely not, despite the many talented people who do work there. I wonder whether the UNDP might perhaps best be reduced to a much smaller convening role in each country that it operates. Am I still the muppet?


      • Posted by Jon on June 20, 2013 at 2:24 am

        In all honesty, I’m not too sure that political oversight is such a distinct feature of UNDP. Almost all development organisations are in a country because the government allows them to be, and is usually part of an international network or partnership that they signed up for. I also feel that the strategy to build capacities is sound. Yes, meritocracy would be nice, but most bureaucracies – in international organisations and national governments of both developing and developed countries – struggle to achieve this. Yet, some bureaucracies are more efficient than others. But I can’t deny that they way UNDP are implementing this strategy is ineffective.

        The way I see it, the UNDP, like any bureaucracy, wants to continually expand and take on more functions. If you allow a bureaucracy to grow without restraint, it will bloat into a monstrous complexity of rules and regulations layered upon more rules and regulations. It’s now reached the point where the monitoring and evaluation process of a tiny project in a developing country is now facilitated by bureaucrats in several developed countries, all of which are highly paid, and have no first-hand experience of what is going on the ground. As a result, more energy, money, and time is spent on M&E / audit rather than the substantial outputs of the project itself.

        It’s ridiculous when a development organisation flies in an M&E ‘specialist’ business class and on a large subsistence allowance / salary, to monitor a project with a smaller value than their entire itinerary. I like the UNDP’s role, but they could do with cutting down on the bureaucracy and focusing resources on the actual projects which they help develop and guide.

  2. […] and a half years ago I asked: why does the UNDP exist? Last night I chatted to a couple of UN staffers (albeit from different agencies). They also were […]


  3. Posted by RS on February 9, 2014 at 5:56 am

    I’ve just found this blog and am thoroughly enjoying reading it (in addition to Blatterman, Barder et al). I worked for a public admin reform project in a provincial office for UNDP and I totally agree they are useful for doing the diplomacy, policy, coordination roles at higher level – but NOT implementation. I’ve never worked in a more ridiculously bureaucratic organisation, not to mention one that didn’t like to hear the word ‘mistake’ or ‘fail’ even though development is about trial and error. They didn’t even do the planning side of the project well, which led to some questionable outcomes. There was more reporting of meetings and paperwork to show ‘work’ had been done (or at least lots and lots of meetings) than actual work. If they could spend more time on donor coordination and less on PR, that would be helpful.


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