Posts Tagged ‘UN’

Why does the UNDP exist? (reprise)

Three 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 unable to provide an answer.

In their opinion though, some of the other UN agencies do seem to work quite well in middle income countries, who know what they want and have the capacity to provide overall management / oversight, whilst the UN agencies source neutral technical inputs, albeit rather expensively, and provide emergency additional funds when required. The problem is when the recipient government lacks the vision to stake out real leadership on most substantive issues, and instead spend their time chasing more donor cash, which is then often spent ineffectually as focus turns to the next grant opportunity.

Any supporters of the idea of a UN mandate to replace the entire government for South Sudan might want to take a moment to pause and consider the humungous bureaucracy that would result, and how, if ever, it would be possible to dismantle such a beast without returning the country to chaos. The current feuding in South Sudan is a tragedy, but surely there has to be a better solution than to bring in the UNDP! (Thankfully there are excellent other reasons not to pursue this option, which does not appear particularly likely.)


Paying for performance: the business class edition

Chris Blattman thinks that regular business class travel could be a symbol of all the wasteful excesses of the development industry*, and has suggested (symbolically, I am sure) that cutting back on business class travel by development agencies could be a new a Millennium Development Goal. But, as various commenters point out, there can be legitimate reasons for investing in business class especially for taller or older folk, and those who have to travel a lot (though I’m with Blattman on the issue of ticket flexibility being an irrelevance). So why, if you want to motivate your best staff would you want to take away an important symbol of your regard for their worth?

To me this question is the international jet-setting equivalent of the perennial poser of what to do about per diem culture in developing countries. Such payments are supposed to be reward for taking on extra or additional duties, and the hardship of being away from base, but have come to be completely subsumed in working practices as an automatic entitlement. I doubt that things are quite so bad amongst the the WB and UN global travellers**, but as symbols of their status as important people, I can see how business class travel and 5 star hotel accommodation is something of a badge of honour.

When evaluating these kind of perks, whether per diems or business class travel, the question that really springs to mind is: how good exactly are these best staff of yours? My experience of dealing with the UN system is somewhat limited, but my impression that its previous reputation for being something of a sinecure for the moderately accomplished is no longer accurate. However, even if your staff are geniuses (and I don’t hear many people questioning Jeffrey Sachs’s intellect), results from 60 years of international development aid are rather modest at best. Maybe humanity would actually be better off if some of these high powered folks were inventing whizzy new technologies or teaching the next generation rather than racking up air miles by the jumbo-load?

In conclusion, I am inclined to agree with Blattman that travelling business class as standard is indeed an unfortunate, highly visible symbol of wasteful overindulgence on the part of the aid sector. And in so far as it may encourage beneficiaries to puff themselves up with their own self-importance (as measured by the seniority of officials they meet rather than the extent of their actual achievements), then it could be worth cutting down on. But really I would mind much less if only I thought their work was delivering bigger results on the ground.

* My inference as to what he thinks it is symbolic of.

** For a start salaries are likely to be much better, so additional perks are not so important to overall remuneration.

Anti-corruption efforts: perfecting the art of isomorphic mimicry

UNDP has launched a portal on Anti-Corruption for Development. (To distinguish it from anti-corruption efforts that are anti-developmental??) It includes an anti-corruption poster for REDD programmes that, I am sure, is guaranteed to reduce rent-seeking and improper uses of funds.

Anti-corruption commissions and their ilk seem to me to be one of the worst uses of aid money out there. Because they almost never deal with the politics they only ever address a few low level symptoms (disposable scapegoats) and abysmally fail to tackle causes. And yet they are legion, and probably persist now quite happily without donor money, both for the sinecures they provide, and because, from time to time, they may be politically useful to chastise the opposition. Are anti-corruption commissions therefore the pinnacle of isomorphic mimicry? I think it could be so.

How about a Cash on Delivery solution? $10,000 for every successful prosecution (where the accused have had a fair chance to defend themselves), rising to $100,000 and $1million for more senior officials. Make the bounties high enough and in themselves they may even start to provide an incentive against corruption, because even if the current government are not inclined to follow through, the next one might be …

Book Review

Happy 2013 to all my readers. Hope you had plenty of festive cheer and all that!

If you went away did you experience the latest bit of air travel nonsense? I mean when, taking off and coming into land, they tell you to turn off all electronic devices, including a basic Kindle, but leave the airplane entertainment system going. Cos the ultra low energy requirements of e-ink are really going to interfere with flight computers over all the electromagnetic waves given off by those bright LED screens right in front of us, yeah right! Kindles (and other e-readers!) are perfect for those of us who regularly travel long distances, but alas our airlines are all still stuck in the 20th century, and so the e-readers suck for ~30 minutes of each flight.

Mini-rant aside, what you have on your e-reader ought to be much more interesting than when you are and when you are not allowed to read it. Part of my xmas relaxation was reading The Hydrogen Sonata*, the latest in Iain M Banks’ loosely related Culture saga. (The ‘Culture’ are a “post-scarcity, hedonistic, Machiavellian, libertarian … infinitely capable, technologically miraculous, polymorphously perverse” pan-galactic society of various humanoid races plus super-powered artificial intelligences that dominate the universe 10,000 years from now.) If you cannot stand science fiction and get weirded out by ‘little green men’ and related subjects then I suggest you stop reading now. Those of you still with me may nonetheless be wondering what a review of a sci-fi book is doing in this particular blog.

The answer is that horrible little cliché about art holding up a mirror to our world. Science fiction is no different in this respect from other art genres, and offers imaginative opportunities not afforded to story-telling situated in more conventional settings. Reviews of the Hydrogen Sonata on the interwebs (epitomised by that in the Grauniad from which I lifted the above quote) have centred on the major theme of religion in scientifically advanced societies that permeates many of the Culture books.

But reading it I was struck first and foremost by the incredibly strong parallels between the Culture’s efforts to deal morally with other alien societies and the conundrums of expatriates working in the Aid sector, especially in how to navigate the sense of neo-colonialism that permeates much of what we do however much we may wish it did not. The Culture’s almost omnipotent resources, of course, put in the shade even the best present day efforts of the international development movement, but can equally be read as a fantasy of how we wish the UN and other big agencies would work. Equally, as almost always happens in Banks’ novels, when things get martial, they are a fantasy of how we wish the American armed forces, technologically superior in every facet, would behave if they had the scruples we do. (Indeed Banks conceived the Culture as much as a reaction to the right-wing world view that is prevalent in much science fiction.)

So if you’re an expat aid worker in search of a rather more lyrical reaction to the contradictions of our lives than that provided by Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like, then I can heartily recommend a spot of Iain M Banks. From the short biographical details available it does not appear that he ever worked or volunteered as an overseas Aid worker, but he hits the nail right on the head time and time again. His books are both wish fulfilment for our frustrated, ill-informed work and a reminder of how far up our own arses we can sometimes go with moralistic agonising. They are also stonkingly well written!

If you are entirely new to the Culture universe, which can be pretty baffling, then starting with one of the earlier books (Consider Phlebas and the Player of Games), may be easier, but there are only very loose plot connections between the different books, so jumping straight in with the Hydrogen Sonata or one of the other more recent books should work fine for those more intrigued by the aforementioned parallels with the Aid world than with pure entertainment.

Happy reading for 2013!

* Disclaimer: I have no connection whatsoever with Iain M Banks or his publisher. I wasn’t even asked to review the book. I will not earn any affiliate / referrer fees through this link.

(Post updated later on 08/01/13 to correct statement of Bank’s inspiration for the Culture: as a reaction to right-wing imagery in other science fiction, not religion. Doh!)

Cooperation UN-style

“(The Evaluation Team) believes that the One UN approach is basically a good idea. However, the team has become aware that the management and transaction costs under a joint UN Agency Programme are significant. Therefore the team suggests that, for the future, in particular for: (a) managing funds … and (b) a possible follow-up phase, the UN Agencies should consider the idea of a programme led by one agency alone”

That is from a recent evaluation of UN environment-focused project that came my way. It doesn’t really matter which one. Elsewhere the report provided a bit more detail:

“The institutional, partnership, and coordination arrangements actually provided additional challenges to reach the intended objectives. It required three UN agencies with different setups/rules/regulations to collaborate”

Just about every grant we’ve ever been involved in has involved partnership and collaboration. Sure sometimes a bit of politics gets in the way – that’s human nature – but you push past it. It certainly should not get in the way of basic organisation effectiveness. If things get really bad then someone senior will arrive to knock heads together, and if that doesn’t work, then a few arses should be fired.

The UN is supposed to stand for international cooperation, not institutional fiefdoms. Some bilateral donors are known to behave similarly. I have a simple message for them all: please grow up or just get out of the game. Development is a challenging enough business without having to deal with squabbling donors.

Standing on your head

The pioneers of community-based natural resources management framed it firmly within the bottom up approach to development paradigm, and yet donors, recipient governments and the big multi-laterals (and some BINGOs) often find it really difficult to shake the top-down mentality.

“[Community-based fire management] training workshops designed to increase the expertise of practitioners should be conducted at the national and sub-national levels and should be followed up with an adequate level of technical support.”

That is the second practical recommendation made in the Executive Summary (not an obscure bullet point buried in an appendix) of a relatively new guide to community-based fire management (CBFiM) issued by FAO. A whole five pages are devoted later on to a dreary recitation of four such workshops FAO held around the world between 2004 and 2009.

If you wanted to design a big new national programme of CBFiM, which I wouldn’t, then I suppose something along those lines might be an early step, but I would recommend starting with one small workshop and a trial project, before expanding on a province by province basis. More to the point, to assume that is what all readers of that manual want to do strikes me as a spectacular lack of imagination on FAO’s part.

A gem of an oxymoron that appears in the background section declares (my emphasis added):

“Sources of ignition and fuels are local; thus, the systems and frameworks of fire management are often best established at the provincial level, while monitoring and analysis are usually best dealt with at the national level. Yet discussion and debate often take place without reference to the appropriate scale of intervention.”

Quite! It continues:

“To ensure that suppression occurs effectively at the local level, that is, that unwanted and undesirable fires are kept small, everything else in the fire management equation must occur at higher levels, including effective coordination and cooperation of all fire management agencies.”

Putting out the fire in my backyard requires coordination and cooperation of ministry or sub-ministry agencies? I could maybe just about live with this tosh if the report was not supposed to be specifically about community-based fire management. Alas!

Some people, unfortunately, really just do not get bottom up. That’s all right; I don’t really get ballet. Thankfully, this need not greatly concern the world of ballet. If only we could say the same for community-based conservation and development.

After the boom, the bust

After the boom years of the early 21st century now come the savage cuts to government services. As in the rich world, so it is in the poorer countries on the planet (those in the middle seem to be on an entirely different trajectory), except that the budgets being cut in developing countries are the essential services that are supposedly protected in the richer north, and they’re being cut because of rich world profligacy not out-of-control spending by poor country governments.

This is the back story to Sarah Bosely’s lament for impending cuts to the UN’s Aids programmes. It is a sorry story, and the likely consequence that some Aids sufferers will lose out on treatment is a tragedy, but there are several alternative tellings of this story that occurred to me.

1. How big was your boom?

If any part of the aid sector has boomed over the last decade or so it was surely the fight against HIV/Aids. Compared to malaria and other big killer diseases HIV/Aids received a greatly disproportionate share of the funds. UNAids people I know regularly talked in sums of  several million dollars at a time. Shiny new HIV/Aids treatment clinics were built right next to existing health centres which were then left to rot. Briefcase NGOs sprang up everywhere to absorb all the money being thrown at the sector. Villages received up to a dozen different Aids awareness trainings from different groups: pay the per diems or give out enough free t-shirts and people will show up, but they were bored of the message. Still the money flowed …

Guys, did you seriously not see this one coming? You thought the good times were just going to carry on forever? You didn’t think to squirrel some money away for a rainy day? (Ok, that was unfair, your budgetary procedures probably don’t allow it.) Maybe funding is just returning to the level that you could reasonably expect? Some robust belt tightening after the big splurge could maybe do you as much good as the UK’s debt-soaked consumers?

2. What budget discipline?

The immediate cause of these cuts may be recent profligacy by rich country governments, but to excuse their developing country brethren would be quite hypocritical. I’m insufficiently an expert to compare their sins with the Greeks’, but I would imagine that failing to account for outstanding debts from this year when preparing next year’s budget as they do around here must rate pretty high on the fiscal mismanagement chart of shame. I’ve also witnessed quite shameful splurging of funds before an election, leaving the country floundering the year after. These are the sorts of sins you can get away with when half your budget is provided by donors. I imagine international bond markets are rather less forgiving.

Dambisa Moyo famously favours drastic cuts to aid (20% per year for 5 years, ending at zero), replacing it with, amongst other, bond financing. I doubt the cuts in overseas development assistance will quite reach such proportions, but we may be about to find out what year one of Moyo’s programme of tough love would look like.

I very much doubt that there has been much in the way of serious planning in developing country treasuries for what to do if aid were suddenly to shrink dramatically, other than to complain very loudly about how badly it is hurting their country, especially the poorest people. This is part of the aid bargain, as outlined by Linda Polman; when aid funding drops recipient governments don’t divert money from the defence budget to make up the difference.

Should we just allow recipient countries to get away with such piss poor risk management? Or should we be applying some rather stronger medicine in the hope they start to live up to their responsibilities? I know Ms Moyo would approve …

3. Donor myopia, again?

Once again, promising programmes are being cut in their prime. Funding is phased out, and there’s no-one there to take up the slack. Yep we’re back in that ol’ complete-lack-of-sustainability trap again. Gosh, we haven’t been here before, have we?

Donors wouldn’t dare cut medication to Aids sufferers in their own country; this properly comes under obligatory recurrent spend, not an optional extra to be cut. The argument that cutting now will only further escalate costs in future seems pretty straightforward. I mean you’d have to be pretty myopic to see this as a saving to be made … I’m far from an Aids expert, but doesn’t the possibility of drug resistant strains developing also threaten our patients in the West? Maybe it’s time someone came up with a cleverer financing mechanism such that once we committed to providing antiretroviral drugs to someone, the funds to cover those costs for the rest of that person’s life were immediately set aside. Then there couldn’t be any more such nonsense. It also might have soaked up a big chunk of that boom funding.

Big variations in funding levels like this also make it very hard for developing countries to plan for the long term. Who knows when the money will be there and when it won’t? Hence a much greater proportion of funds in the boom times gets spent on short term fixes and fripperies.

So which story is right?

I don’t really know enough about the situation to say for sure which version is the most accurate. My guess is all three sides of the story have more than a smidgeon of truth – they’re certainly not contradictory. Saying everyone is to blame can sometimes be like saying no-one is to blame, but there can’t be too many managers involved in HIV/Aids programme in developing countries who are entirely blameless, and pointing the finger at the next person won’t help too much. But expect the Aids sufferers to lose out before those programme managers do.

As for all of us, I guess we’ll just have to hunker down, and wait for the next boom.

One tree per child?

In my email inbox this morning:

Side event, 4 February, Power of One Child + One Tree = A Sustainable Future for All

Dear collagues (sic) and friends attending the UNFF,

Please join us for a side event on Friday, 4th FebruaryFriday,
February 4 from 1:15 -2:45 pm in the UN North Lawn Building,
Conference Room C (flyer attached)

The event will highlight the importance of engaging and empowering the
world’s 2.2 billion children to plant and care for trees and forests
all over the world. Presentations will focus on school-based and
non-formal child and youth-led agro-forestry, indigenous tree
nurseries, and participatory education in partnership with the private
sector and REDD for community forest management for poverty

We hope to see you soon!
With kind regards from the team at Earth Child Institute

(UNFF = United Nations Forum on Forests = not the most respected international forestry organisation around.)

It is estimated that there are some 5 trillion trees on our planet. So, while I’m all for energising today’s youth around the importance of forests, the “Power of One Child + One Tree” appears to be < 0.05% of the current stock, otherwise known – if we can switch ecosystem for a moment – as a drop in the ocean. Either we need more children (?!?) or to increase the ratio dramatically.

More seriously, I really have my doubts about this kind of feel-good international PR puff. Exactly when or where does  it translate into action on the ground at the scales implied by the title? Good that some people somewhere are supporting “child and youth-led agro-forestry, indigenous tree nurseries, and participatory education”, but I don’t buy the puffery.

The Aid Effectiveness Officer

During my Xmas break I was able at last to put flesh to what, for me, was a mythical creature: the Aid Effectiveness Officer. The lead character in John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener is an Aid Effectiveness Officer, but I’d never previously encountered one. I had thought / hoped that they might only exist in legends designed to keep aid recipient bureaucrats on their toes lest they get a visit from the Aid Effectiveness Officer ghost. I even wondered whether they came in tripartite form: the ghosts of Aid Past, Aid Present and Future Aid. (Although, given the course of Aid history, maybe the Ghost of Aid Present would be the scariest; an IMF inspection team of headless wraiths?)

But now I can reveal to you the truth: yes Aid Effectiveness Officers actually exist – I’ve met one in the flesh. It was the season of goodwill and we were all pretty merry, so though one’s trusty blogger’s ears perked and nose twitched, the impassioned tirade had to be put to one side. “An Aid What Officer?” I wanted to ask. Are other Aid Officers not effective? Of all the things the Aid industry has sought to mainstream did they somehow forget effectiveness? … Cos if there’s one thing you’d think you might want to mainstream, surely that would be it?

In fact the guy talked some reasonable macro-economic sense and decried the dysfunctional government systems of the country where he worked. It’s maybe not fair to blame the guy for the job he does; we should blame the idiots who pay him instead. And, let’s face it, Aid often isn’t terribly effective, and could do with someone who could improve its tarnished record?

But, I’m not sure he should get off all that easily. He no longer works in the UN system, but is now a consultant. This may be as much to do with the UN’s own lack of effectiveness, but consultants are usually limited to short-term work, whereas in my book  one critical ingredient of aid effectiveness is long term engagement. So he’s raking in the money, advising his former employers, other donors and recipient countries how to be ‘effective’. One is tempted to wonder whether they might not all get better value for money if some kindly fellow would just point them the way to the self-help stand in their nearest airport bookstore?

Yes, alright, this is something of a rant, but I do have a problem with a system in which effectiveness is not required to be built in right from the start but which somehow has to be bolted-on on top. In business, if you’re not effective you’re fired, the company goes under, or both. And if you tried suggesting to your boss that you need a Business Effectiveness Officer, you might well be fired too.

Any human system is ultimately made up of the people within it. Awhile ago I asked: “Did you turn up to work today to alleviate poverty … or to claim your pay cheque?” I challenge any Aid Effectiveness Officer to answer that question without caveats.

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.

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