A New ODA Management Infrastructure – the UN to reform

Development Policy03 Aug 2010Albert Soer

Albert Soer elaborates on his previous response to the background article “Building a new structure” in the context of the online debate about Dutch development cooperation triggered by the report Less Pretension, More Ambition by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). He adds a proposal for learning from and reform of the UN.

In my previous contribution, I argued that establishing a EU body for Development Cooperation would constitute a significant simplification of the international ODA Management Infrastructure that is likely to have a beneficial impact on the delivery of aid, in line with what is also argued by Karel van Kesteren. Care has to be taken though that such a body does receive the right – rather independent – mandate and will NOT be integrated in the EU Delegations.

Such an EU body should not become donor number 29 in the EU, but it should replace existing channels of aid management. Establishing such an EU body therefore also means that there is no need to establish a national body (NL-AID or similar) and could possibly lead to a significant reduction in size of DGIS and the embassies around the world.

However, establishing an effective EU body will not be enough to create a more efficient and effective ODA Management Infrastructure. There are other organisational restructuring exercises to be implemented.

The longest debated re-structuring is probably the one of the UN. And, fair to say, there has been a response from the UN, calling its organisations to cooperate through the ONE-UN approach. And does it work? Well, no, not really. The internal resistance from the numerous UN-agencies to give up a sizeable portion of the individual power to decide and run their own show is apparently so high, that almost a decade after this initiative started we are still only looking at some individual (pilot) cases where the approach seems to have some success. I am afraid that a much stronger twisting of arms has to be done to force the UN system to reorganise. The first element of stronger arm twisting is again to be found in EU coordination, and to ensure there is a solid and unified voice from the EU member states vis-à-vis UN reform. Secondly, not so sexy and ‘bon ton’ but I believe it has become indispensable, time has come to turn the tap: reduce the funding if targets on reform on not met.

But then what should this UN reform be about?

Although the effort through the One UN approach to streamline what the different UN agencies are doing in a particular country seems logical and necessary, it actually is more of an effort NOT to change than to fundamentally (re)create an UN system that consistently has an added value. It is more an effort in the spirit like “let’s do better what we do”, then to question whether “we should be doing what we are doing”.

Paul Hassing in his contribution about Vision and Leadership proposes to: “Restructure the UN programmes, projects and agencies (FAO, WHO and others) into knowledge and policy centres (including policy coherence) to facilitate the dialogue between power blocks and analyse and discuss international trends”.

This is good thinking! And what seems implied by this statement is that the UN agencies should get out of development project implementation. But just as important, the UN is good at this. With more attention and focus, the UN capacity to manage knowledge and facilitate dialogue could become truly beneficial core functions of the overall ODA Management Infrastructure.

What Hassing is not mentioning is that the present UN-system also does have a number of other functions that are very good, and should be reinforced. There are at least three:

The Peace Missions (Darfur etc.). I would not like to see this removed from a UN mandate as at the moment the UN represents the best option to avoid more mayhem on bilateral basis.

International Conventions. The UN does a rather good job in the development and follow-up of the international conventions and I would not see how an alternative for this function could be developed that would do a better job.

Emergency assistance. This has been a learning path, but I think that the coordination established for the tsunami aftermath was rather well done. This could be further improved, as is witnessed by how things are going in Haiti. But getting it right probably means more concentration of action-power instead of diluting the means through ever more agencies. The UN is well placed to manage such a concentrated power to act.

In view of the above, I do not see much benefit – as Hassink is suggesting – in merging the World Bank into to this more concentrated set of roles for the UN system. More important is to develop a better co-existence between the World Bank, EBRD, EIB, IMF and the regional banks.

With the consolidation of the ODA management by the EU in one organisation instead of the present 20/30-odd ones and the UN not involved anymore in project implementation, a significant reduction in number of parties operating in the developing countries can be realised. As I also indicated in my previous contribution, this is one of the key drivers to reform. Without a significant effort to consolidate the supply-side of ODA, the potentially positive impact of aid on development is unlikely to be realised.