Constant reform has characterized UNDP throughout its existence. Change bespeaks an organization ready to adapt but also fundamentally uncertain about its proper role. It teeters between two sets of tensions. The first tension is between being both coordinator and competitor in the UN development system; the second tension is between exerting priorities from the center while being flexible in program countries. These tensions should be resolved to enable UNDP to be the UN’s human development organization.
UNDP has become a microcosm of the system it that it had originally been established to support, and with no funding from the center, the atomized UN development effort – comprising some 30 different organizations – is disjointed and incoherent.
Looking to the future, UNDP has a choice between continuing to follow the money (today more than a third of UNDP’s budget comes from private sources), or taking a more visionary and ultimately realistic route. The development landscape has fundamentally changed and UNDP needs to adapt. New development realities point to a re-orientation of UNDP, with implications for its substantive orientation, its funding role and its country presence. Highest priority should be given to fragile and conflict-prone states, while in the remaining 80 or so middle and upper-income countries, offices could be closed or staffed by local personnel.
UNDP has proven one of the most innovative UN organizations. Its energies need to be channeled away from the competitive quest for resources and towards helping to rebuild and re-fund a UN development system fit for contemporary purpose.