No.9 - August 2013

by Leelananda De Silva

The UN Development System – Taking it Local


Making the normative, policy and operational activities of the UN development system (UNDS) fit for purpose in the twenty-first century will require a dramatic shift away from inter-governmental conversations in headquarters towards a closer engagement with national and local governments

The UNDS is part of the new global order emerging in the twenty-first century. But interdependence has brought changes. The ultimate objective of a successful UNDS is to improve domestic policies of governments, which can best be done through a closer engagement with governments at the national level. The emphasis should now shift from the current practice of attaching much importance to intergovernmental and international discussions on these issues in places like New York and Geneva and other headquarters to a closer engagement with national and local governmental units. This requires radical changes in current UNDS policies and practices. A reconceptualization of the UNDS and its relations among its constituent parts and with governments is therefore imperative.

The circumstances and the factors that led to the creation of the UNDS from the 1940s onwards have changed dramatically.  Aid is now channeled mostly to a smaller number of countries, determined largely by their own needs. As a share of total official development assistance (ODA) the UN currently accounts for only 5% percent, but the UNDS is still organized as if it were the predominant partner of developing countries.  There has also been a shift in the definition of development itself.  It is no longer confined to economic and social aspects and is now concerned with political issues such as good governance, human rights, and the role of women and children, which governments are increasingly calling upon the UNDS to address. Unlike in the 1960s, there is significant differentiation amongst developing countries as these countries have undergone dramatic changes in their economic and social circumstances. A one-size-fits-all approach is now redundant. These circumstances require a dramatically altered UN development system.

UNDS bodies need to aim at greater selectivity and greater differentiation in their approach to developing countries.  Do China and India really require technical assistance from FAO?  The UNDS should not aim at more inter-UN coordination; it should aim at more coordination with government agencies or donors within specific sectors.  In this way, closer relationships between appropriate UN bodies and national entities will be encouraged.

Leelananda De Silva was with the government of Sri Lanka from 1960 to 1977.  From 1970 to 1977, he was in charge of international economic relations, particularly with UN agencies.  From 1978 to 1982, he was executive secretary of the Third World Forum in Nyon, Switzerland.  Since then, he has been an international consultant to the UN, working with 12 UN bodies including UNDP, UNCTAD, FAO and IFAD.
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