No.14 - February 2014

by Robert Picciotto

The UN has Lost the Aid Effectiveness Race: What is to be Done?


Recent events have confirmed that the United Nations has a deep reservoir of goodwill worldwide, but its reputation is undermined by the ineffectiveness of its development assistance. UN agencies could improve their performance by implementing effective evaluations. However, the UN should not be judged solely on the basis of its development assistance as the organization also plays a key role in ensuring security, operating humanitarian missions, and setting global norms.  The current focus on aid results came to the center stage of development cooperation when the First High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness was held in Rome in 2003; effectiveness in aid delivery has remained a dominant policy concern.  At the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, in Busan in 2011, over 100 states endorsed a framework designed to sustain the relevance of the aid effectiveness agenda in the context of a transformed development landscape.

A new post-2015 development agenda is currently in the works, and donors are again being called on to increase official development assistance (ODA) to 0.7% of their GNP.  The bar set for the replenishment of aid resources channeled through multilateral development assistance organizations will be raised and the competition for core contributions to UN organizations will become even tougher.  On the one hand, the transformative shift towards solidarity and cooperation should favor the UN.  On the other hand, mutual accountability, transparency, and results will underpin the post-2015 agenda and increased scrutiny of the world organization is unavoidable.  How will the UN development system fare in the post-2015 aid environment?  

Development assistance has never been the UN’s core business, which is the maintenance of international peace and security.  But the nature of the peace and prosperity challenge has changed and the UN will need to adapt.  If UN reform materializes, security will always come first. While the UN has played a major role in peacekeeping and peacebuilding, it has never been a major actor on the international aid stage. ODA from the UN development system was only $6 billion in 2012 (core resources, without humanitarian assistance), less than 5% of the total.  

The UN Compares Poorly to Other Agencies
In terms of aid delivery at the country level, the UN has proven too fragmented and short of financial resources to compete effectively.  A 2008 survey confirmed that the multilateral development banks and the European Commission enjoy a significant edge over UN organizations.

The Evaluation Challenge
Credible evaluation sustems would help the UN to realign its assets and achieve verifiable results.  But here, too, it has been lagging behind the multilateral development banks.  Even though UNDP's Evaluation Office designed an evaluation sustem based on peer review and independence, the system has not been implemented across other UN organizations.  Recommendations to carry out system-wide evaluations on a regular basis have repeatedly been put forward, but little concrete action has taken place -- a continuation of a long-standing record of foot-dragging.

The UN's Comparative Advantage
Reform of the UN is imperative, but so far efforts have yielded disappointing outcomes and have not focused on the comparative advantage of the organization.  While it is true that the organization has lost the aid effectiveness race, it is against aid-quality standards that ignore its key role in security operations, humanitarian assistance and global norm-building.  In these realms, the UN is peerless.  As long as it is judged as an aid-delivery mechanism, the UN will continue to be viewed as a poorer performer than it actually is.  Future evaluation functions should not only focus on the performance of individual organizations but also on their combined impact in terms of advocacy, knowledge dissemination, consensus-building and peacebuilding.

Reform of the UN should bear this in mind. Intensified efforts to ensure that the UN acts as one are of course required, but they should not be directed exclusively or even principally towards improved aid delivery. They should instead be designed to enhance the development benefits of international conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and the creation of global and regional public goods.  The Delivering as One initiative should transcend the country-based aid dimension. Strategic repositioning of the organization should help reorient donor funding towards horizontal programs cutting across organizational boundaries. 

Well beyond its traditional technical assistance and aid delivery functions, the UN could and should play a far more influential role. Member states should recognize that the UN’s future lies in making full use of its convening power and its legitimacy at the intersection of governments, private sector institutions, and civil society organizations.

Robert Picciotto is Visiting Professor at King's College, London.  Previously at the World Bank, for the past ten years he has provided independent evaluation advice to several UN organizations, the Rockefeller Foundation, the North-South Institute and Wilton Park.  He currently serves on the boards of the UK Evaluation Society and the European Evaluation Society.  This paper draws on Robert Picciotto's chapter "Evaluating the UN Development System" in Post-2015 UN Development: Making Change Happen? edited by Stephen Browne and Thomas G. Weiss (London: Routledge, 2014 forthcoming).
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