Defective intergovernmental compromise killed the logic of the recommendations of the first comprehensive review of the development system almost half a century ago. Numerous other reform efforts have met the same fate.
Could the election of the next secretary-general provide the opportunity to insist that candidates spell-out their own vision of system-wide reform as part of their platforms?
The 1969 Study of the Capacity of the United Nations Development System (hereafter the Capacity Study) marked an important milestone in the history of the organization. David Owen described it as “an admirable example of institutional self-criticism, courageously designed to prepare the way for the changes which are felt to be needed to improve the effectiveness of what is in most respects a very successful programme.”
On 1 January 1966, two programs had merged to become the UN Development Programme (UNDP); funding for UNDP subsequently increased along with disturbing modifications. “Agency shares,” which guaranteed each agency a certain percentage of available funds, led to fragmented activities that reflected agency rather than recipient country priorities. Furthermore, the creation of agency country offices eroded the authority of resident representatives. Margaret Anstee’s own reflections at the time - The Administration of International Aid - which recommended an integrated approach, led to her serving as Chief of Staff for the 1969 Capacity Study.
The UNDP Governing Council widened the remit of the study to cover the entire UN development system, insisting that the report be totally independent, “bold and imaginative”, and written in “non-U.N. language.” The finished product, submitted in November 1969 lived up to these requirements.
In a nutshell, the Capacity Study was predicated on maximum concentration of responsibility for approving, funding, and overseeing development cooperation in UNDP headquarters. However, it was to be combined with maximum delegation to resident representatives who would play the same decisive central role at the country level as the UNDP administrator in New York.
The Capacity Study’s recommendations were discussed several times by the Governing Council before reaching a decision known as “the 1970 Consensus”. It was an inherently defective compromise in the age-old UN tradition. Predictably, most specialized agencies reacted adversely; those without their own programs of technical assistance swiftly set them up, and some governments compounded the problem by helping to finance them.
Why did the Capacity Study fail? It provided a logical and well-articulated proposal for reform, but the UN is not a logical system—indeed, “system” would be inaccurate if cohesion were implied by the term. By modifying recommendations that constituted an integrated whole, the Governing Council assured its failure. Vested bureaucratic interests formed an implacable obstacle to radical change, while the World Bank’s increasing technical assistance undermined UNDP’s raison d’être.
In the past 45 years, there have been many attempts at reform and, unsurprisingly, all have met the same fate. This Briefing Paper reflects on the most significant of these repeated reform initiatives, including: the 1975 ‘Gardner Report’; the 1985 ‘Group of 18’; the panel set up in 2000 to review the UN’s peace and security activities; the 2003 panel focusing on ‘Threats, Challenges and Change’ that presented the report A More Secure World, Our Shared Responsibility; and most recently – and specifically dedicated to reforming the UN’s operational capacity – the current ‘Delivering as One’ program, which once again echoes the findings of the 1969 Capacity Study.
The Capacity Study has sometimes been dubbed the “Bible” of UN reform because its precepts are lauded by everyone but put into effect by no one. Over the intervening 45 years, the same issues have come up time and again: the centrifugal disarticulation of the system; its failure to speak with one voice; and its inability to use scarce resources in an integrated and effective way. Governments continue to clamor for reform but are not prepared to adopt decisions that run counter to their perceived interests. The Capacity Study’s analysis and recommendations are as relevant today as in 1969.
The central problem for the reform of the UN remains: not what but how. It poses itself even more pressingly in today’s increasingly fragmented and turbulent world in which effective international cooperation offers the best solutions, but multilateralism, paradoxically, finds itself in deep crisis, with wrongly perceived national interests often prevailing over the common weal.
No effective reform can take place without a sea change in the attitudes of member states. Perhaps the only way forward is through important individual steps having multiplier effects.
But will member states, especially the more powerful ones, agree even to that? Could the 2016 election of the next secretary-general provide the opportunity to insist that candidates at least articulate their views about the so-called system?
Margaret Joan Anstee served the United Nations for over four decades, rising to the rank of under-secretary-general, the first woman to do so. Her extensive writings on reform, economic and social development, and peace operations include Orphan of the Cold War (1996) and her autobiography Never Learn to Type: A Woman at the United Nations (2003).