Op-Ed published in the Summer 2014 issue of New World published by the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK) .
Two factors work against the UN’s current approach to international development. First, most countries no longer look to the Organization for aid and technical assistance. National governments, civil society organisations and private sector have far greater resources and agility to deliver assistance. Second, as countries develop, their aspirations change. They want to safeguard and further their interests in agriculture, industrialisation, technology transfer, trade, environment and finance. Incidentally, in many of these areas, UN has lost policy space and struggles to have an influence.
While UN reform is difficult to achieve, the Organization can remake itself by transforming its development mandate into an integrated, purely policy-setting role rather than reducing itself to one of many development contractors. This would be a huge transition – a shift from the UN “delivering as one” to governments doing so – but it would enable the Organization to leverage its convening power and global legitimacy to influence the international development agenda.
Such a shift would change the criteria for evaluating the success of the UN’s development system from looking at delivery on the ground to measuring its role in formulating agendas, shaping global opinion, upholding international conventions, precipitating action and contributing to global governance. The UN embarked on this path with the MDGs, and looks set to continue along it through the post-2015 framework. It remains to be seen if the UN can realise its strengths and build up the momentum and capacities required to take up this leadership role. If not, there is a danger it will fragment and cede its development role to other institutions.