Why Civil Society Should Engage in the Reform of the UN Development System

Author: Naiara Costa (International Secretariat, Together 2030 – @naiaracc)

“People around the world are looking to us. I count on your support as we move forward. Together we can deliver a strengthened United Nations Development System that supports countries to achieve concrete results for the people and the planet” (UN SG report, p. 123).

At the last day of June 2017, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres released a first report outlining his proposed plans to reposition the UN development System to deliver on the 2030 Agenda. This report was mandated by the UN General Assembly Resolution on the QCPR (Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review) which, despite the unappealing name and acronym is a key intergovernmental tool for the work of the United Nations on the ground.

The report was informed by the outcomes of a ‘System-Wide Outline of the Functions and Capacities of the UN Development System’, which clearly shows that the “UN development systems is still to complete its transition from the MDGs to the 2030 Agenda” (p. 7 of the SG report). For instance, the System-Wide Outline document shows that “the first six SDGs, the ones which overlap with most of the MDGs, account for 52% of expenditures [of the UN development system entities]. By contrast, the five environment and sustainability SDGs (7, 12, 13, 14, 15) collectively account for less than 7% of expenditures” (See picture below). A lot is yet to be done regarding ‘balancing the pillars’ of sustainable development and supporting an integrated and indivisible agenda.

Budget Allocation by SDG
Picture: Estimated expenditure and personnel by SDG, from UNDS survey responses. (Source: System-Wide Outline of the Functions and Capacities of the UN Development System, 2017)

With his report on Repositioning the UN development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda, Antonio Guterres intends to begin a change process, offering options for improving the accountability and overall coordination of the entities of the UN development system with impact on the work of the UN as a whole across the globe. This process will be followed by discussions and consultations and yet another report by the end of 2017.

Why should civil society engage with the United Nation’s new plan?

The UN Development System needs to adapt to the boldness of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. Civil society has advocated strongly for the ambitious 2030 Agenda and the SDGS and the UN is a critical player for their implementation. According to the report, sustainable development has been repositioned at the ‘heart of the United Nations, with the 2030 Agenda as the guiding framework”. Civil society needs to monitor if this is actually reflected in the proposed changes.

Some points worth mentioning from the report:

1. A Deputy Secretary-General (DSG) with comprehensive responsibilities on Sustainable Development – The DSG has been empowered with several main responsibilities related to the implementation of the SDGs and other areas. The DSG is expected to act as the ‘facilitator of integration and system-wide coherence, a convenor of global-level initiatives for sustainable development and as a neutral broker in interagency processes’ (p. 18).

Therefore, DSG Amina Mohammed will Chair the UN Development Group (UNDG) – with UNDP now as Co-Chair – and she will also work with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UNDG in the operationalization of a ‘Humanitarian-Development nexus’ at country level. Additionally, the DSG will oversee UNDESA’s review process.

2. The ‘delinking’ of UN Resident Coordinators from UNDP and the review of the UN Country Teams configuration – Several action points are proposed under those themes, including delinking the Resident Coordinator function from UNDP Resident Representatives and establishing clear accountability lines from all Country Team members to Resident Coordinators, and from Resident Coordinators to the Secretary-General.

This more vertical approach will impact on the way the UN System, its Funds, Programs and even Specialized Agencies operate on the ground.

The report also calls for UN country Teams that are ‘more cohesive, flexible, leaner and efficient and focused’ (p. 12). For this reason, the SG is proposing to set up criteria to rationalize physical presence of the different UN entities on the ground. The SG has also proposed the drafting of one joint, annual report on collective support by the UN system to the SDGs.

3. A reformed UNDESA – UNDESA is expected to improve its support to intergovernmental processes related to sustainable development, to step up its capacities for policy analysis and knowledge production, and to be at the forefront of sustainable development policy at the global level. Additionally, the Assistant-Secretary-General for Economic Development will now serve as the UN ‘Chief Economist’.

4. Stronger Regional Commissions – The report aims at strengthening the leadership of Regional Economic Commissions and proposes steps for these commissions to focus on three key functions: think tanks; regional platforms for the exchange of best practices and supporting the normative and policy capabilities of the UN Country Teams. The division of labour between the Regional Economic Commissions, UNDESA and UN operational entities will be reviewed, and the possibility of colocation or pooling of policy capacities at the regional level will be explored.

Several other proposals and action points are listed on the report and would demand a longer analysis, beyond the scope of this article.

With this bold report, the UN SG is showing that he intends to assume to the fullest his responsibilities as Chief Executive of the United Nations (p.91), which is clearly needed. The UN Secretary-General is pointing towards a more coordinated, coherent, potentially streamlined and more vertical UN Development System, having the Deputy Secretary-General as its convergence point. 

We are all aware of the incredible capacity and leadership skills of the DSG Amina Mohammed. Aware of the enormous challenges ahead, we hope she will be able to to mobilize the internal support needed to implement the proposed changes.

The focus of the UN Country teams reforms – including rationalization, flexibility, pooling of capacities and more accountability – are all positive elements that must be implemented to the fullest.

Fit for purpose

Some questions, however, could be raised, including on how much the ‘delinking’ of the RC function from UNDP may mean less support and structure to the new RC Office. How prepared are UN Entities to align their accountability architectures to the proposed changes? What will be the incentives for UN Representatives to balance their time and resources between the collective, system-wide work and various entities mandates? How will this more vertical approach impact on the expert and policy work that a diverse UN Country Team brings to a country, including, for instance, on the capacity of UN entities to speak up on issues, often sensitive, related to their mandate whenever necessary?

Also, are the Regional Economic Commissions ready to resume more responsibilities with regards to coordinated work with other UN Entities in their regions? Member States look at Regional Commissions in many different ways, and a single approach will probably not be adequate or feasible.

All this leads to the question of funding – the SG is proposing to set up a “Funding Compact” to explore reasonable options to “improve the quality and predictability of resources allocated to the UN development system” (p. 23). In a period when the UN is under threat of being de-funded by some major donors, adapting and reforming is critical for this global institution to be better prepared to help countries in delivering the 2030 Agenda. Nevertheless, there is a risk, depending on the way discussions advance, that some UN entities may spend more time in the entropy of internal change instead of pushing for an accelerated implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.

Finally, the report makes a clear reference to the importance of participation (p. 43), saying that the UN development system “must be ready to support national demands for inclusive alliances and participatory planning processes that take into account the needs of the most vulnerable and excluded”.

Yet, the report falls short of any concrete action to improve the role of the UN Development System to set up platforms where “stakeholders can meaningfully engage, build trust, exchange know-how and technologies, strengthen relationships and bring synergy and coherence to achieve results” (p. 9).

This is not the case of the private sector, targeted in one of the activities, where the SG decided to establish a process with the UN Global Compact, UNDESA and the UNDG aimed at adopting a system-wide approach to partnerships (p.10).

Despite mentioning consultations, the report does not make any reference to channels open to civil society and other non-governmental actors to engage in the debate.

In a time where multilateralism and institutions are being challenged, it is critical for civil society to remain vigilant on the way the UN is being ‘recalibrated’ to respond to the 2030 Agenda (p. 4) and to become the ‘catalyst for action, an innovator, convener and champion of what works’ (p. 5). Civil society is ready to contribute and engage. 

Additional reading on the UN SG report:

About the Author: Naiara Costa leads the International Secretariat of the Together 2030 Initiative. An international analyst, she has large experience on international advocacy at global, regional and national levels on sustainable development, human rights and social issues.


Together 2030 is a civil society initiative that brings together more than 530 organisations from 97 countries to promote national implementation and track progress of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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