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Ahead of the Curve: Why the UN needs the capacity to think

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:00


Professor Sir Richard Jolly - Institute of Development Studies

Professor John Toye - Director, Centre for the Study of African Economies, Oxford


Tony Colman MP - United Nations Association

1. The fourth meeting in the series was entitled Ahead of the Curve: Why the UN needs the capacity to think. This meeting was chaired by Tony Colman MP, Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on the UN; and the speakers were Professor Sir Richard Jolly and Professor John Toye.

2. Richard Jolly began by identifying a number of myths about the UN. These were that:

i. The UN was mostly about peace-keeping and humanitarian action. This was patently not true. 80% of its activities were in development.
ii. UN work was of low quality, bland and uncritical of developing countries. Again, the evidence contradicted this view. Ten Nobel prize winners in economics had worked with the UN, and much of its work had been highly critical. By contrast, only one Nobel Prize winner (Joe Stiglitz) had been employed by the Bretton Woods Institutions.
iii. The UN was an over-paid bureaucracy of paper-pushers. Again, this needed to be challenged: in agencies like UNDP and UNICEF, more than 80% of the staff now worked in developing countries. Furthermore, pay in the UN was usually 20-30% below that in, say, the IMF or the World Bank.
iv. The UN was resistant to reform. In this case, it was possible to identify six major reform processes since 1945. Often, the Secretariat was more enthusiastic on reform than the member governments. This had been evident, for example, in Kofi Anan's Track 1 reforms.

3. Continuing in this theme, Richard Jolly noted that the UN was consistently under-funded. In the words of Margaret Anstee, it had been "starved into reform". For example, the budget of the ILO was 15% less than twenty years ago.

4. Richard Jolly then turned to the UN History Project (more details of which can be found at http//www.unhistory.org). He described the process and the publications planned, and cited a number of important areas in which UN thinking had led the world. These included work on governance, the balance between the public and private sectors, technology, land reform, national accounts, and the use of development goals. He noted that UN ideas had often been greeted with suspicion by the Bretton Woods Institutions and the developed countries. These included work on disarmament and human rights.

5. Summarising his argument, Richard Jolly identified five reasons why the UN needed the capacity to think. These were:

i. The UN had over many years demonstrated its capacity in this area.
ii. In particular, UN work had been multi-disciplinary, with a high level of field involvement, reflective of developing country voices and pragmatic in its approach.
iii. UN research had both legitimacy and credibility vis-à-vis developing countries.
iv. The UN had the capacity to promote good research through its outreach programmes, for example, the UNICEF State of the World's Children Report and the UNDP Human Development Report.
v. Competition in ideas was vital.

6. John Toye spoke to a presentation. His key question was about the comparative advantage in research of international organisations, especially given rapid changes in supply conditions. Was research by international organisations still needed in a world in which there was a much greater volume of academic work, in both developed and developing countries, and in which the private sector was also active?

7. Answering his own question, John Toye made the point that knowledge was a public good, so it could be expected that it would be under-supplied by the private sector. However, it was important to make the point that public subsidy for the production of knowledge did not necessarily require public production of knowledge. It might equally be possible to subsidise knowledge work in the academic sector and by private organisations.

8. There were some reasons why international organisations (including the UN, but also the Bretton Woods Institutions) should undertake research. These included the possibility of relevance to current agendas, the likelihood of finding champions for research findings within development administrations, and the scope for improved performance by international organisations themselves.

9. On the other hand, John Toye's research also showed that there were dangers: that research would be funded by organisations with doctrines to defend, who would therefore not be objective in commissioning and using research; that managers would impose organisational goals on research; that it was hard to spark new ideas in big organisations, but easy to suppress good ideas; and finally, that research in large organisations often lacked originality and was highly self-referential. John Toye emphasised that these were not hypothetical dangers, but real problems he had observed in his research for the UN History Project.

10. Nevertheless, it was certainly true that UN staff had had radical ideas, and that these had seen the light of day, especially during the Cold War period. The process had benefited from rather lax editorial control, and had been of benefit to poor countries. He cited Singer's work on defining terms of trade, work by Prebisch on both the opportunities and limits to import substituting industrialisation, research by Kalecki on food supply as a constraint to growth, among other examples.

11. John Toye reached four main conclusions:

i. We should be aware of advocacy disguised as research.
ii. It seemed to be the case that developed countries would mainly fund research by organisations they controlled (like the OECD or the Bretton Woods Institutions).
iii. That developing countries had tried to use the UN, but really needed their own research organisations.
iv. UN research worked best when it was carried out in organisations that were protected from institutional interference, for example in UNRISD (the UN Research Institute for Social Development) or WIDER (the World Institute for Development Economics Research).

12. A number of points were made in the discussion:

·         In addition to UNRISD and WIDER, other UN organisations carrying out research in semi-protected environments included ECA and UNU. There was, however, sometimes a problem in ensuring that the policy messages from research in all the semi-protected institutions was heard.

·         There was a discussion about the market place for ideas and the importance of ensuring quality, for example through normal peer review processes.

13. Other points included a discussion about the source of the 0.7% aid target and about evidence of the relative effectiveness of the UN.

Simon Maxwell

27 May 2004


This meeting, the fourth in the UN Reform: Why? What? How? series, invited Professor Sir Richard Jolly and Sir John Toye to discuss the role of the UN as an important source of new research and thinking. They went on to discuss why it may need greater resources if it is to continue in this role.

Committee Room 10