Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Towards a Coherent & Effective UN - What the High Level Panel Must Do

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:15

Gareth Thomas MP
, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development
Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI
Dame Margaret Anstee, Former Under Secretary-General of the UN


Tom Clarke MP, Member of Parliament for Coatbridge, Chryston & Bellshill

Tom Clarke MP opened the meeting, welcoming the audience and the speakers: Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development; Simon Maxwell, Director of the Overseas Development Institute; and Dame Margaret Anstee, former Under-Secretary General at the United Nations.

He explained that the members of the High Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence were meeting later in the day and this meeting provided an opportunity for civil society to inform the process. Mr. Clarke welcomed Gordon Brown as a High Level Panel member and stated that this represented the best opportunity for reform of the UN in a generation.

Gareth Thomas MP stated that he is an internationalist who believes in the UN. He gave examples of the UN at its most effective (the transition to democracy in Afghanistan, the virtual eradication of Polio by the WHO and in responding to disasters), but went on to state that he did not think the UN was fulfilling its potential. An example of this failure was that some countries have to deal with multiple separate UN agencies. Decades of bureaucratic decision-making has led to a proliferation of agencies, the result of which is waste, duplication and loss of efficiency. There is also a lack of collaboration and competition between agencies.

The High Level Panel provides the best opportunity to create a UN that is fit for purpose and is able to take on the challenges of the 21st Century. There is a need for leadership and ambition and the Panel has both the leadership and authority to make a real difference.

How should the work of the UN be organized? Mr Thomas set out three principles, as follows:

Principle one: A country-based approach: programmes in-country need to be unified, responsive, and aligned with countries' own plans and ambitions. There should be better allocation of UN funding between countries and stronger accountability of UN agencies to national governments. This could be achieved by pooling funds, consolidating governance arrangements, streamlining management roles (particularly in-country) and having one person in charge of a genuinely unified UN country team, with authority over all UN activity and the budget for that country.

Principle two: A focus on results must drive reform: the acid test of these reforms must be how they improve the situation on the ground. Increased accountability will also drive better performance.

Principle three: Consolidated and coherent funding produces consolidated and coherent action: donors currently provide multiple fragmented streams of funding. They need to provide longer term commitments, which will allow the UN to plan and will assure developing country partners of support in the longer-term.. A central funding mechanism providing funds to integrated country programmes would put developing countries back in the driving seat.

Such change will require political will and the Panel must not waste this opportunity.

Tom Clarke MP thanked Gareth Thomas MP for his contribution and invited Simon Maxwell to present his comments.

Simon Maxwell started by thanking both Gareth Thomas MP and the Chancellor of the Exchequer for their leadership on this issue.

He stated that we must hang onto three big questions; 'why?', 'what?' and 'how?' The lesson from history is that 'why?' and 'what?' are important, but 'how?' is often forgotten. He described how Dame Margaret Anstee had led the main previous attempt at reform, which resulted in the publication of the Jackson Report in 1969.

The key question is what is the role for the UN now and where does it fit, as a collective, within the new aid architecture?

It could have a number of roles, but the key vision is of a coherent and self-confident UN: policy-rich, delivering a global consensus, setting standards, managing global public goods, and delivering high quality and cost-effective aid, at country level and internationally.

Current funding flows are substantial, with UN funding already at US$10 bn a year, but the system is handicapped by unpredictability, a lack of coherence, unclear procedures for burden-sharing, unpredictability and under-funding of humanitarian and transition cases, costs of diversity (alongside benefits) and erosion of needs-based funding.

UN funding issue could be thought of as a public expenditure issue, like those dealt with by national governments every year. There are several components that need to be included: a comprehensive spending review; a public expenditure settlement; a Public Service Agreement; a procedure for monitoring performance; an annual review of funding levels; all backed up by parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.

Many questions arise, including:

  • Development only or development plus emergency?

  • Country-based or country plus HQ?

  • Official development assistance (oda) or oda plus other contributions?

  • Annual funding or replenishment funding?

  • A new Fund or use existing channels?

  • Big Bang or gradual change?

There are four options:

  1. full and integrated UN funding

  2. steps towards integrated UN funding

  3. a global development trust fund and

  4. development pilot at country level. There are question marks against all of these, but efforts should be focused on moving as far towards a) as possible.

There are also operational implementation issues for the High Level Panel to consider, including how to encourage collective action. Six important lessons for them to bear in mind are:

  1. In a world of global development challenges and rapidly increasing aid volumes, this is an ambitious project to build the role of the UN, at country level and internationally

  2. The principles are shared, especially the ideal of a coherent and innovative UN,, serving countries, working together

  3. Governance is balanced between developed and developing countries, and accountability is shared

  4. Not every donor will participate, but enough donors will be in agreement for there to be significant momentum

  5. The new funding arrangement will be big enough to drive change in the UN system as a whole. This is not 'just another trust fund'

  6. Civil society will not accept lack of progress

In summing up, Maxwell drew attention to the speech made by Tony Blair on Monday 26th June 2006.

Simon Maxwell, having taken over the chair from Tom Clarke MP, then invited Dame Margaret Anstee to speak.

Dame Margaret Anstee noted that during her time at the UN she had been involved in several reform processes, including the Jackson Commission, and the 1986/87 reform within the Secretariat.

The question is not what to change but how, in what way, and how change should be brought about. The Jackson Report focused on 'how'. The thrust of it was similar to that of today's High Level Panel.

The emphasis of the Report was on coherence, country emphasis and use of resources. The principle was that development is home-made. A concept of integrated country programming was developed which would concur with countries' own national development plans and indicative planning figures. It also advocated a strengthening of UNDP's role and funding.

The Jackson report attempted to keep specialised agencies, but assign them projects which had been approved on the basis of countries' priorities. The aim was to have maximum centralisation of responsibility at HQ level for the raising and dispersal of funds for technical assistance, through UNDP, and maximum decentralisation at the country level. The Jackson Report tried to provide coherence through country programming and funding mechanisms..It was well thought out, but was criticised for being a package deal and, of course, compromises were made, particularly on country programming and on the financial system.
At that time, UNDP was at a cross roads, and if it's role wasn't strengthened there would be a take-over by the World Bank, who did not value technical assistance. This has resulted in today's situation with the World Bank now doing a lot of UNDP-style work. This is the root of many of the problems we see today.

So why was the Jackson Report not fully implemented? There were forces of opposition, which could be summed up as 'vested interests', both on the part of donors, but also within the Secretariat.

Those in the field strongly supported the Report, but there were complex relationships between member states and those opposed to change within the system, the Secretariat and specialised agencies. Lobbying meant that some developing countries even opposed the changes. This 'administrative incest' continues today.

The world has changed since the Report. There has been an enormous proliferation of organisations providing development assistance and a growth in bilateral assistance. There is a much less than optimum use of resources. There is also an increased fragmentation of thinking about development.

Dame Margaret agreed with Gareth Thomas's three principles, but added that all those elements that militated against reform back then are still very prevalent now, perhaps even more so. A broad and integrated plan may not succeed, but it should be the aim.

The answer is to have national development strategies. Having targets is incredibly important, as are personalities and leadership. The aim should be to have key reforms in areas where they will have a multiplying effect. First ,we should change the process for selecting Secretary-Generals and Director-Generals. It should be de-politicised and refer to Havishaw's vision of an international civil service. Second, the Secretary-General should serve only one term. Third, a consolidated UN budget, agreed by a fifth committed.

Simon Maxwell then thanked the other speakers and the Chair. He asked Dame Margaret what the most important lesson from her experience had been. She responded that it was vital to start from the bottom up, to have political will for change from both donors and developing countries, but that the most important factor was strong leadership. Mr. Maxwell then opened the discussion up to the floor.

Comments from the floor included: frustration in developing countries with the UN in relation to 'petty empire-building' and failures to pass on information; the importance of planning, targets and accountability; and the importance of gender equality and empowerment of women.

Gareth Thomas MP responded that: UN agencies should work to the leadership of developing countries; targets, accountability and more predictable funding are crucial, but developing countries need to be in the driving seat - key to this was the way in which funding was allocated; and more resources and attention should be given to gender issues within the UN.

Dame Margaret Anstee responded, stating that: care should be taken to avoid duplication of work by agencies within the organisation;, and that it was very important not to regard gender issues as separate to the work of UN agencies, but as integrated within it.

Simon Maxwell thanked everyone for coming and thanked the speakers for their contributions. He also reiterated Tony Blair's belief that muscular multilateralism should be the main vehicle for development cooperation and that the time to make these changes is now.


The seventh meeting in the ODI and APGOOD series 'What Next in International Development' discussed the UN and the decision making of the High Level Panel.

Thatcher Room