UN Considering Reforms to Deliver the SDGs
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The UN Secretary-General was mandated to present reform proposals for the UN development system, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The proposals range from addressing gaps in coverage of SDGs, to the Resident Coordinator system, to strengthening system-wide governance and oversight of the UN development system’s support to the 2030 Agenda.

The next briefing on the UN development system reform is expected at the beginning of November, when Member States will be presented with more options.

In December 2016, more than one year after the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR) 2017-2020, which is the policy instrument aimed at aligning the UN development system with the SDGs. The process that led to the QCPR spanned two years of intense negotiations and consultations between Member States, the UN system, and external experts. The QCPR mandated that, in June 2017, the UN Secretary-General should present reform proposals for the UN development system, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In a briefing to Member States on 5 May 2017, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed explained the method through which the Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, was developing the reform proposals, noting that she had created an internal mechanism to follow up on the QCPR mandates. Mohammed said her office was: working with external experts to gather and analyze the data underpinning the system-wide outline of functions and capacities; undertaking advanced technical work and studies to ensure evidence-based proposals; and conducting in-house research to draw on the perspectives of Member States on accountability, transparency, coordination and oversight. Mohammed also announced that a reference group of individuals with experience in development practice and policy had been put in place, to serve as an informal “sounding board” to test ideas for upcoming proposals.

Published on 30 June 2017, the Secretary-General’s report draws on: a report titled, ‘System-Wide Outline of the Functions and Capacities of the UN Development System,’ prepared by Dalberg Global Development Advisors; a Contribution by the UN Joint Inspection Unit; and an analytical study commissioned by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). As Member States and civil society begin the process of evaluating the implications of the Secretary-General’s report, this policy brief seeks to enhance the level of understanding and engagement in the debate through a review of the assessment of the UN development system undertaken by external experts and the Secretary-General’s related reform proposals.

Gaps in Addressing the SDGs and Proposed Reforms

The Dalberg report found that the first five SDGs (poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender), which overlap with most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) currently receive the highest allocation of expenditure and personnel, accounting for 52% of expenditure. Of these, SDGs 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health and wellbeing) and 16 account for 19%, 17.5% and 12.5% of total expenditure, respectively. By contrast, the five environment and sustainability SDGs – 7 (affordable and clean energy), 12 (responsible consumption and production), 13 (climate action), 14 (life below water), and 15 (life on land) collectively account for under 7% of expenditures.

The Dalberg assessment indicates that:

  • SDG 12 is the least well-resourced of all SDGs, having received only US$90 million in 2016, with spending spread across 15 UNDS entities. The experts note that sustainable consumption and production is an area where the UN could play an important role as new norms and standards are to emerge in the coming years.
  • SDG 7 is the second least funded SDG, receiving less than 1% of overall expenditure on SDGs.
  • SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) received US$588 million in 2016, with the UN entities questioned for the study emphasizing that infrastructure is under-addressed by the UN system. Industrialization also appears to be under-resourced, the experts note, with the total reported expenditure of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) being less than US$200 million.
  • The SDGs focused on environmental protection (13, 14 and 15) received 6% of total expenditure, or US$1.7 billion, in 2016.
  • SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), received only 3% (US$800 million) of the total expenditure of the UN development system in 2016.

To address identified gaps in SDG coverage, the Secretary-General proposed to:

  • Further analyze the data and findings emerging from the outline of system-wide functions and capacities, as his team works on related recommendations and a system-wide strategic document.
  • Build on the results of other ongoing reform processes, including that of UN-Habitat and the independent review of capacities of UN agencies, funds and programmes to sustain peace.

With regards to the resource allocation, the Dalberg report notes that expenditure and, to a lesser extent, personnel are heavily concentrated at the country level, as compared to regional and headquarters level: 79% of total expenditure is spent at country level, while 11% is spent at the headquarters level and 10% at the regional level. Differences between SDGs, the report notes, appear to be determined by the total level of resourcing (with higher shares at the headquarters and regional levels for the SDGs with lower expenditures), coupled with the business models of the most relevant UN development system entities for the respective SDG.

For improving the UN’s country presence, the Secretary-General has proposed moving towards a new generation of UN Country Teams, for which he will:

  • Consult with Member States and UN partners to ensure a more responsive and tailored UN Country Team’s configuration.
  • Develop proposals, together with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and other UN entities, along two main pillars: criteria to rationalize physical presence by individual entities, and a strategy to reposition and ensure common operational services/back-office functions as the standard model for Country Teams.

Another important measure proposed by the Secretary-General for improving the UN’s country presence is strengthening the leadership of Resident Coordinators, for which he said he will continue consultations with Member States, the Presidents of UN entities’ governing bodies and UN entities in order to:

  • Establish clear accountability lines from all Country Team members to Resident Coordinators, and from Resident Coordinators to the Secretary-General.
  • Identify the best operational model to ensure full impartiality of the Resident Coordinator function, through a delinking of the functions of UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representatives on the ground, to be mirrored by adequate regional and global coordination and accountability mechanisms.
  • Identify funding and staffing requirements of Resident Coordinator offices, maximizing Agencies’ secondments of technical and policy expertise and advisory services from non-resident agencies.
  • Prioritize moving from 45% female Resident Coordinators to full gender parity as soon as possible.

In terms of the knowledge products generated by the UN development system entities, the external experts found that 25% of knowledge products are reported to be relevant to all the SDGs, while SDGs 3, 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 17 (partnerships for the goals) have the most products focused on one or just a few SDGs.

Functional and Capacity Gaps and Proposed Reforms

The Dalberg report estimates that the UN development system is not currently fully equipped to provide “whole-of-government” guidance on how to achieve the SDGs, with the current patterns whereby individual UN development system entities pursue their own focus areas with specific relevant government ministries being prone to undermine efforts to support “whole-of-government” approaches.

For strengthening the coordination of the UN development system, the Secretary-General:

  • Appointed Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed as Chair of the UN Development Group (UNDG) with UNDP serving as vice-chair, to work with the UN development system in reviewing the composition and working methods of the UNDG.
  • Plans to reposition the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) to enhance coordination, coherence and accountability of the UN system leadership.

To strengthen system-wide governance and oversight of the UN development system’s support to the 2030 Agenda, the Secretary-General proposed several options for consideration by Member States:

  • Redesigning the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Operational Activities Segment, through “sharply focused” meetings of the segment twice a year.
  • Progressively merging the governing boards of New York-based funds and programmes, building on the current practice of joint Board meetings of UNDP, UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and UN Women.
  • Strengthening the interface with Member States on system-wide issues through ECOSOC.

The Dalberg experts estimated that, in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda, the UN development system will need new or enhanced expertise in: data and statistics; partnerships; communications and advocacy; information and communication technologies (ICT); investment/ loan management; and deeper thematic expertise on a range of topics core to the SDGs.

To that end, the Secretary-General proposed to:

  • Strengthen the talent pool, training, and knowledge and performance management, bringing in new expertise and building on the know-how across the various UN training institutes and entities of the UN development system.
  • Strengthen the system’s capacity for data literacy, technology, collection and analysis at disaggregated levels, aligned to the SDGs.

On funding, the external experts found that there is no coherent vision for how UNDS entities should work with the private sector. Additionally, the report indicates that the current financing mechanisms undermine the efforts of the UN development system to be more coordinated in planning and delivering support for the 2030 Agenda.

In addressing the funding gaps and fragmentation, the Secretary-General plans to:

  • Work on a Funding Compact with Member States to explore options that could help improve the quality and predictability of resources allocated to the UN development system.
  • Identify mechanisms – pooled funds or other innovative funding sources – that could help ensure that the non-core component is less tightly earmarked and contributes to country-led SDG results.
  • Launch the following partnership-focused work-streams: a process with the UN Global Compact, DESA and the UNDG aimed at adopting a system-wide approach to partnerships; a review of the role of the Global Compact and its relationship with UN Country Teams to enhance engagement with entrepreneurs, the private sector, financial institutions and others to more effectively support national SDG priorities; and an analysis of ways to strengthen the UN development system’s capacities to foster and support south-south and triangular cooperation, building on the UN Office for South South Cooperation and the UN’s country presence.
  • Devise a “refreshed” system-wide compact with the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions (IFIs) to sharpen the UN’s partnership around high-impact actions in support of the SDGs.
  • Work with DESA, the Regional Economic Commissions and the UNDG to determine a clearer division of roles in support to financing for development: UNDP as the arrowhead of a new generation of Country Teams (under the leadership of Resident Coordinators), providing institutional, operational and strategic capability for multi-sectoral responses, mobilizing other agency-specific expertise as required; and a strengthened DESA to work in collaboration with Regional Economic Commissions to provide the necessary policy guidance.
  • Reassert DESA as the “docking station” for financing for development at the global level, working closely with International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and the World Bank.
  • Call on the Assistant-Secretary-General for Economic Development to serve as UN Chief Economist, responsible for spearheading analysis and policy innovation, feeding into strategic integrated planning within the UN development system to support Member States, and serving as a technical interlocutor with IFIs.

Functional and Capacity Overlaps and Proposed Reforms

The Dalberg report observes that roles and responsibilities for policy guidance, capacity building and implementation on environmental issues are not fully delineated among UN development system entities. Areas where the experts found fragmented and overlapping work include enterprise development; trade, industry and investment (multiple entities have similar expertise and produce similar content around the same themes); and social protection.

Overlaps also have been identified between the activities and capacities of Regional Commissions and regional offices of the UN development system entities, where the experts recommend better coordination especially given the overall scarcity of expenditures and personnel at the regional level.

To improve coherence at the regional level, the Secretary-General said he will conduct a review of the UN development system regional functions, policy and data-management capacities to:

  • Clarify the division of labor between Regional Economic Commissions, DESA and UN operational entities.
  • Explore the possibility of co-location or pooling of system-wide policy capacities at the regional level, under the overall coordination of Regional Economic Commissions, to ensure a unified and more impactful policy voice.
  • Review existing UN regional coordination structures and the linkages to ECOSOC-mandated Regional Coordination Mechanisms (RCMs).

The Dalberg report cautions that the current systems are not designed to provide management data on the UN development system itself, with two-thirds of the UN development system entities having their own data units that exist alongside the UN Statistical Division.

To address this situation, the Secretary-General announced that he will work with the UN development system to complement the current focus on agency-specific mandates and compliance. This will include the following initiatives:

  • Reporting annually on system-wide results at all levels.
  • Reinforcing transparency on agency-specific expenditures and results through system-wide enrolment in the International Aid Transparency Initiative, to ensure that States and citizens have real-time visibility into UN expenditures.
  • Creating capacities for independent evaluation of system-wide activities – the establishment of a small independent office – possibly to be anchored in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General or other internal coordination mechanisms providing support to a revamped Resident Coordinators system. Guterres explained that this office would have a light footprint and focus on ensuring coherence in the work of the various independent evaluation offices of individual entities, while also undertaking select evaluations on the UN development system performance in support of SDGs globally or at the country level.

Development-Humanitarian-Peace Recommendations and Reform Proposals

The Dalberg report recommends translating the commitments on strengthening the development-humanitarian-peace nexus into fully coordinated programming, as gaps still exist.

To improve the interlinkages between sustainable development and sustaining peace, the Secretary-General plans to:

  • Expand the investments of the UN Peacebuilding Fund to support integrated UN action for prevention and measures preventing escalation in the midst of violent conflict.
  • Build interlinkages with the simultaneous review of the UN peace and security architecture to ensure better coherence with and support to the development pillar and SDG implementation.

On the humanitarian-development axis, the Secretary-General’s proposals include:

  • The Deputy Secretary-General will work with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UNDG to: streamline policies and operational guidelines at Headquarters to incentivize and facilitate coherence in the field; improve cross-pillar analysis, planning and programming; review the “double hatting” or “triple hatting” of senior UN leadership on the ground; and identify flexible financing modalities in support of resilience building, joint humanitarian-development objectives in protracted crises, recognizing their contributions to sustaining peace.
  • A Steering Committee of Principals will be established to foster synergies in humanitarian and development action. The Steering Committee will be chaired by the Deputy Secretary-General, with operational leadership from OCHA and UNDP and will include the largest UN operational entities working in both humanitarian and development settings.

Areas of strength of the UN development system

The Dahlberg report also identifies several areas where the UN has a unique value and on which the system should capitalize to garner funding and support. These areas are noted as including: the UN’s unique normative roles and treaty-mandated functions; areas where the UN has expertise that is not replicated elsewhere; the procurement of specific goods; program management and procurement services, especially in the least developed countries (LDCs) and fragile states; and humanitarian aid delivery.

Examples of how the UN plays out these unique roles include through the delivery of food relief, cash transfer programs, labor standards, refugee programme, agriculture productivity, food statistics, children statistics, commodities and vaccine procurement, Palestinian refugees, fast track to end AIDS, maternal health, health standards, gender advocacy, sexual and reproductive health, migrant assistance, institution building, telecommunications, heritage sites, and South-South Cooperation.

Next Steps

On 5 July 2017, the Secretary-General met with Member States to get their feedback on his preliminary reform proposals, as presented in the report. He explained that, while some proposals require further consultation, others can be set in motion immediately. He noted that many questions raised in the report will require answers and further consideration, which he said he intends to seek jointly with Member States before publishing a more detailed report in December 2017. Guterres said he will also work on more detailed proposals to improve the Resident Coordinator system by December 2017.

On 6 October 2017, the Deputy Secretary-General held a briefing to Member States on the ongoing work for the December report and gathered their additional feedback on the reform proposals. She announced that the next briefing on the UN development system reform would take place in the beginning of November, when she said she will present Member States with more options. In response to governments’ requests for more details on many of the proposals, she invited reflection on the extent to which they wish the reform plans to be detailed and specific. She also invited flexibility, from both governments and UN agencies.

We will continue to track the discussions, proposals and decisions taken on this key component for the follow up on decisions taken in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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