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Exploring the Idea of Increased Cooperation between UNWomen and ACABQ

10 September 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

UN symbol with wooden people around a glass globee

At its session this week, the UNWomen Executive Board will review the integrated budget proposal for 2024-2025 and the related comments of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ). The budget proposal covers the last two years of UNWomen’s current Strategic Plan which initiated a strategic pivot to the field for UNWomen. The 2024-2025 budget proposal aims to strengthen that pivot to the field through increases and changes to various posts in the field.

While the ACABQ is generally positive of UNWomen’s change management process, it makes a point of reinforcing the need for further cooperation between UNWomen and the UN Development System. The ACABQ recommendation and the management response give the impression that this is something that UNWomen’s management can instruct their staff on, and it will easily materialize.

"UN Women takes note with appreciation of the views of the Committee and its emphasis on the need for further cooperation in the UN development system, avoiding duplication and promoting further effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of its mandate. In recognition of this, UN Women has placed coordination at the centre of its strategic pivot and is working to allocate additional resources to its coordination work." UNWomen Management Response to the ACABQ, paras. 19-20

The need to improve cooperation across the UN system is not a new issue and has dominated reform discussions for the last several decades. That in an of itself should be an indicator that this is not so easy to change, despite the growing number of training courses on collaboration in the UN system. While people’s attitudes and competencies are obviously a key element of cooperation, new research on collaboration between development organizations highlights the importance of structural issues and mandates in facilitating - or hindering - cooperation.

Given UNWomen's three-pronged mandate, our spotlight explores their specific challenges to increasing collaboration with the UN Development System. We then identify ways to manage these structural challenges, with a view to supplementing existing training initiatives on collaboration.

How does an entity’s mandate create or limit incentives for cooperation between the UN Women Executive Board and ACABQ?

Both coordination and cooperation provide benefits in terms of reducing duplication between entities and creating efficiencies. They are not the same thing, however. Coordination and joint planning can help eliminate duplication and address programming gaps, thereby enhancing overall results of the UN Development System. Cooperation also creates efficiencies and can improve impact, especially when organizations face resource constraints. It tends to involve more effort and specific commitments on inputing resources, effort and measuring results. The most direct and formal form of cooperation between UN entities is through joint programmes, which involves the sharing of human and financial resources and expertise. Each partner in a joint programme contributes something, and they all in turn need to compromise as they agree on the final programme of work. This pooling of resources and expertise seems an obvious solution for an entity like UNWomen that has unique expertise to share and limited financial and human resources, especially at field level.

Recent research indicates, however, that such collaboration is not so straightforward between international development organizations. In its review of the impact of the UN Development System reforms, the German Institute of Development and Sustainability found that a number of staff in larger UN entities were frustrated that joint programming with smaller UN entities tended to require a disproportionate amount of effort for a limited return. So while smaller, non-resident agencies have found the instances of cooperation helpful, they are likely to struggle in finding partners, especially among the more well-resourced UN agencies, funds and programmes.

Another recent study of cooperation between multilateral development banks specifically tested out whether resourcing considerations are a primary factor in facilitating cooperation. Interestingly, the most consistently important factor in determining the level of joint programming between the development banks was the overlap in membership of member states, or like-minded states on their governing bodies. Such overlap exists with UNWomen and UNDP’s Executive Boards, which may account for their high level of cooperation, despite UNDP being relatively better resourced. Exactly why this correlation existed between development banks was not entirely clear, but as is often the case, tone from the top seems to matter in influencing how field staff operationalize their mandates and decide to cooperate.

The same study by Richard Clark of Cornell University also provides indications why UNWomen’s normative mandate might further complicate efforts at cooperation with other UN entities. Positive relations and trust, both between development banks and with the host government, were additional key factors in facilitating the sharing of information and cooperation. Yet, as many organizations with normative mandates have experienced, insisting that a government adheres to international standards can often make their relationship with those governments more complicated. As Richard Clark’s study shows, other international organizations do not want to jeopardize their own relationships and programmes by collaborating with an organization that has a hostile relationship with the host government.

The UN Sustainable Development Group’s October 2022 Guidance Note on a New Generation of Joint Programmes (JP) only further reinforces this, by requiring that “strong ownership of the JP by one or more government bodies” is a minimum criteria. Such ownership requires a basic level of trust and transparency between the partners that may pose challenges both for normative organizations as well as those that rely on confidential information for their work. Organizations that have human rights related mandates or rely on maintaining confidential information about security issues or legal proceedings against governments face unique challenges in their ability to cooperate with more traditional international development organizations.

How can UNWomen mitigate cooperation challenges?

In the case of UNWomen, for instance, these structural and mandate issues are likely to result in some UN organizations being legitimately reluctant to cooperate in particular country contexts. UNWomen similarly will need to consider where collaboration furthers their operational objectives without putting elements of its normative mandate at undue risk. Risk analysis and identification of appropriate partners in this context are important in defining when cooperation makes sense. Or, when it may be better to prioritize coordination and forgo cooperation.

Alternatively, UNWomen staff experienced in joint programming can mitigate some of the extra effort that larger UN agencies need to invest in cooperating with UNWomen, especially if they are not in-country. This can be factored into recruitment and training decisions for countries and regions where joint programming is most feasible for UNWomen.

Typically, improving collaboration is considered a training issue - but the research highlighted here demonstrates why this alone cannot address cooperation challenges. Communication skills, relationship management and trust-building are key competencies for cooperation, and training can absolutely help enhance them. But for staff to really be able to apply what they've learned, it needs to be relevant for their organizational context and mandate.

In this case, learning needs to start at the organizational level. Where, how and with which organizations has cooperation happened successfully in the past? Why, or why not? The answers to these questions will differ based on organizational mandates, 'tone from the top' and country contexts. That knowledge needs to be harnessed through knowledge management or evaluation mechanisms so the organization can learn. Through systematic rather than adhoc learning, an organization can start to figure out, in the context of its own mandate,:

  • how partner organizations are best identified;

  • what types of programmes lend themselves to cooperation and joint programming with minimal risks to information-sharing or normative mandates;

  • how relationships with UN partners and host governments are managed most effectively;

  • how information is shared or maintained as confidential in joint programmes and how that impacts the organization generally; and

  • when is prioritizing coordination over cooperation best.

Once gathered, this information should be shared with learning professionals who then can take an evidence-based approach to designing or tailoring learning specific to the organization's needs and context. This will dramatically increase the likelihood that staff actually apply what they've learned in their daily work.

So, while the ACABQ may want the UN Women Executive Board to increase cooperation with the UN Development System, this will take some strategic thinking, and work, to achieve. UNWomen, and similar organizations have several different options to consider in taking a more strategic approach to enhancing cooperation for greater effectiveness. UNWomen will likely need to take an organic approach to increasing cooperation where enabling conditions exist. This becomes easier to explain to the ACABQ or the Executive Board, if the management has taken an intentional approach to determining when cooperation or coordination is more appropriate and institutionalized this through organizational learning.

Points for discussion

For those participating in this week's UNWomen Executive Board session, or for other entities exploring how to increase inter-agency cooperation, we suggest considering the following discussion questions:

  1. Is there a plan in place to enhance cooperation with the UN Development System?

  2. Does the plan include more than training staff?

  3. How does the plan take into account UNWomen's unique three-pronged mandate?

  4. How will lessons learnt and best practices in cooperation be identified and shared for organizational learning?

  5. How does the organizational learning translate into staff learning?


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • UNHCR's Standing Committee holds its 3rd and final session of 2023 from 13 to 14 September 2023. Agenda items include the programme budget for 2024, reports of audit and oversight mechanisms, an oral update on integrity issues, human resources and staff welfare, and an oral update on preparations for the Global Refugee Forum.

  • The UNWomen Executive Board holds its 2nd regular session of 2023 from 12-13 September 2023. The main focus is on financial and budgetary matters, including UNWomen's structured funding dialogues. Ethics and operational responses at the regional level are also being considered.


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