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Revamping Accountability Models: A Key to UN Development System Reforms

21 May 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Are the UN and its member states really mutually accountable for reforms at country level?

UN Flags from below

This week, WFP holds another evaluation roundtable with its Executive Board which includes their evaluation of the WFP Policy on Country Strategic Plans. UNWomen’s Executive Board receives a briefing on its implementation of UN Development System (UNDS) reforms, like the Boards of UNESCO, UNICEF, and UNDP did in recent weeks.

The evaluation and briefings all consistently point to improvements in coordination across the UN system in light of reforms to reposition the UN Development System. They equally point to a lack of corresponding improvements in programme coherence at country level.

This leads to a larger question of whether improved coordination really leads to greater programme coherence, as assumed by the reforms, and the impediments to greater programme coherence across the UN Development System (UNDS) in achieving the SDGs. Our spotlight explores this question in light of a new study by the German Development Institute that considers the accountability not only of the UN, but also member states, in line with the principle of mutual accountabilities for reform.

In 2016, WFP’s Executive Board approved the Policy on Country Strategic Plans as an integrated strategic programming tool intended to improve the quality and coherence of WFP’s work. Although approved slightly before adoption of the UN Development System reforms in 2018, the policy’s aim is clearly aligned with that of the reforms. The evaluation finds that the policy’s greatest contribution is in relation to WFP's “strategic positioning and, in particular, alignment with national priorities and harmonization within the United Nations.” (pg. 2). Achievements around improved coordination with the UN Country Team are also consistently highlighted as achievements by UNESCO, UNICEF and UNDP in their briefings to their respective Executive Boards.

Yet, the Executive Board briefings and the WFP evaluation all highlight challenges in relation to programme coherence, in particular around cross-cutting issues and the humanitarian-peace-development nexus. The assumption of the reforms is that improved coordination and the resulting integrated and more strategic approach to implementation of the SDGs should lead to better results. But as the UNICEF Information Note states:

"Notwithstanding these important progresses, four years since the reform roll-out, the measurable impact on children is not yet evident." – UNICEF Information Note, pg. 3

In a study published in 2022, the German Development Institute reviewed the implementation of the UNDS reforms at country level to ascertain specifically whether the improved coordination and programme coherence led to improved support of host countries by the UNCT, guided by a common strategy. Their findings very much echo that of the WFP evaluation of its Country Strategic Planning Policy, namely that improved coordination is evident, but that UNCTs continue to struggle in developing and adhering to an integrated and coherent approach to achievement of the SDGs.

"In a system still mired with problematic funding modalities, disparate and at times conflicting governing bodies and reporting structures, to cite just the most important impediments, drafting and, in particular, implementing the more coherent Cooperation Frameworks remains challenging. It is not a surprise that difficulties in the institutional element, where overall change is laudable, are translating into deficits in the substantive element in a more pronounced manner." – S. Weinlich, New Rules, Same Practice? Analyzing UN development system reform effects at the country level, pg. 18

While funding challenges are often assumed to mean insufficient funding, both the German Development Institute study and the WFP study highlight that the problem is also that funds are not allocated to certain needs, or there is a lack of flexibility to allow Resident Coordinators or Country Representatives to reallocate funding where it is needed most. As WFP points out, this means UNCTs often struggle to ensure the appropriate expertise (i.e. staff and posts) are available to UNCTs especially with respect to addressing cross-cutting issues.

These studies as well as the briefings to Executive Boards all highlight that progress has been made in the areas under the direct authority of the UN (i.e. coordination) but areas where collaborative or mutually reinforcing actions are required both by the UN and member states, progress is falling short. With respect to funding for instance, UNDP spells out the problem clearly and highlights the importance of genuine mutual accountability:

"While the advancement of the Funding Compact is intrinsically linked to the success of the UNDS reform implementation, the Funding Compact has fallen short of its desired outcomes and progress has been mixed with the UNSDG entities making considerable improvements while Member States’ commitments remain less than desired. 87% of UNDS commitments were met in 2021, only 47% met by Member States. The notion of reciprocity – despite voluntary and non-binding nature of Funding Compact – is at core of the Funding Compact commitments. Without ensuring mutual accountabilities of all parties, the Funding Compact may fall short of the desired outcome and hinder the achievement of the SDGs. UNDP has met 94% of its commitments to the Funding Compact." – UNDP Information Note, para. 26

But as the German study points out, it’s more than just a funding problem. Organizational policies and reporting systems - which are generally decided or approved by member states - are not facilitating programme coherence, and often continue to incentivize competitive or siloed approaches. UNESCO, for instance, reported to its Executive Board last week that it is preparing guidance on preparation of country documents for field offices aligned with the UNDS Cooperation Framework, but it does not include the requirement for all activities to be included in the Framework, nor does it intend to institute a process for Board approval (and therefore member state alignment) with country plans. Neither the Paris-based member states nor UNESCO's senior management appear to be pushing for organizational policies and decision-making that can lead to more consistent and systematic programme coherence.

Conversely, in recognition of the mutual accountabilities and need for coordinated action by member states and the UN, the German Development Institutes targets a series of recommendations at both member state and UN stakeholders. At a strategic level, it recommends that:

"Member states should raise the priority of the UNDS reform and invest efforts in a whole-of-government approach. The rationale, measures and required changes should be well known across line ministries and duty stations" – New Rules, Same Practice? Analyzing UN development system reform effects at the country level, pg. 22

and simultaneously

"All UN Entities should fully embrace the reform and adjust accordingly from headquarters over regional to country level and from job descriptions over administrative procedures to programming cycles." – New Rules, Same Practice? Analyzing UN development system reform effects at the country level, pg. 23

Reform discussions and recognition of the need for improved coordination and coherence are not new. However, the explicit acknowledgement of mutual accountabilities between member states and the UN is a new facet of this set of reforms. There is growing evidence from practitioners and researchers that this is not yet working as well as it should, and it is a much bigger issue than simply allocating 0.7% of a country’s gross national income to development. Accordingly, it may be time for a restructuring of these discussions on development and UN reform with mutual accountability as a fundamental starting point.

For example, while the UN reports extensively on its efforts to coordinate and ensure transparency and efficiency in the use of funding, why don’t member states report on their efforts to coordinate across their own ministries and ensure the whole of government approach? Or the efforts of groupings of member states, like the Geneva Group to facilitate programming coherence at country level through their funding and engagement?

Should analyses of funding patterns influence on programme coherence and results perhaps be the starting point of structured funding dialogues, instead considering funding as an ‘external’ factor or risk in the UN’s struggle to achieve results?

If programme coherence is being impeded by organizational policies within different organizations, is there not a need for proactive coordination and engagement between the UN Chief Executives Board (CEB) and all UN governance bodies?

These are just a few considerations and not meant as definitive solutions. Our aim is simply to spur consideration of ways to foster a genuine two-way dialogue between the UN and member states focused on mutual accountability for Agenda 2030.


  • The GA's Fifth Committee enters the last week of its second resumed session. It finalizes its discussion of the programme and budgets of MONUSCO, MINUSMA, RSCE, UNDOF, UNIFIL, UNISFA, UNLB, UNMISS &UNSOS as well as cross-cutting issues related to peacekeeping (see last week's newsletter).

  • UNWomen's Executive Board has an informal briefing on evaluation, audit and investigation matters on 25 May. On 26 May it meets to prepare the upcoming formal session scheduled for 19-21 June 2023 and to receive a briefing on UNWomen's update on its efforts to implement UN development system reforms.

  • The UNICEF Executive Board holds a closed briefing with the Director of the Office of Internal Audit and Investigations, and the Director of the Ethics Office on 26 May.

  • The UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board holds a series of informal meetings from 22-25 May covering, among other things, the annual reports of UNOPS and UNFPA; activity reports of the respective audit and ethics functions for UNDP, UNFPA and UNOPs; and the Report on results achieved by UNCDF in 2022.

  • WFP's Executive Board holds informal consultations on the 2022 Annual Performance Report and on 25 May it holds its annual discussion on evaluation and opens a two day roundtable on evaluations.


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