KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Making the United Nations fit for the post-2015 world

with 3 comments


While the consultations and negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are ongoing, inside the UN discussion is already moving to whether or not the UN is ready and able to support this new agenda. This discussion has been labeled internally as the “Fit for Purpose” discussion the general gist of which can be seen in this statement by the Deputy Secretary General.

As a core member of the UN Transformation Network I’m very happy to see this internal soul searching. I have been marginally involved in some of the discussions (I was co-drafting an issues paper based on a high level meeting – which has since gone into another part of the internal policy machine) but wanted to share a few thoughts of my own about some of the things can and should think about in order to stay relevant and effective.

[huge disclaimer: this next part is a few of my own thoughts on how to make the UN fit for purpose, it’s incomplete, and doesn’t in any way represent any official UN position – although I do hope they take some of these ideas into account] So here goes….

The UN was created over 60 years ago in a very different world from the one we are in today. It continues to change rapidly with a number of key trends to consider including the increasing number of middle and higher income countries, increasing disparities of wealth and access to rights and resources including in those higher income countries, an increasingly pressing need to deal with environmental sustainability and climate change, increasing availability and use of new technologies (for good and ill) and an increasingly crowded and diverse field of development actors.  Given that a new development agenda is also in the making, and one that is likely to be more comprehensive and universal than the MDGs it makes sense for the UN to reexamine its role and current business models.

Although UN was designed for a different world, it has gone through several rounds of reform during its history and continues to do so now. Unfortunately change is often slow in any bureaucracy, but in the UN this is made even more difficult by its complex governance structure, and the large degree of consensus that is needed among agencies and UN member states for change to happen, something that is often lacking.

So what are some things that can be done? Much of recent UN reform has focused around increasing efficiency and effectiveness through strengthened accountability and reporting and administrative reforms, and to a certain extent on improving “coherence”  – which in everyday language is the extent to which different parts of the UN work together effectively, or at least do not duplicate or contradict one another.   While these three are important, I’d argue that the most pressing challenge the UN faces right now is to ensure it remains relevant to a changing world and a changing agenda.

One way to remain relevant is to try to predict the future and then to adapt the organization to be best suited to it. However rather than tying change to any specific demographic, ecological or economic shift I’d suggest three approaches the UN might use to be better able to stay relevant whatever the content of the new development agenda.

1. Listening to the people we work for – If the UN is to stay relevant it needs to listen more to its clients. Traditionally the UN’s key partners are member states  – donors and programme countries. But we also need to listen more to the beneficiaries themselves – to know better what they want and need, and also to get feedback on how we are doing and what we need to improve. The post-2015 dialogues are a good example of this, and the current discussion on participatory monitoring for accountability could help inform how the UN (and governments and other partners) do this more systematically and effectively in the future.

2. Listening to staff – Typically in the UN when we face a systemic issue we form a task of senior level officials or a high level panel of external experts. While this approach can have the value of credibility and representation, it can also miss out on the wealth and breadth of experience and ideas within the UN system. Some of the best sense of what is needed in day-to-day work, as well as some of the most practical and innovative answers on how to address them are most likely to come from frontline staff. We should think therefore how we can better listen to staff when we are looking for ways to improve how we work, and what we work on.

3. Acting as a knowledge broker – connecting development partners to relevant knowledge and expertise from wherever it comes from, not just from within the ranks of the UN. The UN is uniquely placed with its global presence, normative role and technical mandates to be able to bring together expertise from diverse sources and help make this accessible to partners (although we still struggle to share knowledge internally between agencies at present). This includes doing more to foster South-South knowledge exchange as well as North-South and South to North. This role is unique and is needed whatever the content of the post-2015 development agenda and whatever constellation of country typologies we have.

All of these three approaches are actually part of a broader strategy that I believe the UN needs to take which is  to find ways to be more nimble and quicker to respond to emerging issues whatever they are. Right now change is often slow and thus we can be quickly overtaken by events, and sometimes we can’t find agreement to make changes for the most important challenges. Rather than preparing the UN for any particular future it might be better to make the UN better equipped to reinvent itself and change course more easily both substantively in terms of the issues it is addressing, but also to be able to quickly make the necessary changes in policy, structure, budgets and particularly human capacity in order to be able to adapt to any possible future. In a rapidly changing world, we need to be able to change rapidly too, if we are to remain relevant.


Written by Ian Thorpe

April 16, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in dumb ideas I had

3 Responses

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  1. Ian, I’ve had the opportunity to work with different UN agencies and groups (Secretariat, Peace Keepers, UNAIDs and UNHCR) multiple times between 2006 and 2010. I heartily agree with your ideas here.
    Your final sentence is very inspiring. I won’t repeat it here, but will say that after most of my UN projects, I had the strong feeling that there is so much potential, so many good people, so much energy, so much need, but that it’s all being stifled by the administrative infrastructure and decision-making processes. I realize, in some cases, consensus must be reached, but on one of my jobs I had to convince them that consensus was not the answer. They needed accountability at a particular point and they finally agreed to make it happen. That was the critical success factor for that project. Without that, the project would have failed. And I’m talking about a miniscule drop in the ocean (my project, I mean) when you think about the breadth and depth of the UN’s ambitions and mandates. I’d enjoy sharing more with you on this.


    April 16, 2014 at 12:24 pm

  2. […] @ithorpe – Three approaches to staying relevant as an organization […]

    Good Friday Finds

    April 18, 2014 at 3:33 am

  3. […] Written by Ian Thorpe who works with the UN on knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation on his blog, KM on a Dollar a Day.  […]

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