How can the “second UN” of international secretariats support the SDG agenda of the “first UN” of governments?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an agenda of UN member states. In the form agreed in September 2015, the goals are aspirational and much more ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them. Aspirations will not be enough, however.
Once the Millennium Declaration had been agreed in September 2000, nothing stirred in the secretariat for several months. Then, early in 2001, the UN system (led by UNDP) awoke to the realization that the MDGs could be the basis of a renewed push for development, which had the backing of the major donors. For most of 2001, UN funds and programs worked on refining the seven goals, and their associated targets (eventually 18) and indicators (48). The “means of implementation” were bundled into Goal 8. Moreover, at the Financing for Development (FfD) summit in 2002, a grand bargain was struck: a commitment by the global South to seven MDGs and by the North to the eighth.
In important respects, the SDGs are different. The world has begun the arduous journey away from the dichotomous North-South alignments; all member-states are expected to be engaged with all the goals, which are far broader in scope, including one goal (number 16) that for many is the most fundamental of all: inclusive and transparent institutions, reducing corruption and stemming asset theft, promoting the rule of law, and ending violence.
In spite of these differences, experience with the MDGs contains important lessons for the fate of the SDGs. The Third FfD conference in July 2015 has helped to identify the means of implementation. The identification and refinement of indicators will be taken up in early 2016. And individual organizations have verbally committed themselves to the new goals.
So far, so good. But a list of aspirations needs two more things if it is to constitute a meaningful roadmap. It needs plans of action and an identification of the “second UN” of organizational responsibilities. In particular, how can international secretariats support an agenda formulated by the “first UN” of member states?
The World Has Changed
In fragile and conflict-prone states the UN will be a key player with a hands-on, operational role. But reconstruction and peacebuilding are not part of the SDGs. The responsibility for attaining the goals lies principally with the countries themselves: their governments, but also key non-state actors. The UN does not “do development” and its supporting role has been diminishing for a number of reasons. The UN development system (UNDS) has been slowly recognizing these seismic changes, and the challenges of the SDG era invite dramatic reform based on the comparative advantages of the UN.
Experience with the MDGs, and in particular the MDG Achievement Fund (MDG-F) offers lessons for the future.
The MDG-F Experience
At the end of 2006 the Government of Spain and UNDP signed an agreement to create the Millennium Development Goals Fund to promote the advancement of the MDGs, as well as to foster reform initiatives aimed at increasing the effectiveness of development cooperation: promoting the Delivering as One (DaO) reforms and the OECD’s Paris Principles. For beneficiary countries, the MDG-F encouraged local ownership and promoted whole-of-government approaches. UN organizations continue to plead for more core resources, but they are resigned to donor preference for earmarking. In response, individual organizations are drawing up integrated program budgets, matching the totality of their programs with all available resources, core and non-core.
An SDG "Multi-Partner Funding Initiative"
The lessons drawn from the MDG-F must be interpreted in light of changing development realities and amidst the pressure for UN reform. Together, they constitute practicaI boundaries that circumscribe proposals for any future funding mechanism to support the post-2015 development agenda.
This paper discusses five key emerging considerations: country ownership of the development process with the SDGs; governance and partnerships; country eligibility; next Developing-as-One phase; and knowledge management.
While the SDGs provide a general framework for the activities of a future “multi-partner funding initiative” initiative, countries requesting support will begin with assistance to prioritize their own specific actions and sequencing of aid and investment in line with their own national planning frameworks. In essence, the initiative will facilitate the mediation of the UNDS in aligning global goals with local realities. UN Country Teams (UNCTs) should work together to identify, develop, and implement joint UN projects working in conjunction with counterparts and beneficiaries.
Two specific objectives arise for any new fund, and will determine the nature of the two windows of the new multi-partner initiative. The first – Window One – is to support requesting countries in the development of their own national strategies to accomplish the 2030 sustainable development agenda. The second – Window Two – is to draw up and mobilize funding for more specific operational plans through which the UN development system and its constituent organizations—acting together and drawing on operational and comparative advantages—can contribute to SDG achievement. The objective of Window Two would be to draw on the specific functions and expertise of the UN development system, including in particular compliance with its own universal norms and standards.
A future “multi-partner funding initiative” should have a balanced representation of donors on a central Steering Committee composed of member-state governments (donors and program countries), civil society, private sector and UN organizations. A model for such governance and partnerships is provided by the boards of the vertical funds — including the Global Fund and GAVI. Experience has shown that these boards operate through consensus, with no individual members exerting undue influence.
The new funding mechanism would be open to all countries requesting support via UNCTs. Country eligibility would also necessarily be aligned with results: beyond initial support, additional funding would be provided to countries delivering the best results. As with the MDG-F, a small percentage of Window Two could be set aside to finance UN program development work.
The inspiration for the UN’s support for the 2030 sustainable development agenda should reflect the SDG Outcome whose preface proposes an alliteration of five clusters as a way to simplify the many themes: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnerships. These clusters should frame the support that the UNDS can provide to national strategies. Thus, Window Two would foster the One UN programs anticipated by DaO and provide the One Funds to support them.
Another essential aspect of the MDG-F to be emulated by the new initiative would be joint programming to promote greater system coherence, drawing on the best available experience. The new fund should require a minimum of two UN entities for each project. To reduce high transaction costs associated with joint projects, each would have a UN “lead” organization with full responsibility for the overall management of a project and hire or borrow staff from other UN organizations. The overall aim of the new fund should be the devolution of funding authority to the UN resident coordinator in each country.
Any new mechanism should, like the MDG-F, have substantial resources if it is to have an impact. Both for reasons of size, as well as multilateral practice, the new fund should attract as many donors as possible. In addition to OECD/DAC donors, the new initiative should aim to attract resources from the seven largest sources of ODA among non-DAC countries (Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates) as well as private sources and foundations. While funds would be pooled, individual donors could earmark allocations to one of the five development domains (People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, Partnership) in which they would like their funds to be disbursed. But an essential component would be no designation of specific target countries.
The resources of the fund should be administered by the UN’s Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office, but UNDP should consider not executing projects under Window 2 in order to safeguard its role as honest broker. The incentive for donors to contribute to the new mechanism would be the attraction of the two-part agenda: encouraging the development of SDG-compatible country strategies; and financing system-wide country programming.
Donors wishing to foster the 2030 sustainable development agenda – or the reform of the UN development system – could find the new mechanism of potential interest, even to reluctant parliaments.
Stephen Browne, is Co-director of the Future UN Development System (FUNDS) Project; Senior Fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York; and former Deputy Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, Geneva. He is the author of several books on development and the UN, including United Nations Industrial Development Organization (2012), The United Nations Development Programme and System (2011), and co-editor with Thomas G. Weiss of Post-2015 UN Development: Making Change Happen? (2014).
Thomas G. Weiss, is Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center; he also is Co-director of the FUNDS Project and of the Wartime History and the Future UN Project. Past President of the International Studies Association (2009-10) and chair of the Academic Council on the UN System (2006-9), his most recent single-authored books include Governing the World? Addressing “Problems without Passports” (2014); Global Governance: Why? What? Whither? (2013); Humanitarian Business (2013); What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (2012); and Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action (2012).
The authors are grateful to UNDP’s MDG Fund for the opportunity to evaluate their experience from 2007 to 2013.