EXCLUSIVE: Faced with donor fatigue among Western nations, the chief of the $5.6 billion United Nations Development Program, Helen Clark, is quietly cutting staff, reorganizing operations, and blowing the organization’s own horn to U.N. member states -- in misleading ways -- to bolster its tattered claim to be the world’s foremost anti-poverty agency.
The makeover effort is seen by many U.N. insiders as an opening salvo in a campaign by Clark -- a socialist former Prime Minister of New Zealand -- to succeed current U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when his term expires at the end of 2016.
The three-pronged strategy is also a reaction to a global climate of austerity, accompanied by recent reports -- including from its own analysts -- that UNDP is inefficient, more interested in chasing money than in its primary mission, and not particularly good at fixing poverty.
Clark has given no overt sign that she intends to seek Ban’s job, but she is often mentioned by handicappers as a potential leader of the world organization that has been headed by men since its inception in 1947.
The UNDP reshuffle is just getting under way. The main results so far have been mostly cries of anguish from staff associations representing UNDP’s roughly 6,500 employees, who have complained that staff cuts will eliminate 30 percent of their number, and “have yet to see evidence” that the changes will render UNDP “more rather than less able to service its purpose,” as the heads of three staff associations complained in a letter to Ban last week.
Instead, the trio charge, the cuts “were undertaken in utmost secrecy, without due consultation” and “will have a seriously deleterious impact on UNDP staff.” The staff leaders quixotically called on Ban to “put the restructuring on hold” and force Clark to consult with employees before putting the cuts into effect -- thoroughly unlikely possibilities.
In response to questions from Fox News about the cutbacks, a UNDP spokesperson said the reorganization was aimed at “institutional effectiveness.” It would “eventually” mean a staff reduction of more like 10 percent, with “fewer senior positions, and more posts at entry and middle management levels, so to improve accountability and provide staff with better career opportunities.”
In an internal memo to staffers, Clark herself was not much more clear, except in the fact that she intended to go full speed ahead in order, among other things, to improve that same “institutional effectiveness.”
“Our services will be much more focused in the regions [outside New York headquarters]” she declared, “and we will be leaner.” Staffers who don’t want to make the moves involved may get to choose from a “limited number” of buyout packages. Money freed up by staff cuts will, among other things, be used “to invest in new areas.”
More detail, if not much more enlightenment, can be found in a new four-year strategic plan for the organization for 2014-2017, which the UNDP spokesperson said was the basis for the organizational changes.
Swaddled in opaque bureaucratic prose, the plan declares, in essence, that UNDP intends to hand back even more of the actual anti-poverty effort than before to the poor countries that it aims to help, while the U.N. agency itself concentrates more on passing on ideas, training and money to get the work done -- in essence, a kind of ideas shop and general contractor for a “sustainable” anti-poverty development effort.
The more focused approach is, among other things, a response to stinging criticism from among UNDP’s own anti-poverty experts that the organization’s efforts often have “only remote connections with poverty.” Beyond the issue of spreading itself too thin, the issue, as one UNDP evaluation put it, includes the fact that “the culture of learning about what works, why and for whom, is either weak or non-existent in most [UNDP] country offices.”
The question is whether its new strategic plan will do much, if anything, to focus a lean, mean UNDP any better.
For one thing, when it comes to the culture of learning, the new plan seems to call on UNDP to remake those areas of glaring lack of expertise into major sources of strength. It calls on the organization as one of three major areas of focus to “assist countries to deepen their understanding of key policy issues and plan for development transformation”-- more or less what it was criticized for doing badly in the past.
But then, the plan also calls for UNDP to once again diversify its attentions, notably in helping to turn developing countries into better-functioning democracies. It “will assist countries to maintain or secure peaceful and democratic governance, either when faced with large-scale changes or confronting specific challenges such as reforming constitutions, organizing credible elections or strengthening parliaments,” the plan declares.
In a third area of planned focus, helping battered countries develop “resilience” in the wake of disaster or conflict, the plan also seems to call on UNDP to become the general helpmate for good government practices in parts of the world that don’t have many.
“Key issues will be legislative oversight, transparency of public accounts, improvements in public administration, and reinforcement of local governments to deliver basic services, working with the non-governmental and private sectors,” the plan says. “Critical complementary support will address justice and security-sector institutions focusing on restoration of rapid access to justice and the rule of law, transitional justice measures, and longer-term recovery of justice and security sector institutions.
“Concerted efforts to tackle gender-based violence,” it adds, “will be a concern throughout.”
With a “focused” plan that spreads itself so widely, and in such nebulous ways, yet another question might well be, as it has been in the recent past, just how well UNDP will be able to show that it accomplished anything.
The evidence is not particularly promising.
In a performance report that UNDP will present to its 36-nation supervisory board at a session in Geneva starting on June 23, the agency presents a lengthy and foggy compendium of claimed achievements in such varied areas as “inclusive pro-poor growth,” as well as “natural resource management,” “access to energy,” and providing “unprecedented channels for citizen engagement in the global, regional and national debates around the next generation of development goals.”
Among other things, the agency declares that it had a “direct” role in such worldwide achievements as “6.47 million jobs created, over half for women, in 109 countries,” and that it “positively influenced 99 policy changes in 32 countries and 80 budget changes in 16 countries.” The nature of the changes is unspecified.
The same goes for its “direct” role in enhancing democracy worldwide. UNDP claims credit for “43 million new voters added in 2013 and 68 countries supported” in elections, and says it “positively influenced 62 policy changes in 23 countries” on election matters, not to mention fostering “six budget changes in five countries.”
UNDP also “worked with legislatures in 49 countries to increase legislators' skills on outreach, consultation and hearings to tap technical expertise and hear citizen perspectives,” the report says. In 2013, UNDP support “resulted in over 4 million people across 72 countries having improved access to justice, 49 percent of them women.”
Indeed, the report claims, “UNDP policy contributions supported the development of 360 diagnostics, 270 legislative processes, 261 plans and 217 policies to strengthen public administration, increase access to public services and justice, and reduce corruption.”
On another policy front, “across 72 countries UNDP supported the development of 121 policies, 417 diagnostics, 358 national plans, 129 budgets and 97 legislative processes primarily aimed at improving diagnostic capacities and risk management including citizen security.”
The list goes on. In general, UNDP’s chest-beating exercise, observes Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. financing and programs at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, “makes grandiose claims of impact, but is superficial, unspecific, and gives very little confidence that the agency actually can measure what it is doing. There may be real achievements here, but we can’t tell what they are.”
Without specific knowledge, for example, of the actual policy changes involved, and the nature of UNDP’s “positive influence,” Schaefer notes that UNDP’s claimed achievements “give a good impression without giving any real information.”
He scoffed, among other things, at UNDP’s claimed role in establishing a Palestinian youth parliament, noting that “Palestinians haven’t had a real parliament since 2006,” and that in other cases, “UNDP is helping countries prepare bureaucratic responses to the demands of other U.N. organs.”
The main intention, Schaefer said, “appears to be to provide evidence that absent UNDP participation, nothing happens at all.” But the overall impression, he adds, is that “UNDP itself is unconvinced of its own use.”
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell