UN anti-poverty agency chases cash rather than results, study finds

The $5.7 billion United Nations Development Program, the U.N.’s flagship anti-poverty agency,  is poor at producing lasting results, sets unrealistic or unfocused priorities and often seems more interested in getting funding than in setting up programs that make the best sense, according to an internal assessment that will be discussed at a top-level meeting next month.

Moreover, in a sweeping examination of some $19.7 billion worth of UNDP programs between 2008 and 2012, the report says that only in “just about half” of the country-by-country efforts was the agency “likely to have made, or make, a significant contribution to the intended outcome.”

Nor is the agency very good at judging where it is going wrong, the report adds, meaning that “strengthening the efficiency of projects and programs is a major challenge.”

The sobering evaluation of UNDP’s usefulness was carried out by UNDP’s own Evaluation Office, whose director is appointed by UNDP’s top official, Helen Clark. So far, only an executive summary of the evaluation is available to members of UNDP’s 36-nation supervisory Executive Board, which holds its semi-annual meeting in New York City starting on June 3. According to a UNDP spokesman, a full version of the report will be made public next week.


The 16-page document is tough, but it is only the latest internal analysis of UNDP’s performance to give the agency — it operates in 177 countries and territories around the world, where its efforts are tailored to “national ownership” — lousy marks for its far-flung efforts at improving the lot of the world’s worst-off people.

In January, an internal evaluation was presented to an earlier Executive Board meeting that looked at more than $8.5 billion in UNDP spending aimed at poverty alleviation. It concluded that the agency has only “limited ability . . . to demonstrate whether its poverty reduction activities have contributed to any significant change in the lives of the people it is trying to help.

The latest evaluation looks back at the entire range of UNDP efforts under its most recent five-year strategic plan, which covers not only poverty reduction but such areas as “democratic governance,” “environment and sustainable development,”  “crisis prevention and recovery” (meaning largely from natural disasters), and development approaches like “mainstreaming gender equality and empowerment of women.”

What it found was often not good news. Among other things, the evaluation notes that:

  • Many UNDP projects “face challenges with getting projects started on time. Once implementation starts, timely disbursement of funds is often a problem.”
  • UNDP’s bureaucratic systems “are too complex to operate efficiently, especially in fast-moving situations.” Then it adds: “However, whether it is actually the complexity of the systems or a lack of capacity to use them is open to question.”
  • Some UNDP national offices are pursuing too many small-scale and dispersed projects, which add to costs and which the organization has supposedly warned its local offices against since 2009. (In general, the report says, adherence to that goal is “unsatisfactory.”)
  • In even more cases, UNDP programs “are not prioritized and not focused on a set of core activities appropriate to the strengths and capacities of the office.”  In other words, while the offices are busy doing many things, they may be neither useful nor effective.
  • An examination of UNDP individual country reports led to the conclusion that “the likelihood of the sustainability of the outcomes to which UNDP is contributing is poor.” One reason: “sustainability of results is rarely considered in detail as part of the selection and design process.”


One of the biggest causes of UNDP’s incoherence and chasing after short-term or ill-planned projects, the evaluators judge, is its business model, which increasingly depends on making use of earmarked funds from its big donors.

Unlike the U.N. Secretariat, where rich countries are assessed dues — with the U.S. at the top of the donor list, contributing 22 percent of the Secretariat’s “regular” expenses —contributions to UNDP are voluntary, and increasingly come with long strings attached —in part to ensure that the donors get some specific value for their money.

According to the latest evaluation, only 11 percent of UNDP’s $19.7 billion in spending between 2008 and 2012 is so-called “core” funding, meaning that the organization has discretion over where and how the money is spent.

The evaluators note that many of the agency’s Executive Board members -- and “some” UNDP managers -- believe UNDP should be “more focused, more disciplined and better at saying no” to projects it shouldn’t pursue. In other words, “where it can really make a difference rather than focusing on resource mobilization,” otherwise known as chasing cash.

Whether UNDP will heed that advice is hard to tell. In its response to the evaluation, which also goes to the Executive Board, UNDP accentuated the positive, as in, “there has been a perceptible and meaningful improvement in the extent and quality of gender mainstreaming in UNDP during the strategic plan period.”

In broader terms, UNDP’s top managers seems intent in looking past the shortcomings outlined in the evaluation report to assure the Executive Board that “UNDP is a stronger organization than it was when the strategic plan was developed, and the organization has continued to make an important development contribution across all its focus areas.”

In a veiled reference to the evaluators’ less-than-enthusiastic assessment of UNDP’s actual output, the response declares that “much of UNDP work is dedicated to tackling these kinds of long-term challenges and trade-offs, where progress is often harder to quantify and communicate, and where the UNDP core/non-core funding model presents particular challenges with regard to predictability for long-term commitment.”


Mostly, the response says, UNDP “is unswerving in its commitment to work with countries in tackling the deep-rooted and often most intractable impediments to development progress, and to ensuring that gains are truly inclusive and sustainable.”

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell.

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