UN’s $5.7B anti-poverty agency doesn’t do much to reduce poverty, according to its own assessment

The $5.7 billion United Nations Development Program bills itself as the U.N.’s flagship anti-poverty agency, but when it comes to actually helping the world’s 1.3 billion desperately poor people, that description appears to be more of a facade, according to a report commissioned by UNDP itself that is slated for closed-door discussion at the end of this month.

According to the document, UNDP’s efforts often have “only remote connections with poverty.” Its anti-poverty programs are “disconnected,” and are frequently “seriously compromised” by a lack of follow-up to help poor countries learn “what works and why.”

Bottom line: after spending more than $8.5 billion on anti-poverty activities between 2004 and 2011—and just how much more is something of a mystery-- UNDP 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.”

Those devastating conclusions come in a densely worded, official “evaluation of UNDP contribution to poverty reduction,” which will be presented to the agency’s 36-nation supervisory board at its next meeting, which begins on January 28 in New York.

Among other things, the document casts significant doubt on the extent to which UNDP is actually living up to its declared identity as “the United Nations anti-poverty organization—a world partnership against poverty,” a claim the report says was made by UNDP’s then-chief—James Gustave Speth—in 1995.

Moreover, it lays a significant part of the blame for that failing on the way that UNDP has spread itself across a growing range of activities in the name of promoting “development” –from environmental projects to trade promotion and border management—that “dilute” its anti-poverty effort.

In other words, an extensive form of mission creep.

The sharply critical evaluation was ordered up in 2009 by UNDP’s executive board, and based on work carried out in 2011 and 2012. The assessment was provided by UNDP’s own Office of Evaluation backed up by a team of external consultants and an advisory panel of independent experts, according to a UNDP spokesman. He did not provide the names of the consultants and advisory experts when queried by Fox News.

So far, only a 13-page executive summary of the evaluation is available. The full report, a much weightier document, will be made public in the wake of the meeting, which ends Feb. 1, according to a UNDP spokesman.

But what is available so far is troubling.

For starters, UNDP evaluators had trouble establishing how much money the agency actually spends on its anti-poverty efforts, in part because the money is spread across a variety of areas at the highly-decentralized UNDP, which maintains offices and programs in at least 162 countries, as well as its New York headquarters.

According to other U.N. figures examined by Fox News, UNDP spends, officially at least, roughly $5 billion annually on activities labeled as “development,” which could be understood as at least loosely related to anti-poverty action.

But the reality “gets complicated and the proportion of UNDP programming devoted to poverty reduction becomes even more blurred,” the evaluations states, “when projects, reported as contributing to poverty reduction, are not designed to do so.”

The full extent of those misleading UNDP project reports is not contained in the executive summary. Nor are the reasons for the gap between what the projects are claimed to do, and what they actually accomplish.

Even when projects are properly designed, it appears from the report, the extent to which they actually contribute to poverty reduction “is often unclear.”

“Inevitably, UNDP performance across a wide range of projects aimed at directly reducing poverty is mixed,” the assessment notes. The key issue, however, is whether the U.N. agency is able to prove it. The problem gets worse, the evaluators say, when UNDP creates projects to advance new—and “sometimes innovative”—means to reduce poverty.

Whether they actually do the job is problematic, because evaluations of the success of the efforts are “limited,” the report states, and “baselines that would facilitate rigorous evaluation are non-existent.”

In the same vein, when innovative pilot projects are established, and prove successful, UNDP “does not do enough” to help scale the efforts up to the point where they would actually help significant numbers of people.

Once again, the evaluators do not go into detail about the lapses, or the reasons behind them, at least in the executive summary. They say that the failings are partly “technical” --having to do with difficulties in monitoring the work--but add that they are also a reflection of something else: the agency’s “lack of focus on the poor.”

UNDP has flung itself into a wide variety of efforts that ostensibly help to reduce poverty, but the connections are, at best, indirect, the report says, and the outcomes “potential.” And when it comes to harnessing that potential, the results are described as “mixed,” “untapped,” and “seriously compromised.”

One of those less-than-successful areas of concentration is the environment, where the study says UNDP has been successful “to some extent” is linking environmental programs and anti-poverty efforts — an issue the UNDP’s evaluators examined back in 2010.

Another is encouraging democracy which the report describes as “an important area of UNDP interventions” in most countries where it works. But then, the report adds, diplomatically, “unfortunately, however, successful exploitation of synergy between [democratic] governance and poverty is not the general pattern.”

Where UNDP has been most successful, the evaluators find, is in getting the governments of most developing countries to agree they need to incorporate the U.N. agency’s language of poverty reduction “from the multidimensional perspective of human development” in their own national agendas.

But while UNDP’s success in that area “enhances the likelihood that it will be effective in influencing actually policymaking by national governments,” it “does not ensure it.”

(One recent case in point, revealed by Fox News last September: Syria, where UNDP forged extremely close ties with the Assad dictatorship, and especially with First Lady Asma Al-Assad, with the ostensible aim of advancing political liberalization, only to see the relationship collapse in violence that has since claimed an estimated 60,000 lives.)

By no means all of the evaluators’ conclusions about UNDP’s efforts are negative. Before launching into a litany of criticism, the report hails the agency for its “pragmatic and flexible approach toward advancing the poverty reduction agenda.”

It also says that UNDP’s “upstream” efforts to install poverty reduction agendas “at the center of national discourse” in many countries is a major anti-poverty contribution, and notes that UNDP has also strengthened the ability of many countries to measure and analyze the plight of their poor citizens.

But even those contributions are “seriously compromised” by the lack of effort to measure “actual changes in peoples’ lives” as a result of any such efforts.

“On the whole,” the report says, “UNDP “performs poorly in providing support to its national partners” to learn from their own anti-poverty efforts.

And the reason for that, the report says, is that “the culture of learning about what works, why and for whom is either weak or non-existent in most [UNDP] country offices.”


UNDP’s top management, headed by Helen Clark, a former socialist prime minister of New Zealand, has not taken the evaluation report lying down.

At the meeting that starts January 28, the UNDP executive board will also get a 17-page management rebuttal that claims, among other things, that the evaluation critique is too narrowly focused, and fails to address the complexity of the anti-poverty challenge.

“In the experience of UNDP,” the rebuttal states, “policies that have the greatest impact on poverty are not necessarily those that are the most narrowly pro-poor and targeted.” In fact, “in many cases, the focus on pro-poor policies has diverted attention from policies that have the most broad-based, sustainable effects against poverty.”

By contrast, the management document quotes Clark as saying that UNDP’s goal “is to support transformational change which brings about real improvement in people’s lives.”

What does that mean? According to the agency’s management: “UNDP work on poverty reduction towards transformational change is based on a belief in universalism, universal rights, universal coverage and access to social services, which is anchored in a recognition of the complexity of the development process – the longer-term context of it (it is a marathon rather than a sprint), the whole-of-society type of intervention (it is a treatment for general wellbeing rather than micro-surgery). Gender equality, sustainability and the rights-based approach are its bedrock.”

As opposed to “narrow” pro-poor policies, UNDP has a “theory of change” that “represents a holistic, pragmatic and consistent approach that impacts the lives of people, particularly the most vulnerable. The theory of change presents an end-result of an empowered, resilient and equitable society.”

Yet even as they laud their agency’s  “holistic, multidimensional and cross-practice approach, its track record in advocacy, policy, programmatic and knowledge management work and its wider country-presence and credible broad-based partnership with multiple stakeholders,” UNDP’s top bureaucrats concede—guardedly-- that the evaluators may have a point.

“This evaluation and its management response will serve as important reference points for articulating poverty reduction priorities for the future,” they declare, starting with UNDP’s next strategic plan for itself—which takes effect in 2014.


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