UNDP: Then and Now
06 May 2016 by Taimur Khilji
UNDP faces a much different world today than 50 years ago. Today’s world moves much faster: it is defined by instantaneous 24-hour news cycles, faster networks, faster delivery, shorter production cycles, and zero inventory. Everything is just-in-time! Inevitably, speed has also crept into UNDP’s mission: development results are expected to be faster, better, and articulated in 140 characters or less. Speed has become the critical marker of success.
Fifty years ago, while the world was perhaps slower in many respects, the challenges were enormous and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. UNDP’s birth coincided with two great political realities: the Cold War and rapid decolonization. The Cold War was at its peak, with the Vietnam War escalating. At the same time, newly independent states of what was then called ‘the third world’ swelled UN membership from a mere 35 in 1946 to 127 in 1970. During their infancy, these countries looked toward the UN for technical and monetary assistance. Development thus came to occupy centre stage at the UN.
UNDP: An innovative idea
UNDP—a merger between the Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA) and the United Nations Special Fund—was a pragmatic answer to a demand from member states. UNDP was an innovation, marrying technical assistance with much needed investment for the developing world. UNDP's first Administrator, Paul Hoffman, came with the important credential of previously directing the Marshall Plan; the Associate Administrator, Arthur Lewis, was a Saint Lucian Princeton economics professor who went on to win the 1979 Nobel prize in economics.
UNDP’s early initiatives were ambitious and transformative. The aim was nothing short of sparking development of countries by increasing productive capacities across critical sectors. The far-sighted Jackson Report, written shortly after UNDP’s inception, put UNDP on the right track.
UNDP Advisor Albert Winsemius’ contributions in transforming Singapore from third world to first are enshrined in Singapore’s textbooks. In India, UNDP helped set up pilot projects that eventually became India’s National Informatics Centre—one of the world’s most complex e-governance initiatives. In Bhutan, UNDP was instrumental in setting up and launching the country’s first airline, Druk Air, thus opening up the country to the rest of the world. UNDP’s Human Development Report series is still the primary text for development trends for students and practitioners alike.
UNDP in the 21st Century
The end of the Cold War gave way to a more diffuse distribution of economic and social power. At the same time, rapid improvements in technology and communications have brought voices of the people into the open. In a world that is now largely democratic, this has fundamental implications for how UNDP works and operates: development as practiced is no longer a brokered relationship between UNDP and respective nations states, but is increasingly pushing us to recognise the central role citizens play in decisions that affect them. This goes well beyond the role of 'civil society' and 'NGOs' as stakeholders around a table. People need to be able to meaningfully contribute to UNDP's agenda and vice versa. UNDP needs a compelling narrative that people feel they are a part of and leads to bringing about the change they would like to see in their lives. While UNDP has taken steps through its World We Want platform and has made it to the top of the International Aid Transparency Index, there is room for further improvement.
Also, we are noticing a merger of three previously distinct agendas: security, humanitarian and sustainable development. The once distinct boundaries between these thematic issues are now blurred; insecurity and fragility have a clear humanitarian dimension, and recovery and sustainable development are perceived essential for a resilient future. Migration is not just about reaching one's destination, but also about ensuring a livelihood for the next generation. And sustainable development is not just about economic growth now, but also about protecting the global commons for our grandchildren.
Given the enormity of these agendas and the inter-connections between them, broad and diverse partnerships will be necessary. To this end, seemingly mundane attributes like empathy, strategic thinking, and organizational capability to be flexible while maintaining coherence will allow UNDP to lead while saving and securing lives.