The UNDP Logo – an extension of the basic UN symbol
Defining the UN
Shortly after the First World War, the League of Nations was founded in an attempt to ensure that such a conflict never happened again. The concept was revised in light of World War II, and thus the United Nations was born. Its mission was not only to prevent war, but also to tackle a range of other issues, including economic development, human rights and social progress, so a collection of subsidiary bodies and programmes were created, each focusing on a particular area of action. Frederick explains his understanding of what the UN is all about.
“The UN is not a government, but a structure that has been created by governments in order to look at major political, social, economic problems of member countries. The UN Development Programme was one of the organisations set up within the UN system in order to provide economic and social support to member governments. At the time I joined it had representation offices in about 80 countries, and today that figure is about 135.
“The UNDP is also part of the international aid community, providing funding for government agricultural, educational, social and industrial programmes. In practice, the funding gets added to government programmes in order to enhance their agricultural production, improve water supplies, help them plan their energy requirements, and to train people such as civil servants, teachers and farmers to do some of these things.
“Each country requesting the assistance of the UN is asked to prepare plans for the next four or five years, showing where they wish to incorporate assistance from the UN and other donors, such as Britain and France.
“There is no cast-iron programme that applies to all countries. The principle under which the UN works is that it responds to the priorities of its member countries, and each country will have different priorities at different times, depending on where it is along the development continuum.
“Part of the terms under which the UN was created was that the richer countries would provide support to the poorer member countries, but the UN works in the middle income developing countries just as it does in the least developed countries. It works in Mexico, Chile and South Africa, but also in Laos, Equatorial Guinea and Bhutan – some moderately prosperous countries and some very poor countries. So each one will have very different and specific requirements in terms of its priorities and the response it wants from the UN.
“You have to be sensitive to each country’s attitudes and ways of doing things. I always found that particularly interesting. It is part of the wonder of doing that kind of work.”
Managing the Money
Before practical support of any kind can be offered to a nation, there is the small matter of funding. Once the country’s objectives, or ‘priority programmes’, have been identified and it has specified the help it needs to carry them out, the UNDP steps in with a financial pledge.
“Essentially the UNDP tells member countries that they can count on financial support to the tune of however many tens of millions of dollars over the following two or three years,” explains Frederick. The government states how much money it is putting on the table in order to complete the proposed priority programmes, then, because these programmes are quite sizeable, you usually turn to other interested bilateral donors – like Britain, USA, Germany, Netherlands or Italy – to complete the programmes. So the programmes are almost invariably a complex package of different forms of funding from different sources.”
Understandably, every organisation or country contributing to a UN programme wants to know how their money is being spent, which means that everything has to be carefully recorded.
“The donors are constantly calling us to account but it is all accounted for,” insists Frederick. “For instance, the electoral assistance programme in Afghanistan was accounted for down to the last cent. Every donor receives a financial report and a report on what has been achieved at the end of the financial year. Again, a typical day of mine would often involve meetings with UN agencies, one or two people from the government and a number of donors, to review the progress being made with a particular project. It might be a de-mining programme in Afghanistan or Iran, or an agricultural development or road building programme.”
“We were expected to give an example to the world at large of good, clear, capable administration, so a lot of work is involved. As you prepare the programme, consideration is given to social conditions, issues of poverty and how to reduce it more effectively. For example, you have to decide whether to make the programs employment programmes or focus on capital investment.
“Then, as you develop the programme, you look very, very precisely at the administrative considerations. Can you deliver the programme in a transparent and accountable way? Is it realistic? Are the facts set out clearly? Is the information getting to the UNDP office from the very complex operations on the ground? So there is a lot of administration and sometimes, frankly, it can be a little ponderous, but it is essential.”
One of the major activities undertaken by the UNDP is giving support and guidance to failing governments, often after the fall of a dictatorship.
“Governance is support to governments in every aspect of management,” explains Frederick. “This can involve issues which relate to financial management and planning, but it can also relate to improving the systems and institutions of government. The UNDP is increasingly getting into issues such as the fight against corruption and how to manage it.
“The typical governance programme is the management of an election, but it can involve, as it did in Afghanistan, the rebuilding of parliament. That was not just constructing the building, it was ensuring that the parliamentarians, when they returned to parliament after 20 years of no parliament, had systems and trained staff to support parliamentary operations. For example, the Afghan parliamentary staff were sent to see how the British, French and German parliaments worked. They were trained and now there is a functioning parliament in Kabal.
“Governance can also involve questions of human rights. It might look at how the human rights commission should function in a given country. So you provide training and management support to the human rights commission so it can function, deliver results and be accountable to the broader public.”
The UNDP is also very active in establishing and promoting microfinance projects which help a high number of individuals by providing them with very small sums of money so that they can start a business or solve a problem.
“A microfinance project would often be treated as an element of small-scale poverty reduction at the local level,” explains Frederick. “In a number of countries where we worked, my typical day involved either visiting microfinance projects or working with the government to establish small-scale microfinance activities.
“In Kenya, for instance, we worked with a US foundation called Trickle Up, where we provided very small grants to micro-entrepreneurs. They merely had to outline on a sheet of paper what it was they were planning to do and identify what their contribution to the micro project might be. We would give them a first grant of 50 dollars which they could use to buy equipment or start-up materials for their operation.
“If they were successfully in production, or doing whatever job they had planned to do, they could come back and ask for a second and final grant of 50 dollars a few months later, and these things were surprisingly motivating and successful. So it’s just breaking a tiny bottleneck. What to you or I sounds like a tiny financial obstacle can be inconceivably difficult for the poor to overcome.
“But in Afghanistan, for instance, we were working with BRAC, the Bangladeshi microfinance operation. We were funding BRAC’s support to a number of Afghan organisations; training Afghans to manage microfinance activities. So a lot of work is bringing the best knowhow from other developing countries to work with government and non-governmental organisations.”