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ECOSOC/7048
19 May 2021

Speakers Highlight Greater Collaboration among United Nations System Entities, Areas Still Requiring Reform, as Operational Activities for Development Segment Continues

Reform of the United Nations development system has strengthened cooperation, coordination and collaboration among its member agencies worldwide despite the COVID-19 pandemic, but more must be done and faster to address such challenges as poverty, migration and climate change, speakers told the Economic and Social Council as it continued its segment on operational activities for development. 

In the first of three sessions held throughout the day, the Executive Heads and senior officials of six United Nations development system entities pointed to the challenges of reforming a massive apparatus during the ongoing pandemic.

Isabelle Durant, Acting Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), noted that paradoxically, the pandemic has accelerated the reform process in many ways, raising knowledge and respect for the Organization as a whole.  The fact that her non-resident agency and many others have been working remotely actually increases cooperation. 

Similarly, Zsuzsanna Jakab, Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said the agency perceives this as an opportunity to reduce fragmentation and amplify impact at the country level, adding that it has made an increased contribution of $6.98 million to the vast network of resident coordinators, which aim to bring together the different United Nations agencies to improve efficiency and effectiveness of operational activities at the country level.

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), pointed to success, including WHO and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, or GAVI, working together on getting enough COVID-19 vaccines into the system, a joined-up response moving at unprecedented scale and speed.  With levels of poverty rising, national social protection programmes have reached 47 million households in 128 countries, she said. 

In the afternoon, speakers took stock of progress in fulfilling promises made two years after the adoption of the Funding Compact — a voluntary mechanism between the United Nations development system and Member States which included a commitment to tackle financial challenges that must be overcome to effectively implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Robert Piper, Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Development Coordination Office, said the Secretary-General’s related report shows mixed progress.  Highlighting achievements and challenges for Member States, he said despite a marked increase in non-core funding for development channelled through inter-agency pooled funds, core funding as a part of overall development funding remains low.  In terms of commitments from the United Nations development system, a real shift occurred in 2020 on collective delivery and measurement of COVID-19 results, with the percentage of evaluation offices participating in joint evaluations increasing to 55 per cent from 22 per cent in two years.

The final session examined how well the Secretary-General’s proposals to strengthen the development system’s support to countries serviced by multi-country offices are being implemented. 

Achim Steiner, Vice-Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group and Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), noted that in only 10 months, there have been significant efforts to enhance the United Nations programmatic and cooperation offer to nations covered by these offices, yet more is needed going forward.  Some entities are taking steps to better align with the needs of small island developing States and enhance presence and coordination. 

Didier Trebucq, Resident Coordinator of the Barbados Multi-Country Office, and Walton Webson (Antigua and Barbuda), Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, highlighted how multiple agencies worked together to support Saint Vincent and the Grenadines after the volcano eruption there.

The Economic and Social Council will meet again at 11 a.m. on Thursday, 20 May to continue its work, including a dialogue with panellists on the theme “Unleashing the United Nations development system’s regional assets:  the path forward”.

Session 4

The Council held an interactive dialogue in the morning on the theme “Moving from architecture to results” in the continued session on operational activities for development systems chaired by Sergiy Kyslytsya (Ukraine), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council and Chair of its Operational Activities for Development Segment, and moderated by Melissa Fleming, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications. 

It featured panellists Achim Steiner, Vice-Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group and Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); Zsuzsanna Jakab, Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO); Rola Dashti, Coordinator of the Regional Economic  Commissions and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA); Isabelle Durant, Acting Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); and Antonio Vitorino, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Mr. KYSLYTSYA introduced the panel, noting the session would allow participants to review progress on repositioning of the United Nations development system, hearing about progress made and challenges faced.  The centrepiece of efforts is to align lines of accountability and reporting between country teams and resident coordinators, she said. 

Ms. FLEMING first asked all six panelists to address what has worked and what hasn’t in United Nations development system reform. 

Ms. JAKAB responded that WHO is fully committed to making reform successful at the country level.  The agency perceives this as an opportunity to reduce fragmentation and amplify impact at the country level, accelerating related Sustainable Development Goals, he said, adding that it has made an increased contribution of $6.98 million to resident coordinators.  The 2020 quadrennial comprehensive policy review shows WHO participation in the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) remains at 99 per cent.  Given the increasing priority of health in the United Nations cooperation framework, equitable access to COVID-19 tools is crucial both morally and strategically, as there is no substitute for strong health systems in the pandemic context. 

Ms. FORE said United Nations agencies can do more and move faster, but there have been some successes.  She noted WHO and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, or GAVI, are working hard together on addressing COVID-19.  It is a struggle to get enough vaccines into the system, but the joined-up response is working at unprecedented scale and speed.  With levels of poverty rising, national social protection programmes have reached 47 million households in 128 countries; however, sustained financing has not been fully realized.  While many agencies have very powerful worldwide brands, she said it is important to work on being a United Nations brand as well.

Ms. DASHTI noted reform has strengthened cooperation, coordination and collaboration as well as impact at country and regional levels.  ESCWA has established collaborative platforms in all regions, validated and guided by Member States, with state-of-the-art “knowledge hubs” for all stakeholders and support for regional business operation strategies.  The agency is still aiming to strengthen its contribution to the Secretary-General’s data strategy and provide resident coordinators and country teams with more assistance.

Ms. DURANT said that paradoxically the pandemic has accelerated the reform process in many ways, raising knowledge and respect for the Organization as a whole.  Reminding participants that UNCTAD is a non-resident agency, she said there had been a perception that it was a bit out of the discussion as everything occurred at the country and regional levels.  However, working remotely actually helps to increase cooperation between non-resident and local organizations.  Reform of the agency is on a good track despite its staff “not really physically being in the room” while still providing expertise and technical assistance. 

Mr. VITORINO said the system proved its effectiveness in responding to the pandemic and its impact with expertise at the national level thanks to resident coordinators, but also globally thanks to the Development Coordination Office.  Migration is a cross-cutting issue touching on numerous Sustainable Development Goals, he noted, and there should be better outreach to cities as protagonists of social cohesion and fighting inequality.  With migration efforts ongoing in 51 States, he said trends of displacement are regional, not just national.

Ms. FLEMING then asked Ms. FORE about the need for a whole of system approach to reform.  She responded that the quadrennial comprehensive policy review is a critical tool for guidance, “a two-way street for us”.  Its milestones have mentioned youth participation, fighting violence and gender equality, with all initiatives mainstreamed throughout a strategic plan.  Efforts on climate change must be intersectional, she stated, with a focus on issues such as water programmes, often a conflict between regional communities. 

Responding to a question about lessons the pandemic has taught on delivering developmental reform, Ms. JAKAB replied that it has greatly accelerated the process by revealing the interconnectedness of all sectors and agencies, in all areas of life, with unprecedented coordination among all United Nations system entities.  The crisis management team has become very important in coordinating a network for global humanitarian response to COVID-19, mitigating economic impact in fragile States.  The greatest lesson, she stressed, is to ensure all work better together to be prepared for the next health crisis. 

Mr. STEINER, addressing the original question, said reform is working, country teams are operating and resident coordinators are in place.  On many fronts, “We have come a long way” on the mechanics of reform, he said, as the development systems involve everyone working as one.  Practical issues include efficiencies, and new protocols involving people moving from one agency to another, with UNDP one of first organizations to address it.  He noted the issue of “common premises” remains a concern, possibly requiring a commitment of millions of dollars, funds that simply are not currently available.  He referred to the policy review as the “northern star, the compass” leading to the next strategic plan. 

Ms. DASHTI reconfirmed that reform at the regional level did make a difference, with ESCWA providing advice to Member States on sustainability and liquidity issues and broadening debt suspension to the middle-income class. 

Asked about accountability to resident coordinators, Ms. DURANT replied that while UNCTAD has no field offices, it participates in several annual assessment processes at the country level.  Accountability for all is absolutely key, but it is an enormous burden to organize different accountabilities for donors and budgets.  She stressed it is important to increase knowledge of what is happening on the ground at the country level for non-resident organizations. 

Mr. VITORINO said performance evaluation is very much-human-centred, and a new system requires that people adapt.  IOM has engaged resident coordinators in planning and programming of its activities, because only with active participation can there be success in enhancing cooperation at the country level in delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The representative of Japan expressed concern over country teams’ commitment to the Funding Compact, as some indicators have gone down.  Calling for more examples of coordination among United Nations entities, he asked how comparative advantages can be enhanced by each agency.

The representative of the United States asked Ms. Fore and Mr. Steiner about challenges faced concerning in-country implementation of the management accountability framework and the benefits and challenges of the current version.  Citing the United Nations Response and Recovery Fund for COVID-19, he asked if that model can be replicated in other areas.

The representative of Germany said strengthening the system’s work around resident coordinators means facilitating a change of working culture, and asked how that will be accelerated in specific agencies.  As only a limited number of entities have adapted job descriptions, he asked what needs to change in moving forward. 

The representative of Lebanon said regional commissions must scale up support for developing countries, with a gradual shift towards integrated high-quality policy advice, capacity-building and financing, especially among middle-income countries.  He cited efforts by ESCWA during the current difficult time for the country.

Ms. FORE, responding to Germany’s representative, said that the agency does use country framework outcomes in its country programme documents, which should be expected from every agency.  She noted that UNICEF has been assisted on human rights matters by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), given their strong voice in a country.  It is crucial for resident coordinators to speak up with an independent voice on human rights. 

Ms. JAKAB agreed with Germany’s representative that the working culture must move on and be changed, requiring a lot of training at the outset on coordination and overall partnerships.  Efforts during the pandemic have shown the United Nations family working together, and it must do the same in building back better.  Ms. DASHTI added that there is a need for agility on that issue, a priority for ESCWA, and reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to serving countries’ needs in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Mr. STEINER pledged to respond on the management accountability framework in writing.

Ms. DURANT stated it is important to keep resident coordinators informed when Governments are preparing plans.  Responding to representatives of the United States and Germany, she said UNCTAD is collaborating on an e-trade for all network, involving 32 agencies.

Mr. VITORINO said his agency adopted a number of regional strategies last year, formerly dealing with Member States in drafting them, but this time collaborating with resident coordinators and humanitarian coordinators, ensuring migration strategies are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals.  While there has always been overlap in the field, working with UNICEF and UNHCR, they have always found a way through, considering the capacities of each agency.

Session 5

In the afternoon, the Council held an interactive discussion on the theme “Two years into the Funding Compact:  Are we delivering on our respective commitments?”.  Chaired by Sergiy Kyslytsya (Ukraine), Council Vice-President responsible for the operational activities for development segment, it was moderated by Ib Petersen, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director for Management of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).  The discussion featured a presentation by Robert Piper, Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Development Coordination Office, and the following panellists:  Johannes Oljelund, Director-General for International Development Cooperation, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden; Rania Al-Mashat, Minister for International Cooperation of Egypt; Ibrahim Zuhuree, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Maldives to the United Nations; and Anita Bhatia, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women).

Mr. PIPER made a presentation on the status of the Funding Compact, a voluntary mechanism established in 2019 to transform the United Nations development system. The Secretary-General’s related report shows mixed progress, with more efforts needed.  Highlighting some of the achievements and challenges, he outlined the three major commitment areas for Member States: aligning funding to entity requirements, providing more stability to the United Nations development system, and supporting increased coherence and efficiency.  Providing several examples, he said that despite a considerable increase between 2017 and 2019 in the share of non-core funding for development channelled through inter-agency pooled funds, core funding as a part of overall development funding remains low.

In turn, he summarized gains and challenges involving the United Nations development system’s three commitments:  accelerating results on the ground, increasing transparency and accountability to Member States, and increasing efficiencies.  Offering several findings, he said a real shift occurred in 2020 regarding collective delivery and measurement of results on COVID-19, with the proportion of evaluation offices participating in joint evaluations increasing to 55 per cent from 22 per cent in two years.

Improving funding for the United Nations development system is absolutely critical, he said.  The quality, predictability and coherence of funding is a fundamental prerequisite for a more integrated, tailored, strategic and coherent Organization support to the 2030 Agenda.  The United Nations Sustainable Development Group is scaling up its implementation in areas where indicators are not moving fast enough and more progress is needed.  But, progress is also needed on the Member State side, he said, expressing hope that dialogue between nations on their commitments and how to increase implementation and accountability can take place in the coming months.

Mr. PETERSEN posed questions to the panellists then invited Member States to join the interactive discussion.

Ms. AL-MASHAT, responding to country-level efforts to enhance transparency, said that a new multi-stakeholder platform was established in 2020, involving all development partners to ensure effective investments.  Similarly, such inclusive discussions are addressing each of the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure, among other things, that each dollar is mapped.  Input from these discussions will inform Egypt’s next five-year strategic framework.

Mr. OLJELUND, answering a question about achievements and challenges to further mobilize commitments and strengthen the United Nations development system, said the Funding Compact is at the core of such efforts.  Core support for the development system is critical, as it allows specialized agencies to rapidly respond to challenges, but more resources are needed.  There is political vulnerability to this flexible approach, and more donors are needed to ensure a strong, efficient system.

Mr. ZUHUREE, responding to a query on transparency and country-level experiences as a small island developing State, said Maldives is among nations that were hard hit by the pandemic and the subsequent economic shock.  Recovery efforts, developed in record time, include a strategic national action plan in line with development needs.  The quality of funding is important, he said, noting that Maldives has benefited from both COVID-19 response and recovery funds.  While Maldives is also benefiting from funded projects addressing such issues as gender equality and persons with disabilities, more must be done to strengthen the sustainability of funding. 

Ms. BHATIA outlined ways United Nations is accelerating results on the ground, including aligning country programme documents and strategic notes guidance and processes to ensure they are derived and sequenced from the 2019 cooperation frameworks.  Agencies have also increased collaboration, particularly in COVID-19 response efforts.  To improve transparency and accountability, agencies have submitted financial data to the Chief Executive Boards and hold annual structured dialogues on related issues.  United Nations agencies are also actively engaged in the business operations task team and have continued to make progress in advancing shared operations and premises, she said, noting that 84 per cent of UN-Women’s field presence is in common premises.  Citing areas requiring further action, she highlighted a need to strengthen country team reporting on and investment in gender mainstreaming efforts across the 2030 Agenda.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates shared their concerns.  The representative of Norway said “you get the United Nations you fund”.  Funding decisions are taken in the political and financial environment in each State, which is effected by such shocks as the pandemic.  At the same time, Member States must actively help the agencies do their part, she said.  The representative of Germany underlined the importance of quality funding in ways that support joint activities.

Session 6

An interactive discussion on the theme “Responding to needs and priorities of countries serviced by multi-country offices”, chaired by Mr. Kyslytsya, was moderated by Selwin Charles Hart, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Action and Assistant Secretary-General for the Climate Action Team.  It featured a presentation by Mr. Steiner and the following panellists:  Walton Webson (Antigua and Barbuda), Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States; Satyendra Prasad (Fiji), Chair of the Pacific Small Island Developing States; Didier Trebucq, Resident Coordinator of the Barbados Multi-Country Office; and Pär Liljert, Chief of Mission of Australia, Coordinator and Advisor for New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific for IOM.  Fiona Webster, Deputy Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations, served as the discussant.

Mr. STEINER, making a presentation on the work of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group and UNDP, outlined priorities for the multi-country office framework, from a regional plan in the Caribbean to country-level efforts.  Some entities are taking steps to, among other things, better align with the needs of small island developing States and enhance presence and coordination.  Regional posts have been established in the Pacific and Caribbean regions, and a North Pacific regional office is being planned.  Citing other improvements and challenges ahead, he said that in only 10 months, there have been significant efforts to enhance the United Nations programmatic and cooperation offer to nations covered by multi-country offices, but more is needed going forward.  For its part, the United Nations Sustainable Development Group will continue to push ahead, engaging national Governments and Member States.

Mr. WEBSON commended swifter responses during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Agencies worked together to respond to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines during the recent volcano eruption.  This quick response must now be institutionalized and put in place across all regions.  Citing other achievements, he said appointing personnel to the multi-country offices has been welcomed and will add to and improve the United Nations agencies’ effective response.

Mr. PRASAD said the Pacific region has its own unique challenges, expressing hope that synergies will reach across regions.  Multi-country offices are indeed lending a greater coherence to the United Nations system.  Given that there are no one-size-fits-all models, he said efforts include innovations and unique solutions to challenges, from climate to security issues.  New financing instruments are also being used, including UNDP initiatives tailored to small island developing States.  The multi-country office system is well supported, he said, adding that Governments are appreciating their added value as an integrated effort.  However, small island developing States are the most vulnerable in the world, and multi-country offices must be adequately resourced to provide effective support.

Mr. TREBUCQ, answering questions about challenges, offered three examples of how the Barbados Multi-Country Office has joined up across United Nations entities to better support nations.  For the first time, across all 10 nations and territories the office services, country implementation plans were based on an offer for Eastern Caribbean development, with engagement in joint planning.  In addition, the office adopted a more integrated response to increase development finance, he said, pointing to a recent multi-agency deployment after the volcano eruption in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.  In addition, the office scaled up the instruments required to foster efficiency and coherence on the ground, including addressing the challenge of complex multidimensional issues with integrated solutions.  To do so, it drastically increased the number of joint programmes at a time when United Nations reform efforts have brought an additional $34 million for small island developing States in the region.

Mr. LILJERT provided a snapshot of how IOM is operating multi-country offices, saying that the shift towards joint United Nations programming is essential to support nations in tackling national, subregional and regional challenges.  Over recent years, the number of joint programmes rose to 29 from 12 in the Pacific region, covering issues from climate change to gender-responsive peacebuilding in extractive industries.  However, country teams need to improve understanding on United Nations collective assistance in each nation, and challenges remain in the area of funding.  While the United Nations Pacific Strategy Fund has been established, securing funding to respond in a more integrated, flexible and dynamic way to national and regional priorities is a challenge.

During the interactive discussion, delegates asked panellists for details about ongoing efforts.  Some highlighted national challenges and offered examples of lessons learned, particularly during the pandemic.

The representative of Australia, speaking also for Canada and New Zealand, said it is imperative that the right people with effective skills are appointed to the offices, asking how Member States can help in this regard.  She also asked the panellists what issues should be highlighted in the review process.

The representative of Haiti, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said member States are grateful for the work of the Multi-Country Office in his region.  As COVID-19 continues to affect nations and their economies, he said the resident coordinator reform efforts are facing their first real test.  Welcoming more tailored programmes and support, he said such efforts should be dealt with across the entire United Nations system and not uniquely by multi-country offices.  Commending the coordinated response to the volcano eruption in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, he said CARICOM reiterates the importance of staffing profiles reflecting the unique needs of countries in the region.

The representative of Belize said that as a nation serviced by the Multi-Country Office in El Salvador, there are problems in the way States are put into such groupings.  Belize is better placed within the Caribbean region, rather than in Central America.  As such, adjustments should be made to better serve States, including calls to limit the number of countries served by multi-country offices.  The current model is not sustainable for Belize’s development, he said, reiterating a request for multi-country office reform.

The representative of Germany asked to what extent the multi-country office model could be applied to nations outside small island developing States.

Mr. WEBSON, responding to several questions, expressed full support to re-examine the structure of multi-country offices.  Financing these offices and strengthening operations must also be a priority for small island developing States.

Mr. PRASAD emphasized the need for efficiency, flexibility and speed in response efforts, particularly during the pandemic.  Lessons learned can be helpful when shared across regions.

Mr. TREBUCQ said the current momentum can lend to additional programme planning going forward, which is what the Multi-Country Office in Barbados will continue to do.

Mr. LILJERT said that while synergies fan out across the Pacific, a stronger focus is needed on the unique needs of small island developing States.  He expressed hope that mechanisms being used today can become tools for further progress.

For information media. Not an official record.