Study of the Capacity of the UN Development System
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Part of: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change (UAI Study Papers INF/5)
The Sixth Session of the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) designated Sir Robert Jackson as Commissioner to undertake a study of the capacity of the United Nations system to handle the resources made available by the UNDP first, at their present level5 and second, if doubled over the next five years. The "Jackson Report" is the result of a study by a team of people in 1968-1969. The study originated with the UNDP's Inter-Agency Consultative Board.
The importance of the report is due to its coverage of the major problems plaguing the operation of the UN family of organizations. Despite the emphasis on development, many of the problems clearly exist for non-development programmes. The Study is extremely forthright in its criticism of the UN structure and operations and for this reason the United Nations should be congratulated for permitting it to be published and circulated to the press particularly in its "unexpurgated form".
For the first time, an overall view of the United Nations operational mechanism is available. It reveals in a fairly systematic way many of the problems which hitherto have been known only partially by those people moving in United Nations or international organization circles, discussed as "corridor gossip", or cited in conversations as justification for a cynical attitude toward UN effectiveness. Up until this report, these problems have not been adequately reported in journals or the press, because those people with the knowledge to write about them held positions that would be endangered by such disclosures. Books on the topic were discounted as the work of disenchanted individuals. The Study is therefore important because it for the first time looks behind the glossy public relations image of the United Nations -- an image which is held dear by both members of the public, people in official positions and some academics in the field of international relations. Political scientists are particularly apt to undertake research as though the UN was a highly coordinated unit under governmental control via the General Assembly (see ALGER, C.F. Research on research: a decade of quantitative and field research on international organizations. Paper presented to American Political Science Association, annual meeting, September 1969).
It is now possible to acknowledge non-political weaknesses of the UN, cite a responsible study of them, and investigate means of overcoming them.
The Study considers procedures for planning and operating the development programme, by introducing the need for the concept of a United Nations Development Cooporation Cycle (UNDCC) and an information systems concept. The questions of organization, human resources and financial resources are also considered. The conclusions of the Study are now being considered by the Specialized Agencies and Member States. As it points out, many important decisions have been postponed "pending the publication of the Capacity Study".
The most important recommendations involve a complete restructuring of the UN development operations with considerably increased power for the UNDP. It is recommended that this should be backed up by a three part computer-based information system to deal with: technical and scientific information (documents), economic and social information (statistics), and operational and administrative questions (budget and project control).
Terms of Reference
The world has been in need of a study of the international system of this quality for many years. It is most unfortunate that it was necessary to focus the study on one set of problems -- development problems -- from the point of view of one organization, the UN -- and more particularly the UNDP. These may be necessary evils, for otherwise the study might have proved too broad to be actively considered by any group. Dangers arise because on superficial reading -- and the length of the report encourages this -- one obtains the impression that:
The need for a broad coverage is partially recognized as follows, but it is the fact that the result gives only a UN-oriented picture which is so dangerous:
Following this argument, what is an adequate boundary for systems concerned with world problems?
From a management perspective it is vitally important to recognize that
A management approach to the UN system must, therefore, recognize a five level problem of data processing, coordination and management guidance of:
These networks of interacting bodies are both a source of problems, due to their own lack of coordination, and an important resource for the attack on the problems with which the UN is concerned.
It is important to avoid the assumption that improvement at either of the first two problem levels will necessarily produce an effective solution to the problems arising outside the UN system or interacting with it. Weaknesses in coordination and information systems, critical to the functioning of the UN and its programmes outside the UN system may not be detected unless the overall coordination problem is clearly determined in advance.
The length and apparent comprehensiveness of the report diverts attention and resources away from the need for a broader perspective view of the world system as a whole. Such a study could well have been undertaken as a background to the Capacity Study, or because of the lack of such a study, should have been recommended by the Study.
The great danger lies in the probability that the United Nations system public relations and public information programmes will lead the informed public and many decision makers to believe that the UN is doing all that can or need be done and has the attack on every world problem well coordinated. This automatically devalues the activities of other bodies, reduces the allocation of resources and support to them, dampens initiative from the local and national level which is not channelled through governmental and UN channels and effectively nullifies the type of constructive criticism which can lead to renewal of effort, new approaches, and galvanization of the political will necessary to the accomplishment of all international (and UN) programme objectives.
The Capacity Study as the Analysis of a System
Given that the terms of reference require a focus on a particular part of the world system, it is then important to assess whether the Study attempts to uncover the interaction between the UN family of organizations involved in development and those outside the UN system with similar or related concerns with which it does or should interact. No systems study is complete if it restricts its attention to problems within the boundary of the system and does not consider the environment within which the system operates, as the quote above implies. This is the case here, it would appear.
a) Subject areas interacting with development are ignored.
The term "development" is a very loose one used to cover many problem areas. In the Study it is considered as a major subsection of economic and social questions (which can themselves be made broad enough to appear to cover everything. [E.g. O.E.C.D. Aligned List of Descriptions (for) Economic and Social Development, Paris, OECD, 1969 includes information processing, chemistry, optics, anatomy, magic, religion, etc.] "Development" is undefined in the Study, except vaguely, as relating to the transfer of techniques and resources, development of agriculture and industry. The world is, however, faced with a multitude of non-development problems: Mental health, urban decay, racial discrimination, etc. Some groups attempt to gather such problems under the development umbrella in their more expansionist moments, although budgetary problems usually restrict them in practice to the tidy compartments of straight economics, agriculture and industry.
Much confusion is created when the advocators of development conceive of topics such as education, futures research, pollution, policy sciences, etc. as subsections of development. For the groups working in these areas often consider development to be merely a subsection of their own field of concern. What then constitutes an adequate mechanism for dealing with the problems and how is the evaluation to be made? It is clearly in the interests of the promoters of any change or project to imply that their proposed problem coverage policy is "comprehensive" -- whilst soliciting funds -- and then limit themselves at an operational level to what is manageable -- once the funds have been obtained. This form of misrepresentation can lead to assumptions that:
If development problems could be considered in isolation, no criticism could be made. Their complexity is however partly recognized as follows:
Development does not take place in a vacuum. Development, whether agricultural or industrial or "economic and social" leads over an increasingly short period of time to environmental pollution. - which might even be considered a major consequence.
This question is totally ignored by the Study. The word pollution is mentioned once in attempting to justify "'non-country" oriented programmes:
The requirements of a feedback information system to detect consequences of over-development and assist in handling them, are not discussed. Note that pollution does not only arise due to intensive industrial development but also in agricultural areas such as in developing countries a) where fertilizers are used for crops:
and b) where farm animals are reared:
It must not be forgotten that "development" represents both a world problem and a current political issue. The consequences of over-development could quickly become a political issue.
The Study attempts to structure inter-Agency relationships, five year programmes, and the proposed information system in terms of the special characteristics -- and possibly temporary relative importance -- of development. This rearrangement may be entirely unsuited to the possibly even more dramatic problems of pollution and famine relief (both of which will according to some observers reach crisis importance within the period covered by the Study). Information systems and organizations cannot be rapidly restructured even under crisis conditions. It is very difficult to increase their response time to crisis.
National and international discussions are at the moment accelerating to the point where an international agency will undoubtedly be established to focus on pollution problems. It is highly probable that this will be a major issue at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Sweden. What sort of information system is needed to ensure that development projects do not have cumulative or interaction effects on the environment? What sort of feedback mechanism from any such agency's field observers is required to guide development planners? What is the organization reaction time provided for in the case of a pollution or other crisis? How can the development level be balanced against the pollution level?
What other fields of activity (apart from pollution) may be affected by the consequences of development? How many relevant fields are not adequately covered by UN agencies, by whom are they covered, and what factors mitigate against using this information?
The Study ignores the implications in the arguments illustrated by the following quotes:
Implementation of the relevant recommendations of the Study would therefore lull the world into believing that the best was being done to attack world problems whilst due to the specialization on development, the system is rendered even more vulnerable to crises arising from different types of problem. The more problem-oriented or specialized an organization becomes, the less easy it is for it to adapt to new circumstances. (Witness the plight of many specialized prehistoric animals -- of which the Study is in fact aware: "...the (UN) machine as a whole has become unmanageable in the strictest sense of the word. As a result, it is becoming slower and more unwieldy like some prehistoric monster." (I, p. iii)
It is not clear whether the study advisors included persons from all fields which interact with development. That this should be possible is itself dangerous in view of the seriousness with which the recommendations of the Study will be considered.
b) Organizations interacting with the UN development system are ignored
The UNDP interacts with the outside world mainly through the other Specialized Agencies. It is their projects which are financed by UNDP funds. It is clearly important to consider the interaction between the UNDP and the Agencies, justified by the argument quoted earlier (II, p. 30). Given this argument, however, and the fact that the Specialized Agencies themselves are acting within the development framework of a maze of other organizations, for:
Then, clearly, equal attention should be paid to the effectiveness of the interactions of these Agencies with the non-UN bodies with which they are in contact, if any global strategy is to be formulated as the Study suggests.
The terms of reference request that the Study include "the use of inter-governmental organizations not only within but also outside the United Nations family...". Reference to such organizations is however very vague. It is not clear whether the authors are aware of the number of such bodies. The O.E.C.D., an extremely important body, is mentioned some five times, despite the importance of its development information system. There is no discussion of the problems of coordination with O.E.C.D. and the possibility that the UN and O.E.C.D. chains of national development information centres will duplicate one another. Casual reference is made to some of the development banks. These bodies are definitely not considered as an integral part of the overall development system.
The Study appears to be totally unaware of the existence of international nongovernmental organizations of which there are now some 2,600. This figure is expected to increase to 5,600 by 1985. The proportion of these in fields associated more or less directly with development namely social welfare, economics, finance, commerce, industry, agriculture, transport, travel, technology, science, health, medicine, amounts to 52% ["What is the NGO interest in development ? I cannot think of a single NGO that has not expressed an interest in development...Many...would welcome identification of their own organization's interests with... development." (Roosevelt, C. The politics of development: a role for interest and pressure groups. Paper presented at SID Conference, 1969)]. Approximately 40% of these have national organizations as members, the remainder have individual members. (Yearbook of International Organizations, 1963-1969, Brussels, UIA; also Skelsbaek, Kjell. Development of the systems of international organizations: a diachronic study. Paper presented at the third conference of the International Peace Research Association, 1969)
The impression that the report creates, even accepting the limits imposed by its terms of reference, is that every single development project or programme is planned and carried out entirely on the initiative of the UN Specialized Agencies. If other organizations are involved, they are either "voluntary" or "national" and are under the closest of Agency supervision.
Typical of the treatment accorded to non-UN organizations in the Study is the reference to the role of UNRWRA in the following:
An uniformed person would be encouraged to believe that UNRWA did everything and that there existed no other types of organizations to be involved. Compare the implications of the above with the version of Bertram Pickard, who worked with UNRWA:
The Study may therefore be considered to be somewhat unsystematic in its examination of the organizational context in which the UN organizations carry out their development programmes. A systems study should examine or at least estimate the number and types of bodies with which the system in question interacts, in order to discover what such bodies supply to tie system (inputs) and what they require from the system (outputs) -- both at the present and in improved circumstances. This is not done and therefore the degree of dependence of the UN on these bodies is not known.
The conclusions of the Study are therefore based on a narrow perspective of how to improve the UN development capacity whatever the implications. Since even the Study acknowledges the secondary role of the UN development system (II. p.111), it would seem logical that some account should be taken of the effects of its programmes on the organizations with which the UN is in contact, firstly to ensure that their effectiveness will not be decreased, and secondly, to ensure that the effects of the changes on them will not create conditions which reduce the effectiveness of the UN programmes.
An objective of the UN, and surely the UNDP, is to accelerate development. The objective is not, however; to accelerate development via UN channels -- this may be a strategy, it is not an objective. The Study ignores the possibility of a higher degree of interaction between the UN other intergovernmental organizations and international nongovernmental organizations -- with preservation of autonomy on both sides - leading to the creation of a much higher powered development network stimulated and catalyzed by the UN system. It would appear that the UN (and the UNDP) wants to make the development problem entirely its own, however few the resources at its disposal (cf the UNRRA example). Assistance from outside is not required.
The Study does however advocate increased use, by the UN system, of bodies outside the system, although it is not clear what bodies are meant by this:
It is quite apparent that the UN is uninterested in any projects arising from initiative outside the system, but it is admitted that it may be necessary to delegate some of the UN workload in this way:
There seems to be a total lack of realization that many bodies outside the UN system are anxious to undertake projects and that adequate machinery is necessary to contact and encourage them to work on UN projects. Many bodies in fact find the UN to be far too slow to undertake development projects or to detect and respond to new problem areas. The UN should recognize the distinction between its programmes which have been approved by the long government administrative process and programmes initiated by outside bodies on topics which have not yet become of sufficient political importance to penetrate through the administrative machinery. By developing organizational and information systems to deal with the first only, the UN is in fact creating an operational definition of development projects as being those which have been approved by political processes. This process may not even detect problems which are significant from a development perspective. The time lag between detection of, and action on, a growing problem by a non-political body and recognition of a problem by political bodies may be precisely the difference between a minor problem requiring few resources and a major problem requiring much more resources (unnecessarily). UN machinery should facilitate the attack on both political development problems and pre-political development problems.
There is no understanding of the actual or potential relationship between governmental and nongovernmental organizations -- which should be considered "partners for development". It is instructive to compare this attitude with the following:
The UN system depends in the broadest sense on this network of organizations to detect and feedback information on the effects of its programmes, as is illustrated by the following:
From the Study one would imagine, and many of its readers in the developing countries will be led to imagine that the world system is composed of the UN, one or two other intergovernmental bodies, governments, a few national associations and individuals. That a UN document should convey this impression is extremely irresponsible. An educational opportunity has been effectively lost and misconceptions reinforced. In the light of this perspective, it would probably be reasonable to recommend a UN/UNDP structure like that in the Study. The fact that the UN system is only part of a highly complex network of decision-making, information-handling and operational bodies should suggest the need for a structure which is less like a military organization chart and more oriented toward the needs of all the bodies involved.
Not only does the Study not manage to count up the bodies interacting with the UN, or alternatively express the need that they should be counted up, but it is made clear that it was not even possible to count up the decision-making bodies within the UN itself.
This confirms an impression that the United Nations system is so unwieldy and complex (I, p. iii) that anyone associated with it, is forced to spend so much time on internal communications and coordination (II, p. 93) that his time for examination of the non-UN parts of the world system is reduced to a bare minimum. His awareness of its complexity and fine-structure is therefore low and even his awareness of the importance of the unorganized public is not very high:
Such a person would therefore have little motivation to interact with interest group development projects even if free to do so.
The consequence of this attitude over a long period of time is that effective non-UN nongovernmental bodies will tend to deliberately reduce the contacts with the UN and undertake separate programmes. Any contact with the UN would then become only nominal and passive, thus reinforcing UN opinions of the lack of importance of such bodies. This may be one reason for the lack of interest on the part of international NGOs in the various IGO groupings associated with a number of Specialized Agencies which led in 1969, at each of them, to expressed NGO dissatisfaction concerning the value of the groupings and their machinery (cf. reports of: 11th Conference on International Nongovernmental Organizations in Consultative Status with ECOSOC; 12th Conference of International Organizations in Consultative Relations with UNESCO; 15th Conference of International Organizations for the Joint Study of Activities Planned in the Field of Agriculture in Europe (FAO)).
c) Management problems of bodies outside the UN system are ignored
There is an implicit assumption in the Study that the UN development system can be adequately redesigned without examining the management problems of non-UN bodies or systems.
The Study states for example that
but does not infer from this that the coordination problems within national government systems may be as great or greater than those shown by the Study to exist for the UN system. Just as some observers imply that the UN is a body adequately coordinated by the General Assembly, so the implication here is that the situation revealed by the above quote does not suggest a fragmentation of coordination at the national level and below. Government is not one body but a network of bodies and the deficiencies of the UN system are the reflection of weaknesses in such networks. [" ..there is not much danger of a monolithic Federal adventure in environmental control. No less than thirteen Congressional Committees now have a piece of the environmental action. In addition, there are 90 separate Federal environmental programs, plus 26 quasi-governmental bodies and fourteen interagency committees already at work..." (Newsweek, January 26, 1970, p. 31)]
Consider the case in the U.S.A.:
And consider the case in one European country where the government commissioned a special research programme to locate all international bodies and/or their subsidiary organs or commissions concerned with the Second Development Decade (due to their mandate or their experience, or because of the need to adapt their programmes), in order to formulate an overall policy. Because they were then unable to determine which departments within their own governmental structure were responsible for contact with the three hundred bodies located, the government committee responsible, gave up the attempt to formulate an overall development policy and restricted its attention to thirty of them (namely 10% of the available organizational resources).
Any redesign of the UN subsystem of the world system, which ignores the other subsystems, may therefore be tantamount to the "tinkering" approach which the Study criticizes (I, p.l8). In fact, increasing the capacity of the UN subsystem, when the "absorptive capacity" of the countries is inadequate, can only lead to waste or irreversibly overstrain the national administrative structures which would prove unable to respond to the improved ability of the UN.
But the discussion of absorptive capacity does not underline the possibility of management problems such as those found within the UN, it restricts itself to questions of personnel, material resources and the comment that :
But the "multiplicity of organs" referred to here are within the UN system. There is no hint that there might be an equivalent multiplicity within each government structure and that it might be there that the causes of many problems lay.
The effectiveness of international development programmes may be entirely dependent on links in an administrative chain or network which are in fact weakest at the national level, even further down the chain, or even in the grey area of interaction between nongovernmental and governmental bodies, or in the nongovernmental subsystem itself. There is no suggestion in the Study that this possibility might nullify the results of all the proposed improvements proposed for the UN system, except perhaps indirectly in the quote above and the following:
Is it not possible to design an information system (even as a 'package') which would help governments, and hopefully other bodies, to get a clear overall view of their own structures as well as their relationship to international structures, including those of the UN?
d) Administrative and operational processes, on which UN development programmes are dependent, are ignored
The Study is primarily concerned with the general conception of the capacity of the UN system from a high level management point of view. It is very important that this should be stressed and is a breakthrough in this context in terms of its comprehensiveness.
But an organization's success depends on effective interaction with its environment, and in the case of development programmes, it is very much tied up with the administrative problems of the impact its programmes have on its environment. Some of the avenues of interaction on the output side are:
Some of the avenues of interaction on the input side are
Each of these channels groups together information from a (not excessively) large number of bodies with which the UN system is in contact. They represent the web of relationships through which the UN system acts. To consider the UN system as a whole, as a management problem, this web of relationships must be considered as a whole. The Study does not do so nor does it comment on the following point. Current information on bodies using and supplying information to UN bodies, whether they are within the UN system, the government system, the nongovernment (non-profit) system, or the commercial system, appears to be split between and within each agency, by geographical area, by sector and even by channel. The same body is likely to be listed many times in a totally uncoordinated manner leading to important and undetectable omissions.
This problem is touched upon only vaguely with the emphasis on data on projects:
The Study does not go into organization of the numerous contact information systems or mention how these should be related to the new system proposed.
The proposed structure and information system attacks the problem in a piecemeal fashion, touching only on those bodies which are important for project coordination purposes. But these and other bodies need information from the UN or should be supplying information to the UN. This information may be of a technical, statistical, public relations or other type. Each type of information, each input or output flow, has its importance to processes with which the UN is concerned. They have not been considered in an integrated manner.
Perhaps the main weakness is the total lack of mention of public relations information and its degree of integration with the proposed information systems. And yet the Study can acknowledge:
The UN depends to a large extent on its ability to influence and convince people and organizations that it is effective. It has to "sell" itself and the idea of development -- many people are totally indifferent to both the UN and development (possibly with much justification if they are not deliberately involved in both the UN processes and the world problem solving process). The important point which arises here is the traditional distaste on the part of the last generation of managers, politicians, academics, and administrators for mundane mailing lists. And yet mailing lists ensure effective contact with the real world. Mailing lists may in themselves be totally lacking in interest, but an organization's mailing list is a direct representation of the pattern of its contacts or the web of relationships into which it is embedded. As such it is important for management purposes, for political and academic understanding, and to programme administrators. A flexible mailing list has tremendous potential for increasing the effectiveness of the organization. Skilled use of it can be seen as a process of manoeuvring through information space and is a measure of the "livingness" of an organization -- its openness to its environment.
The mailing lists within the UN system are however scattered by department, division and agency and there are considerable pressures, which have nothing to do with the external world, against collecting them together -- even in the form of copies.
It is therefore totally impossible to coordinate the interaction of the UN with one particular outside body for a wide variety of purposes. The Study complains of this sort of behaviour on the part of governments.
This sort of approach is only acceptable if the non-UN system is considered irrelevant to UN operations, or where non-UN bodies only need to be told something, or requested for something using mass mailing techniques which do not require any fine control.
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