The United Nations development system is better positioned thanks to recent reforms but more can and must be done to improve its effectiveness at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out a decade of achievements in some countries, delegates told the Economic and Social Council today at the opening of its three-day segment on operational activities for development.
The 2021 segment, held virtually due to pandemic restrictions, focused on the theme “Amplifying the United Nations development system’s impact in support of the Decade of Action”. During the segment, held annually to take stock of the state of the Organization’s development activities, the 54-member Council will consider the latest progress reports and convene 10 sessions for delegates to share ideas, concerns and questions on themes centred on how best to proceed in reform efforts, especially given the pandemic’s deep and wide-reaching effects.
“This past year has been unlike any other in living memory,” Secretary-General António Guterres said in a keynote address. Stressing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken 3 million lives and pushed 131 million people into extreme poverty, with billions losing their livelihoods overnight, he said the most vulnerable were disproportionately affected worldwide. In some cases, decades of progress have been reversed. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on international cooperation, with massive shortages exposed in international financing solidarity and vaccine equity — but also highlighting the potential of cooperation for development, and the resilience of people.
Presenting his report and vision for the continuation of United Nations reform and the implementation of the 2020 quadrennial comprehensive policy review in times of crisis (document A/76/75), he said COVID-19 has also been a litmus test for the new Resident Coordinator System and the repositioned United Nations development system, “a test we have passed with a solid score”. Under the leadership of resident coordinators, 121 immediate socioeconomic response plans were rolled out covering 139 countries and territories, supporting Governments with a rapid, coherent and well-coordinated United Nations development system response. Developing countries provided positive feedback, with 90 per cent of developing Member States agreeing that resident coordinators helped ensure a coherent United Nations response to the pandemic, and also with national ownership.
He said feedback from programme country Governments in 2019 and 2020 shows they overwhelmingly agree that since the launch of the repositioning reform in 2018, country teams are more relevant, and coordinators more effective, which “gives us confidence we are moving in the right direction in repositioning the United Nations system”. The Resident Coordinator System is working at full capacity, in better engagement with the United Nations regional economic commissions, which he called a “true revolution” in the United Nations system. It is better positioned to provide responses to specific country contexts, especially small island developing States, with the office for the North Pacific on track. He reported progress in securing more efficient business operations, with $100 million freed up for operational activities rather than spent on bureaucratic costs. Still, with the world facing the ongoing effects of COVID-19, development activities must go further.
The COVID-19 Financing for Development Initiative undertaken with the Governments of Canada and Jamaica “shows what can be done”, he said, adding it is “high time to accelerate” activities at the country level, with liquidity reaching States that most need it. Vulnerable middle-income countries still face a deeply uneven playing field, he noted, requiring greater funding of the Resident Coordinator System in particular. He expressed concern that the United Nations development system relies on a small number of contributors, with deep cuts to reform funding when it is needed most. Appealing to Governments to further capitalize the Joint Sustainable Development Goals Fund, he noted that in 2018 Member States agreed on a tripartite model, but resident coordinators faced a $70 million shortfall in 2020, and voluntary contributions are missing targets. “This is not predictable. Nor is it sustainable,” he said. A well-resourced Resident Coordinator System is essential to bridge gaps in poverty eradication, he stressed, calling on Member States to commit together on a path forward. “We can do what is necessary to go further — together,” he said.
Council President Munir Akram (Pakistan) said, in opening remarks, that the session’s main objective is to review the functioning of the United Nations reform structure to determine how well its development system is responding to the countries it is designed to help. The three-day segment will focus on reviewing the system, which has been put to the ultimate test by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as developing countries struggle, the United Nations has responded with alacrity, with national response programmes engaging partners from the World Bank to the World Health Organization (WHO). Facing this global health challenge, the United Nations system worked, and valuable lessons have been learned.
The Assembly has recognized that progress has been made to make the United Nations development system more impactful, he said, adding that review processes are identifying key policy areas, from education to vaccine deliveries, as reflected in the Secretary-General’s latest report. However, challenges remain, as a decade of development gains have been wiped out in some countries during the pandemic, he said.
To address some of these concerns, two session were held. In the morning, an interactive dialogue with the Secretary-General covered challenges and strategies related to ongoing United Nations reform. Chaired by the Economic and Social Council President, the session heard from Member States who shared lessons learned, offered suggestions for key actions and asked the Secretary-General for a progress report on various areas of concern, from COVID-19 vaccination campaigns to system-wide gender equality.
In the afternoon, an interactive dialogue with Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed focused on the report of the Chair of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on the Development Coordination Office and the new Resident Coordinator System. Asking a range of questions, Member States focused on what has been achieved, the next steps forward and how best to strengthen United Nations system-wide results in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The Economic and Social Council will meet again at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 May, to continue its work, including a dialogue with executive heads of the United Nations development system on the theme “Moving from architecture to results”.
During an interactive dialogue with António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, chaired and moderated by Council President Mr. Akram, Member States shared proposals, suggestions and the special challenges facing the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They also asked for details about a range of ongoing reform efforts and how to make the United Nations more responsive to Member States’ needs, from COVID-19 vaccination campaigns to effective funding models.
The representative of Australia, speaking also for Canada and New Zealand, asked about recent progress on gender equality. Noting that more must be done to bring together development, peace and related efforts for effective joint action, she asked for an update on advancing a collective approach.
The representative of Guatemala, on behalf of the Like-Minded Group of Supporters of Middle-Income Countries, emphasized that more coordination is needed for further development gains, including strengthening regional partnerships. Pointing out that middle-income countries contribute one third of the global gross domestic product (GDP) and are important drivers of the economy, he asked about how the special needs of these nations are being addressed.
The representative of Guinea, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said fit-for-purpose initiatives must be results-oriented. Anticipating the review of the Resident Coordinator System, he asked about progress in terms of respecting national ownership, plans and policies. A focus on deliverables must guide further progress, particularly at a time when many countries are grappling with the pandemic. Challenges must be addressed, including the way programmes are funded, he said, asking Member States to adjust contributions accordingly.
The representative of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), aligning himself with the Group of 77, highlighted members’ special needs and relentless challenges, from natural disasters to economic shocks. Noting with appreciation the Secretary-General’s special attention to the needs of small island States, including enhancing multi-country offices and convening a new funding round, he said these nations must receive assistance both for pandemic recovery and for mitigation, calling on the international community to continue to consider as a matter of urgency the special circumstances they face.
The representative of the United States asked about how the results of reform of the Resident Coordinator System can be better shared with the United Nations membership and how the Organization could improve its accountability to Member States.
The representative of the United Kingdom expressed support for further refinements of the role of resident coordinators and enhanced coordination among United Nations agencies. Conflict analysis can also be used and adapted for programme planning, and improved understanding of challenges can help with better responses, she said, asking about steps being taken to ensure that country team efforts match a nation’s needs.
The representative of the Russian Federation said the United Nations can and should do more to track and address harmful sanctions that have negative humanitarian consequences. Noting gains made across the development system, he asked about the best way to structure work regarding COVID-19 vaccination programmes.
Responding to these comments and queries, Mr. GUTERRES first said that gender equality has been a focus at the United Nations, with a parity strategy being implemented across the system. However, gender equality is something the country offices must also do, and progress is moving very quickly in this area. Turning to concerns raised by groups of States, he said the concept that middle-income countries do not need funding because of their GDP level must change. There is a clear perception that country teams are working in line with national goals. At the same time, the funding gap in voluntary contributions must be addressed. The United Nations has been focusing on a range of actions regarding small island developing States, including debt and liquidity matters, to better respond to ever more complex funding needs.
Reform efforts are moving forward, but funding is needed, he continued. There is little appetite to contribute to common funds, he said, noting the need for less earmarked funding. In terms of joint efforts, he said peace and development advisers are funded by voluntary contributions to ensure an effective human rights approach is included in programmes and strategies. The universal periodic reviews represent an effective tool in assessing human rights. Efficiency gains are possible in several areas, but some agencies have shown resistance because they are used to doing it themselves, he said, adding that progress in this area would be helped by donors who make common-fund contributions. Regarding COVID-19, he said vaccination efforts include the consideration of global proposals, from strengthening the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative financially to launching a related emergency task force.
Also participating in the dialogue were representatives of Morocco, Bangladesh, Mexico, Japan, Norway, Cuba, Portugal, Fiji, Republic of Korea and Indonesia, as well as the European Union.
An afternoon interactive dialogue featured Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Chair of the Sustainable Development Group, and Robert Piper, Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Development Coordination Office. It was chaired and moderated by Sergiy Kyslytsya, Council Vice-President responsible for the operational activities for development segment. Delegates commented on and queried about gender equality, funding and financial frameworks, also asking how resident coordinators are supported.
In introductory remarks, Mr. KYSLYTSYA said the global response to COVID-19 tested a more accountable United Nations development system. Ensuring funding for the Resident Coordinator System is at the heart of discussions, he stated.
Ms. MOHAMMED, presenting the annual Report of the Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group on the Development Coordination Office (document E/2021/55), said 2020 was a year like no other, with COVID-19 emphasizing that working together is the only way to combat a common crisis. The report provides a snapshot of the United Nations development system as a whole and the advancement towards the 2030 Agenda objectives, she said, highlighting improvements, including in realizing gender balance among resident coordinators. In addition, resident coordinators are engaging with Governments on a range of issues. The Development Cooperation Office continued to play a critical role in reform efforts, including a new office in the North Pacific region. Online platforms are also improving efficiency and communication. These and other efforts are making strides, she said, underlining a strengthened focus on vulnerable groups. The Resident Coordinator System has also mobilized funding for a variety of programmes, and 15 United Nations entities have initiated financing efforts in 69 countries.
The report also focuses on the socioeconomic response to the pandemic, covering 139 countries and territories, she said. Citing some results, she said 240 million people were supported with essential non-COVID-19-related health services, 17 million children received food assistance, and nearly 120 million people benefited from social protection schemes. With the pandemic still raging and derailing the Sustainable Development Goals, she outlined a number of areas for action. Continued efforts are required for a fundamental realignment and culture change in United Nations entities, whose business models require further alignment to allow for effective responses. A decisive shift must focus efforts on goals set out in the 2030 Agenda, and investments must be scaled up. Pointing to the unmet $281 million budget target for 2020, she said the funding gap must not continue in 2021. “Together we have come a long way, but we still have so much to do,” she said, pointing to the Economic and Social Council segment as a milestone on a journey towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals during the Decade for Action.
The representative of Switzerland, speaking also for Canada, Iceland, Norway, Republic of Korea, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the European Union, noted the Secretary-General’s report rightly highlighted the importance of the COVID-19 response, identifying areas for improvement. He underlined key principles including the independence of the system-wide evaluation office, and that it complement rather than replace the work of United Nations entities and resident coordinator performance. He asked for more concrete information on the office’s main building blocks including division of labour with other entities.
The representative of the United States noted that the picture of in-country and aggregate system results remains incomplete. It is critical that the United Nations put in place an accountability mechanism for the system.
The representative of Finland, associating herself with the European Union and Switzerland, welcomed progress on gender equality but noted further steps are required, asking for more information on the resident coordinators in that domain. Emphasizing the importance of reform at the regional level, she noted room for improvement. She asked for more information on partnerships and how the Development Coordination Office supports resident coordinators in challenging and complex circumstances.
The representative of Norway asked if the Development Coordination Office conducted systematic assessments. Noting that common financial frameworks are crucial to the accountability of country teams and resident coordinators, she expressed concern that such frameworks often are not in place in countries with new cooperation frameworks.
The representative of Mexico said global access to vaccination is the key to comprehensive recovery. He expressed support for the upcoming resident coordinator review, addressing funding, developing talent, oversight and accountability.
Responding to the questions and comments, Ms. MOHAMMED said that a system-wide evaluation mechanism is critical to proving reform is working, with a stand-alone office reporting to the Secretary-General and the Council meaning transparency is at the heart of it. Noting the report is rich with budget and staffing data, she asked Switzerland’s representative to return with specifics of what is missing. She then thanked the United States for its commitment of $23 million to the Resident Coordinator System this year. As progress on gender equality, disabilities and partnerships is critical, “We started from the inside out,” she said, noting there are now more women involved than men. Acknowledging a huge increase in gender-based violence worldwide, she said it would have been far worse had partnerships not been built on those programmes.
Responding to Norway’s representative, she said the cooperation framework is only as good as its component parts, agreeing that in many cases, the financial frameworks are missing, exacerbated by the response to COVID-19. She concurred with Mexico’s representative that “without a vaccine for every person in the world, we will not be over COVID”. To that end, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) are doing a tremendous job getting vaccines out.
Mr. PIPER said COVID-19 reporting represented the first-ever attempt to offer system-wide reporting on a programme result. That process revealed what it will take to extend that aggregate reporting across “the breadth of our work”. Having done the work manually, “we really need an automated system,” he said. The role of the Development Coordination Office is relatively modest, with one business partnership person and two people on financing. However, its “secret weapon” is that each of 131 locations has a partnerships person and economist for the first time ever.
The new generation of cooperation frameworks is focused on leaving no person behind, he noted, therefore featuring much more systematic outreach and diversity of stakeholders. Thanks to the reforms, country teams and resident coordinators now have time to do that work. Cooperation frameworks are being rolled out slowly, and as Norway’s representative pointed out, will take a few years, with no consistency across the globe. The Office is already revising its guidance to simplify it. He noted increased membership in country teams in some places like Uganda and Côte d’Ivoire, while Colombia is reducing its footprint. The resident coordinator assessment centre has been overhauled, and now features much more robust screening.
The representative of Cuba said she was heartened that 91 per cent of Governments in programme countries indicate the United Nations is more relevant to development needs than three years ago. Stating that the Resident Coordinator System must maintain its development focus and poverty eradication, she asked how implementation of mandates for repositioning of regional assets has supported their work.
The representative of the United Kingdom, associating herself with Switzerland, noted resident coordinators have limited career prospects, asking what can unlock their potential.
Responding to Cuba’s representative, Mr. PIPER noted several big changes in implementation of mandates for repositioning of regional assets, and that economic assets typically are not in-country, with the heavy lifting capacities instead in regional economic commissions. Knowledge management is crucial, he said, as 8,000 people at the regional level need to be in greater contact with economists, other experts and country teams. Turning to resident coordinators, he said the Office is deeply involved in the debate about their career potential, a complex question for the Secretariat in finding a way to offer career paths for 131 people in those posts. The lack of a sustainable financing mechanism does not help, he said, acknowledging there are a lot of pieces involved including human resources policies and mobility.
The representative of the Republic of Korea asked what measures the United Nations development system is taking or will take to ensure complementarity and avoid duplication of financing.
The representative of Germany, associating himself with the European Union and Switzerland, asked how to discourage undue duplication of pool funds, and what Member States can do to help.