A Forgotten Organization

Photography by United Nations Photo

Many have criticised bilateral aid organisations and the two Bretton Woods Institutions. However, many have ignored the activities of the UNDP. It has take a much different approach from the neo-liberal policies of major organisations and has forged a substantial and constructive route of development.

With the Millennium Development Goals(MDGs) Summit coming up from the 20th to the 22nd of September, it is high time not just to review these goals but to review the various aid organisations that work towards them. Much of the development literature has criticised the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as Western donors for their neo-liberal policies. However, less attention has been given to the work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Founded in 1965, the UNDP can be said to be the younger cousin of the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA). From the 1960s to the late 1980s, both agencies had relatively similar ideas and activities in the developing world (in terms of technical assistance, loans and grants). When the World Bank and donors changed towards neo-liberal condition-based aid in the 1980s, the UNDP initially did not respond.

However, the difference came in the early 1990s with the advent of the Human Development Paradigm, a concept by economists such as Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq. This comprised of a multidimensional approach to poverty as opposed to the money-metric measurement of the Bank. Furthermore, the Human Development concept placed people back in the heart of Development and covered issues from women’s rights to climate change. This approach thus realigned the development landscape.

Second, the UNDP had a different modus operandi from the World Bank. While the Bank’s Poverty Reduction Papers (PRSPs) were still tightly controlled by Bank staff, the UNDP has allowed recipients to have a substantial say in development programmes—ie. they grant country ownership over projects. The UNDP also has put the tenets of Human Development and the MDGs into practice, while the World Bank has continued to push its pro-market, neo-liberal agenda on countries, despite the many calls for change. This difference in activities on the ground shows how much the UNDP is a force for constructive change in the field of international development versus that of the major aid organisations.

Third, the UNDP has a vastly different internal structure from its counterpart. While decision making over poverty reduction programmes rested with senior Bank officials, UNDP staff could voice their views and tailor their programmes based on the different environments. The UNDP has an Administrator approved by the UN General Assembly and a executive board which has a substantial number of members from developing countries. This again was unlike the World Bank whose shareholders were industrialised nations and whose President has traditionally been an American. The UNDP’s structure is thus not only more democratic but has allowed for constructive changes such as reforming its development plans.

Despite these distinctions, the UNDP has its shortcomings. Its financial budget is much smaller than the World Bank’s and it constantly has to persuade countries to donate more. This reduces the extent of its reach across the developing world. Second, the UNDP does follow components of neo-liberal especially in supporting orthodox micro-finance programmes and good governance. While Human Development is certainly preferably to neo-liberalism, the idea is not extensively promoted by the organisation which has worked more on promoting the MDGs instead.

The UNDP has had less attention in the arena of international development compared to other development or aid organizations. However, it has made a distinctive mark in development through alternative ideas, actions and a more egalitarian working structure. Although it is not perfect, it certainly should get more attention in the literature of international development.

Posted on September 17, 2010

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