Bold gambit for disjointed UN: oneness

Launched this year in 8 countries, the 'One UN' pilot aims to improve coordination between agencies.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On the streets of this colorful Balkans city, the distinctive white four-by-fours of the United Nations (UN) are a frequent sight: the UN Children's Fund, the World Health Organization, the UN Population Fund, the UN Refugee Agency, and the UN Development Program all have a permanent presence here.

While the agencies all fall under the broad UN tent, they're located in different buildings and, until recently, there was little coordination between them. Employees bumped into each other applying for the same donor funds and projects overlapped.

But now, in a bold attempt to try to reform the institutional culture of the UN, Albania and seven other countries – Cape Verde, Mozambique, Pakistan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uruguay, and Vietnam – are hoping to show that the huge and often inefficient UN, which often rewards employees for being loyal to a specific agency rather than to the system as a whole, can work together more efficiently.

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"The idea is that we'll have a collective voice, collective action while respecting the specific strengths of each agency," says Gülden Türköz-Cosslett, the UN representative in Albania, who is leading the reform there.

Launched this year, the "One UN" pilot project faces signficant challenges. Each agency is eager to protect its funding and turf, and there remains stiff resistance in some sectors to any reform that is perceived as demanding sacrifices for the good of the whole. On a political level, the "One UN" project is tangled in a larger, bitter debate about UN reforms – which include discussions over the makeup of the Security Council and the amount of aid poor countries should receive – and the future of the institution.

"It's really hard because member states themselves are not in agreement," says Sally Fegan-Wyles, director of the office that's coordinating the project from New York. "What we're trying to do is get the agencies at the country level to make the decision, but it would be better if this was happening at the headquarters."

The pilot stems from the reform initiatives launched by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan after a committee appointed by him found that the UN's development work was severely hindered by its fragmentation. For example, 20 different groups are involved in environmental issues.

As part of the pilot, each country will develop a single, coordinated plan, and the bulk of UN money will be funneled through a single budget to fund this plan. The UN representative, who at the moment is also the head of his or her country's UN development program, will act more broadly on behalf of the whole UN system and no longer run UNDP's day-to-day operations. In Albania and other countries where UN offices are scattered, efforts will be made to move different agencies to single premises. In Albania alone, that change will save $500,000 in the first year.

Albana Vokshi, director for Albania's department of strategy and donor coordination, in which is located in the prime minister's office, says that the country sees the reforms as part of a broader effort to improve the efficiency of aid.

Before "One UN" Albania's government had to deal with each UN agency separately, along with donors from dozens of different countries, multilateral institutions like the European Union and private nongovernmental organizations. No one in the government even had a complete record of all the different development projects and programs. Eventually, Ms. Vokshi says, Albania hopes the UN will strengthen its role as the lead institution for development in the country and that other donors will support the broad plan developed by the UN.

"The idea is that government will have a master plan," she explains. "Instead of funding small pieces of a program, donors will contribute to a broader vision."

But not everyone is convinced that "One UN" will improve the work of the institution. In a letter to the new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, two of the largest political groupings of developing nations – the Group of 77 and the Non-Aligned Movement – have expressed concern about efforts to restructure the UN, questioning whether the reforms might harm development efforts by imposing a "one-size-fits-all" approach on countries with different needs.

"UN reform is not always what it appears to be," says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum in New York. "Most of the projects for reform of the UN are driven by state interests. And state interests rarely coincide with peace, justice, development, and the end of poverty."

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