Defending Development in a Time of Cuts—My Conversation with UNDP’s Helen Clark

March 20, 2017

On the day the Trump Administration proposed considerable cuts to the US international affairs budget, including US funding for the UN, CGD hosted the outgoing head of the UN’s largest agency, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark. As she prepares to step down after eight years in the post, she will leave behind a UN system facing serious questions about its future capabilities and financing. That idea, in fact, informed the title of our event Facing Future Challenges on Uncertain Ground, the video of which you can watch here.

Our wide ranging conversation covered the challenges facing both UNDP and development assistance more generally, but she has clearly been thinking seriously about how the UN system generally – and UNDP in particular – could respond to looming financial constraints. Click on the video below to hear more of her thoughts on US budget cuts to the UN.

Helen’s tenure at UNDP has had some major achievements. As an organization, UNDP has moved to align budgets with a more focused strategy, diversify its funding sources in the face of declining contributions from some traditional donors, improved its financial transparency and achieved gender balance in staffing two years ahead of its goal. So, kudos to Helen Clark for her leadership on these fronts.

More broadly, this period has seen global agreement on the SDGs, the ‘billions to trillions’ agenda set out at the Addis Ababa Financing for Development Summit, and the historic accord reached at Paris on preventing climate change.  It has also seen continued progress on reducing absolute poverty and raising living standards in many developing countries. And yet, our conversation quickly pivoted to how the context for development agencies and programs was much more challenging today than when she had started. We talked about why the consensus on development and development assistance has frayed in recent years and what could be done to remedy that.

Helen’s take was that the global financial crisis, and its lingering impact on living standards and institutional trust, was a major factor.  Public sector budgets have come under pressure in the aftermath of the crisis and development spending has become the focal point of criticism by many who felt the brunt of cutbacks in other programs that directly benefited them. A second reason was the growing international concern about security, conflicts and terrorism. Development assistance was increasingly directed at dealing with these immediate concerns and to meet the costs of supporting 65 million displaced persons and refugees, the largest number in living history. As a result, financing for traditional development programs in poor but stable countries, and in middle income countries with substantial pockets of poverty and vulnerability, was becoming ever more scarce. There was a lively ensuing discussion about the longer term risks of underinvesting in development for these latter groups but no clear solutions on how to build a consensus for it.

One item on which there was consensus in the room was that the development community needed to do a better job at setting out a compelling narrative on why development was still a critical global priority and how development assistance was making a positive contribution to advancing it. Demonstrating accountability and value for money in development funding are key parts of this narrative but they need to be set within a broader frame of how development programs are contributing to improving the human condition and why this matters to all of us.

With reference to the substantial funding cuts for UNDP in the offing, we talked about UNDP’s comparative advantage and priorities. A general role that UNDP plays in all countries is to anchor the efforts of the various specialized UN agencies; the ‘glue’ holding together the UN development system. Beyond that, the two areas that stood out were UNDP’s support for country efforts to strengthen governance, something for which it is well equipped, by virtue of its global mandate and legitimacy; and UNDP’s ability to be present in fragile and post-conflict environments where other official development actors are still holding back. When we talked about where future funding may come from, Helen’s view was that a contraction in funds from one source might be balanced, in some part, by other countries stepping in more — perhaps an opportunity for some major emerging economies like China and Turkey to become bigger contributors to the UN.  An ongoing challenge for UNDP will be to ensure that it can focus on these priorities given its increasingly diversified funding model.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.