Money Ball:  The UN Navigates Investor Expectations and Urgency for Policy Innovation, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Feb

This past week at the UN, in the shadow of the Commission on Social Development, a modestly attended but most suggestive event highlighted what is an increasingly perplexing conundrum for policymakers and their donors:  finding the proper balance between fiscal accountability and program innovation.

The event was actually a joint meeting of Executive Boards of diverse UN agencies including UNICEF, UNDP and UN Women. All agency heads and participating diplomats wrestled with, as the Secretary General put it, the task of remaining ‘fit for purpose;’ learning as much as we can from our failures but doing so without neglecting established patterns that have already yielded positive results.   While flexibility is to be praised, the SG noted, innovation must never be seen as an end in itself.

The dilemma of innovation is hardly unique to the UN:  Sports teams, entertainment corporations and many other businesses struggle with the dual demands of ‘staying fresh and relevant’ while satisfying the expectations of their investors.   But there is so much on the line at the UN, so many lives potentially impacted by policy decisions that can err on the sides of recklessness or caution. Given this, the willingness of senior UN officials to both interrogate their failures and offer new ideas to address stubborn development and security patterns with the potential to foment social unrest (as cited by the ILO’s Torres at a separate event) was most welcome.

The stakes in this discussion are higher than they might at first appear, and the SG’s remarks are one starting point.  The largest state contributors to UN operations are responsible to their own local constituents who are in some cases coping with economic crises at home.  But even those supportive of government assistance to UN programs seek assurances (as Japan has urged in several UN forums) that funds dispersed are used for the purposes intended.   Beyond this caution, Zambia urged more attention to ‘predicting’ failure caused in part by a lack of policy attentiveness to social and political context.

If states are not provided the assurances they seek, there is risk that donations will dry up further, or in the case of small states like Zambia that the trust issues lingering with respect to some UN agencies will grow larger.  In either case, the ability of the UN to deliver on its promises – from fulfilling SDGs to drying up sources of illicit arms – will be compromised.  Unlike the private sector, UN officials have hands that are tied a bit tightly by state interests, especially by the largest donor states.  But some of this ‘tying’ as Denmark noted has positive value – insisting that innovation in policy never be divorced from issues of cost effectiveness.  Clearly it is important to avoid throwing money at problems recklessly; but it is also important to think creatively beyond the matching of the most obvious short-term needs with the most immediately available resources.

It seems more and more apparent that currently funded policy and implementation strategies employed by the UN and its partners continue to lag behind both global challenges and response opportunities.  For all our good and reasonably well-funded efforts, we have not yet found the means to eliminate terror threats or gender-based violence, reduce weapons flows, stem chronic unemployment, or reverse the melting of the polar ice caps.  And it is equally clear that money, for all of its potential benefits, can have a negative impact on the innovation we still desperately need.   We see this in the NGO community all the time, where access to funding is as likely to breed caution as creative engagements with UN objectives and working methods. But even at senior Secretariat levels, funding impacts loom large, or at least larger than might be optimal for the development of more innovative approaches to longstanding planetary challenges.

As UNDP’s Helen Clark noted, it might not be funding per se, but rather the assessment of results that funders rightly require that leads to ‘risk phobia’ among some leaders, a sentiment echoed by UNICEF’s Anthony Lake.  While important, “results” can be like puzzle pieces essential to a fully completed puzzle but not to be equated with it.  There are formidable challenges afoot that require creative, if humble engagements beyond piecemeal measures.  And while there are certainly financial risks attached to creative innovation, we need to be reminded, as UNICEF’s Lake noted, that there are also staggering costs from NOT innovating.  It is widely recognized that we already throw too many of the world’s resources at problems that have already proven resistant to our standard working methods and operating procedures.   We would thus do well to share more openly the potential benefits and risks of our innovative policy options; not only with over-stretched donor states but especially with their increasingly anxious constituents.  And, as UNDP’s Clark noted, we should do more to create systemic ‘safe space’ for innovation, inviting the innovation-minded to leave the margins and find a place closer to the center of policy formulation.  Sports franchises and other corporations shrivel in the absence of such space.   International policy also suffers when innovation has no safe space to test assumptions and offer alternatives.

Some of this need can be addressed through greater institutional investment in creative policymaking that reassesses resources and their modes of application.  As one step in that investment, UN Women’s Lakshmi Puri floated an idea that we have also advocated previously – the need to promote the UN as more of a ‘learning community.’  This ‘community’ would not only take account of the SG’s urging that we learn more from our failures, but that we also take heed of opportunities to learn more from each other – including updates on current challenges, and how we might respond – and respond differently – if we are to one day fulfill the trust placed in us to bring ‘big’ matters such as climate change, atrocity crimes and weapons proliferation to successful resolutions.

Clearly we need to be more open to innovation in light of the evolving needs of constituents who, at the end of the day, constitute the core of our mandate.   UNOPS’s Grete Feremo noted with some irony that only small children seem immune from ‘change resistance.’   And UNICEF’s Lake noted that we who set the agendas for global policy must learn to ‘leave our egos and even our logos’ at the door.

This is wise, if elusive counsel.   Needless to say, the UN was not chartered to protect bureaucratic turf or provide employment opportunities for diplomats and NGOs.  It was chartered to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war (and, we might add, other threats to human security).  To ‘win’ at this ever-more critical responsibility, we must spend wisely but also learn sincerely and innovate constructively.  We cannot continue to stifle policy innovation while the global challenges we are tasked to address continue on their own, dangerous, evolutionary path.

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