Chris Blattman

What’s my beef with UNDP?

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Some people have asked.

To be fair, they’re an easy target because they are big and their name starts with UN. As with any organization, there are excellent people and programs and there are the rest.

My beef is difficult to articulate and quantify, born of years of frustration and despair. This captures some of my experiences. But it’s kind of like asking someone, “why do your parents drive you crazy? Is this an evidence-based conclusion?”

Easterly and Pfutze come closest in this review of aid donor performance. For the metrics where they have data, UNDP gets ranked 32 out of 37. If you want to know how bad that is, I have only this to say: Greece is ranked 31.

Perhaps worst of all: their administrative budget is 129% of the actual development assistance they give. For my class I made a graph of all the agency scores here. UNDP is such an outlier that it needed its own graph.

Some agencies are redeemable. After working in northern Uganda, UNHCR was at the top of my List of Despair. Liberia and some excellent people have redeemed them somewhat. UNDP now crowns the list. Perhaps it too is redeemable?

In my opinion, this might help.

9 Responses

  1. I think any UN program is more than likely unwieldy and inefficient. UNDP is a planner group though it may have many searchers within their voices are likely drowned out. According to Blattman their administrative costs far outweigh the aid that is distributed. This seems typical of a bureaucracy that most money is lost throughout the administrative process. Of course not all blame can be contributed directly to the UNDP because member nations probably play a large role in their actions or inactions. I don’t seem to be as positive as Blattman that the program is likely to turnaround, at least not any time soon.

  2. Perhaps we could take into account that every step UNDP takes asked for, or even required by the UN Member States in consensus?

    They are very often pushed by the donors, purely for ideological reasons, to fulfill functions they are lousy at. Moreover, they are given earmarked money, not for results, but to make a political point. (e.g. funding for political processes, like demobilisation).

    Within UNDP there are pockets of excellence. Donors are not interested in funding them more than the buckloads of shit.

    I would point to 2 reasons why UNDP tends to suck:
    1. core funding, leading to only marginal accountability for most programmes. This goes with acceptance of annual reports without meaningful financial data for projects.
    2. a resource mobilization programme that is organised as a bazar with tourists: get their money, they will not come back when they see it is broken.

    1. Rhetorical flourish. It’s the 41% from the Three Cups of Tea article divided by 10. I’m not sure that UNDP publicizes the figures spent on programs, and what figures they have, I would like to see them shorn of indirect costs, which have a pesky habit of getting folded into program costs.

  3. I worked for 2 years with UNDP and experienced high-stress levels of incompetent management, lying colleagues and unethical behaviour. I also met some of the best people I’ve ever worked with, but many of them were stressed too.

    It’s the only UN organisation I have worked at, so I don’t know if this kind of thing is specific to or worse at UNDP. But I would consider working for most UN agencies again, but never UNDP.

  4. Part of the explanation for the UNDP’s high admin costs is that its budget depends disproportionately on earmarked funds as opposed to core funding. This increases the time (and therefore cost) it spends negotiating funding agreements and complying with different reporting/monitoring requirements. Moreover, these arrangements create all sorts of other perverse effects which affect the way the UNDP operates, including its promotion of periphery issues and vacuous projects, weakening its accountability to partners and undermining its governance. For more details, see the DAC’s excellent 2010 report on multilateral aid:

    Regardless of one’s ideology or political persuasion, as an economist, it’s hard to admire the UNDP as one can the Bank and Fund.

    This quote is admittedly not from a UNDP paper (it’s from UNDESA) but it’s typical of the sort of rot UN agencies regularly spew out in their reports:

    “Five years from the target date for the Millennium Development Goals, leaders from around the world will be gathering at the United Nations to undertake a comprehensive review of progress and together chart a course for accelerated action on the MDGs between now and 2015. Many countries are moving forward, including some of the poorest, demonstrating that setting bold, collective goals in the fight against poverty yields results. For every life that has benefited from the establishment of a quantitative, time-bound framework of accountability, the MDGs have made a real difference.”


  5. I share your opinion. but why do you think can’t they manage to be as good as they are supposed too ( or as youd expect as an idealist).

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