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How UN specialized agencies in middle-income countries can respond to the new challenges of a post-COVID-19 world

05 June 2020 Charles ARTHUR


As COVID-19 has halted economic activity and threatens social well-being across the globe, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is holding wide-ranging policy discussions exploring options to address the pandemic and to mobilize for a proactive recovery.

During the opening of the first-ever virtual session of the ECOSOC’s Operational Activities for Development segment, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that while a “renewed spirit of collaboration” and UN reforms have “put us on the right footing”, the coronavirus pandemic has “raised the bar even higher”.

The UN reformed its development system in 2018, including by making UN Country Teams - under the independent leadership of Resident Coordinators - better adapted to local needs.

In the context of the UN reform and strategic repositioning efforts, ECOSOC’s Operational Activities for Development segment invited Manuel Albaladejo, representative of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Uruguay, to discuss the “effectiveness, efficiency and impact” of UN operational activities for development. Albaladejo participated in this high-level dialogue to share the perspective of the UN’s specialized agencies working at the field level in middle and high-income countries.

At the start of his intervention, Albaladejo set the scene by pointing out that middle-income countries are suffering from a decline in official development assistance (ODA - government aid designed to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries), but that graduation to middle-income country status does not allow these countries to actually access funding. At the same time, there is a stronger presence of development finance institutions, which, he said, “are crowding out some of the work of the UN, as they are anchoring their technical cooperation to their financial products”. 

One of the first issues he addressed was the importance of specialized policy advisory services and the need to strengthen UN agencies’ ability to provide such services quickly and at a high standard. According to Albaladejo, “We always have to always operate through programmes with long gestation processes that need internal approvals.” He said this made it difficult from some agencies to respond quickly, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear case where some agencies are not able to respond in a timely manner. 

In this context, Albaladejo recommended the establishment of flexible financing mechanisms. “I think one of the areas where eventually we could join efforts and do very well is in the setting up of a quick reaction fund for policy advisory services that will allow specialized agencies to speed up the process of developing and implementing programmes.”

On South-South cooperation, the UNIDO representative said the UN has the potential and the worldwide network to collaborate and showcase the experiences of middle-income and high-income countries to their neighbouring countries and beyond. However, he suggested that, while the importance of South-South cooperation has been increasingly recognized, “it is not clearly made an integral part or mainstreamed in the work that we do in the same way that, for instance, gender and environment are part of all our programmes.”

He remarked that, as the head of the UNIDO regional office covering Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile, he can count on triangular cooperation and reach out for funding, but “I am guessing that for many country offices it is really hard to push for South-South cooperation when they have a specific focus on a particular country.” 

A third issue for discussion was partnerships with the private sector. Albaladejo said that the potential synergies and leverage impact of the joint work between UN and the private sector offer a great opportunity to accelerate development efforts. Having a stronger presence of the private sector in our cooperation framework is a challenge, he explained, but argued “there is a real need to bring the private sector in to be part of UN programming tools.”

He summarized his point of view, saying some of the specialized agencies see the role of the UN not as an entity that only brings and manages ODA in the middle-income countries but as one that brings knowledge and best practices, and facilitates inter-country experiences. With a better balance, Albaladejo concluded, the UN agencies “would position ourselves very strongly, especially in the middle-income and high-income countries that we represent”. 

More information about the ECOSOC’s Operational Activities for Development segment here