Transformation at UNDP at a crossroads

The eminent organization behavior professor John Kotter suggests that the main reason transformation efforts fail is a lack of vision. That didn't used to be an issue for UNDP.

In 1994 my old organization, Stakeholder Forum, became the first National Committee for UNDP in a donor country. It was a pleasure to be advocate to the UK government and the UK stakeholders about what UNDP was doing and the vision they had under Gus Speth.

"Sustainable human development is development that not only generates economic growth but distributes its benefits equitably; that regenerates the environment rather than destroying it; that empowers people rather than marginalizing  them. It gives priority to the poor, enlarging their choices and opportunities and providing for their participation in decisions affecting them. It is development that is pro-poor, pro-nature, pro-jobs, pro-women and pro-children".
Sustainable human development can, therefore, be defined as “the enlargement of people’s choices and capabilities through the formation of social capital so as to meet as equitably as possible the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future ones."

As UNDP is rediscovering Gus’s vision maybe that should be updated to a vision of human AND sustainable development for a UNDP of the 21st century.

A few months before Labour won the UK election in 1997 I also had the pleasure of organizing a dinner for Richard Jolly (UNDP HDR) with Clare Short and she became a huge advocate for UNDP and the Human Development Report.

I also have fond memories of the work that Inge Kaul did first at the Human Development Report Office, then one of the first UNDP people really doing work on some of the new financial mechanisms – against US Congress rules…they withdrew funding from UNDP for the work she did initially on the Tobin Tax.

This brings me to the present state of UNDP and what is going on there now. 

An organization should reflect the principles that they claim to promote

First, I have no idea what UNDP stands for now. There seems an increasing disconnect and contrast between the change process and UNDP’s mandates in development, especially human development, sustainable development, democratic governance, capacity development.

We should remember that UNDP were very slow in engaging in the Rio+20 process but did ultimately provide the triple-win publication which contributed in the run-up, not least with the host country. On the SDGs UNDP were also a little slow in coming onboard but for them it was a question of working out how the SDGs would be elaborated in relation to the post-2015 process, and offering options to the SG and to the member states in this regard which was a helpful bridge. They have played a significant role in the analytical contributions (UN TT Report, OWG Issues Briefs etc) together with DESA, and with the outreach and consultation with stakeholders.

Eighteen months before the agreement on the post-2015 new goals are set, they have decided to go through a massive reorganization.

It’s my understanding there will be up to 30% cuts in staff at UNDP HQ- some going to the regions to re-balance the organization. Staff are being instructed to apply for their own positions one grade under what they are at this point. Those staff that do not have a chair to sit in by August will have to leave – in many cases the country and take their families as their visa will no longer enable them to stay as they do not have a job.

I am not sure how many of the UNDP’s 2015 staff have/will survive, this will ensure that UNDP is not outward facing at a critical time. At the most important time for defining the new Post 2015 agenda the UNDP staff clearly will be focusing on other things. Many of these staff are the same who have been doing really excellent work, work that has been widely praised by member states and UN colleagues, including the UN's most senior leadership. This is the same staff that now has to scramble to find a new role, without them have been given any kind of rationale, logic or direction for what this change will deliver. This is what is so profoundly demoralizing and disappointing.

Change in organizations is normal and very good because it allows new ideas and new collaborations to happen and organizations should re-invent themselves every five years or so as times are changing so quickly.

When looking to change management, where better to go for advice than Dr John Kotter, whom I mentioned in my introduction. He is regarded by many as THE authority on leadership and change, a New York Times best-selling author, award winning business and management thought leader, business entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, and Harvard Professor. He says that thirty years of research have proven that “70% of all major change efforts in organizations fail.” The question is why do they fail?

This is often because organizations do not take the holistic approach required to see the change through and they forget they are dealing with people.

Organizational change can succeed but only when there is a solid case that has a "compelling" rationale that not only appeals to people's head but also to their hearts who are working for it.

A question I would be asking UNDP is what role have the staff played in developing the new vision and do they accept the approach and its implementation. If they don’t then there is little chance that the change will be owned by those working for the organization and therefore they will not give their hearts and minds to its implementation.

If the new vision has come from the top and being foisted on UNDP staff then it isn’t a shared vision, it will be very difficult to communicate it and eliminate key obstacles as it will not fit in with the organziations culture. Of course UNDP is an intergovernmental organization so it isn’t just the staff who need to be involved in change but the governments and outside stakeholders as well.

As Dr John Kotter suggests there are six key characteristics to the development of effective visions:

Imaginable: They convey a clear picture of what the future will look like.

Desirable: They appeal to the long-term interest of those who have a stake in the enterprise (UNDP Staff).

Feasible: They contain realistic and attainable goals.

Focused: They are clear enough to provide guidance in decision making.

Flexible: They allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions.

Communicable: They are easy to communicate and can be explained quickly.

It’s unclear if UNDP’s new approach has any of these six characterizes.

As I have already said there is no question that UNDP and other UN bodies should embrace change as part of the normal way of how an organization operates in the twenty-first century.  To do that the approach needs to ensure that it’s underpinned with building a common vision and coalition for change and that the implementation is done with the staff and not against the staff - how management deal with this will either demoralizes the people that remain so undermining future efforts or inspire them to deliver the new vision.

What really upsets me in the way that UNDP is approaching their changes is the way the staff have been treated. These people have in many ways given their commitment to the UN and the UN ideals and to UNDP in specific and should be treated in a way that upholds the principles of the UN. They have not.

There are many ways to do this – first is to agree with staff about how change will happen so that it enables those staying and leaving to do so in as little disruptive way as possible. I am of course not privy to the contracts that UNDP staff have but I do have friends over the UN system who don’t understand why people couldn’t have left as their contracts finished over the next 18 months. Of course if you are like the manager from the recent The Secret Life of Walter Mitty film, then you don’t see the people as people and people who have families and a life here in the USA. You see them as disposable. As the three UN Staff unions have said in their letter to the UN Secretary General:

“We understand that these cuts were taken in utmost secrecy, without due consultation, and in direct violation, of the principles expressed in General Assembly Resolution 128 . Furthermore, the speed at  which they are being made will have a serious detrimental impact on UNDP staff; this from an organization that claims on its web site to “empower lives.”


I have done this blog for those who cannot speak up and who feel their lives and their work have not been valued. To them I say there are many who do value your work, your commitment and what you have brought to UNDP and to people across the planet.

To those that are administrating these changes I would ask them to reconsider the implementation of their plan. These are people who have given their lives to the values of the UN and they should be treated with respect and care…otherwise UNDP may be lost for a generation and at the exact time when their input to the post 2015 agenda is needed most.

I add my voice to say it’s time for the Secretary General to intervene.


  1. This sounds as if UN Staff Rules may have been violated as well as established staff procedures and rights. Staff might consider appealing to the usual administrative processes and eventualy to the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) and the United Nations Appeals Tribunal (UNAT).

  2. Learned so much here! Discursive of contemporary stakes for world actors at the UNDP Such a diagnosis opens a bleak image of the future to those of us with ambitions to build careers in the UN. Even as they shred the flax, having an opportunity to hear from you will be an auspicious occurrence Sir!

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