Volume 9, Issue 3
The United Nations Development Programme: A Better Way? Craig N. Murphy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 372 pp.
International development agencies suffer no shortage of critics. Fifty plus years removed from the international community’s first efforts to reduce global poverty and lessen the inequality gap between the world’s rich and poor, the agencies involved in this effort have variously been criticized for doing too much, too little, or nothing at all. The large multilateral agencies (i.e. IMF, UN, World Bank), given their central roles in development, have been placed under the greatest amount of scrutiny, most of which has originated outside these institutions.
Craig N. Murphy delivers an illuminating ‘insider’ exposition of one of the most ubiquitous international development agencies, The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which plays a strategic role in the coordination of UN activities in more than 150 countries. While the book was requisitioned by UNDP, Murphy — an academic historian — claims he was given total access to the organization and complete creative independence. Murphy deftly manages to synthesize twenty-two months of extensive research, including hundreds of interviews carried out in more than two dozen countries, into an impressively detailed yet accessible narrative. Although the book’s focus is UNDP, its insights should be generalized to the development industry and internalized by all individuals or organizations interested in development.
Historically, international development agencies favored allocating resources to highly visible projects and the production of glossy reports for public consumption. According to the book, UNDP has taken a different approach to development. Murphy portrays an organization that prefers to operate ‘behind the scenes’, effecting change for which it neither receives, nor seeks, recognition. UNDP’s willingness to work on development issues regardless of geopolitical or ideological considerations and to work closely with aid recipients to custom-design development plans has earned it the title of “the development programme of the developing countries.” The trust and respect developing nations grant UNDP make possible the close working partnerships with governments and organizations so vital to the organization’s success in fostering sustainable development.
Despite good intentions and its position within the UN, however, UNDP, like other development organizations, cannot completely ignore donor demands. Murphy’s analysis reveals the tensions international development organizations face in attempting to appease donors while concomitantly designing sustainable poverty solutions that reflect the input of aid recipients. The two activities are not always compatible, and the traditional power structure of the international system and the interests of nation-states frequently impede UNDP’s development efforts. One of the real strengths of this book is that it provides a rare inside glimpse into the complex problems international development agencies must overcome in order to survive and succeed. Though these organizations often are the objects of (deserved) criticism, Murphy’s candid examination of UNDP reveals that, at times, circumstances force development organizations into compromises that sabotage their efforts.
In the face of the constraints that may act on UNDP within the international system, the structure of the international organization itself is actually much more freeing. In contrast to other more rigidly hierarchical multilateral development institutions, UNDP comprises a loose network of relatively autonomous people and agencies, which allows the organization the flexibility and self-reflectivity necessary to continually innovate and refine its approach to development. The organization’s ability to learn and adapt is evident in its gradual shift from a “development as efficiency” to a “development as freedom” vision of development, in which UNDP’s approach evolved from focusing on technical knowledge transfers to promoting human and political development to alleviate poverty. The organization’s flexibility allowed advocacy issues — such as education, health, the empowerment of women, and democracy promotion — to become the core of its reconstituted agenda. The recognized complexity of development led UNDP in 1990 to create the Human Development Report, which charts global and national progress for a set of indicators related to people’s capacities to direct their own lives. These annual reports have broadened the definition and focus of development and transformed the funding allocations of nearly all development agencies away from economic growth and efficiency toward poverty reduction and social welfare.
While UNDP has been criticized for working too closely with authoritarian governments or for supporting the austere measures of the World Bank and IMF, Murphy portrays the UNDP as an organization that recognizes the efficacy of a pragmatic and incremental approach to development. UNDP operates as a ‘venture socialist’ that opens political space, empowering local advocacy groups while simultaneously weakening the intolerance and resistance of repressive regimes. UNDP seeks to strengthen marginalized groups and individuals so that they develop the capacity to challenge the Bretton Woods institutions. In short, UNDP recognizes that it can effect greater change by operating within the status quo than it could if it disengaged completely.
Despite Murphy’s praises of institutional innovation, critics of international development agencies will undoubtedly find evidence here to support their claims as well. For his part, Murphy identifies UNDP’s shortcomings along with its strengths. He notes that at various times throughout its history UNDP has suffered from bureaucratic incompetence, inefficiency, and shortsightedness. It has initiated ill-advised projects that failed. Even though its structure as a ‘loose’ network has allowed it to learn and adapt, UNDP has on occasion suffered from organizational insularity and the desire to control information, often at the expense of organizational learning.
Yet while Murphy dutifully records both the good and bad associated with UNDP’s efforts, glaringly underrepresented in this otherwise impressive historical narrative is the story of UNDP told from the perspective of its supposed beneficiaries. Murphy relies on the archival record, secondary literature, and interviews with individuals associated with UNDP, and largely neglects the voices of aid recipients. What Murphy sterilely recounts as mistakes contributing to UNDP’s learning process have had very real consequences for those the organization intended, but failed, to assist. Failure to account for these human costs lends the book an overall feel of championing UNDP. Throughout the book it is obvious — Murphy even acknowledges this explicitly — that he is a believer in the organization’s vision of development. The book’s contribution would have been greater had Murphy included the viewpoints of aid recipients and let readers arrive at their own conclusions concerning the effectiveness and appropriateness of the organization’s vision of development.
This shortcoming notwithstanding, Murphy delivers an impressively well written account of the challenges and opportunities faced by one of the world’s leading development agencies. At its core, this book is a story about human agency operating within the context of the constraints and opportunities created by the structures of a bureaucratic organization and the international system. It is the story of the trials and tribulations of well-intentioned individuals hoping to make the world a more equitable place. Like all humans, and like all organizations, they have made mistakes.“ These compassionate and hopeful men and women did things over sixty years that were sometimes triumphantly brilliant and, at other times, horribly foolish, even if motivated by impeccable intentions. ”The real gauge of organizations like UNDP may be not whether they can foster democracy or eradicate inequality, but rather, whether they can improve “a situation that otherwise would have been worse.”