Policy Advice in UN Development Work

High Expectations and Practical Constraints

In: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations
Max-Otto Baumann IDOS, Programme for Inter- and Transnational Cooperation Germany Bonn

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Providing high-level policy advice to developing countries with the purpose to shape national policies is a key function of the UN. Yet no official UN definition of policy advice exists and little is known on how much weight the UN gives to this support modality in contrast to capacity-building and implementation work. To address this gap, this article first articulates the case for the UN’s role in policy change. It then presents an empirical analysis of the policy advice landscape of the UN, providing a numerical estimate of the share of resources dedicated to policy advice and identifying five practical constraints on the UN’s policy advice function. Results suggest that, despite high expectations, the UN’s fieldwork is not strategically focused on policy advice. This article contributes to the underresearched field of UN development work and how it is, or should be, shaped by the UN’s multilateralism.

1 Introduction

The UN’s development pillar is financially the world’s largest development institution and politically arguably the most central one. In the broadest sense, UN development organizations use three modalities to support host countries in their development efforts. The first modality, implementation work, comprises the provision of services, small infrastructure, and technical and social solutions. A second modality consists of helping to build capacity and institutions, so that developing countries can stand on their own feet. The third and maybe least well-known modality centers on efforts to shape national policies. This might also be the most important modality. The following statement from an evaluation of the UN Children Fund (UNICEF) country office in Angola captures a broadly shared proposition in UN circles; namely, that a UN country office is “viewed as positive and influential when it is able to provide sophisticated, quality policy advice … at the highest levels of government, from head of state to ministries.”1 The fact that such a statement is made hints that UN country offices do not always engage with host countries on policy issues as they should. At the global level, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has in recent years made the provision of “integrated policy advice” a strategic priority to ensure the UN can in fact play this “positive and influential” role in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG s).2

Yet policy advice is an elusive topic at the UN. No official UN definition exists of policy advice and, across the UN, the term is understood to include different things. There is also no systematic reporting on policy advice activities, which renders the UN difficult to steer and monitor on this essential function. The only approximation to go by is a study in 2017, according to which policy advice amounted, in financial terms, to 5 percent of the UN’s development expenditures; the number is 21 percent if related functions of “normative support,” “data collection and analysis,” and “convening” are included.3 However, absent a clear definition, this number needs to be taken with a grain of salt,4 and it provides only a snapshot of a particular time in history. The resulting knowledge gap on the UN’s policy advice function is concerning. As further elaborated below, a strong case can be made for a significant role of the UN in providing policy advice as an instrument to affect policy change. As elaborated in this article, policy advice not only is positively linked to the UN’s development effectiveness and efficiency, but the UN as a multilateral organization with unique legitimacy also has a normative role to play in shaping national policies in line with global frameworks and the global common interest.

It is against this backdrop of policy advice as a relevant, but somewhat obscure, UN development function that I attempt in this article to explore the role, the potential, and the limitations of this modality in UN development work. For the purpose of this article, policy advice is defined as those UN activities that aim to shape national policies (expressed in laws, budgets, agendas, or strategies) through high-level dialogue with national decisionmakers.5 Analytical work and the convening of stakeholders across ministries and societal groups are considered essential components of policy advice, as long as they are aimed at a specific policy change. What sharpens this definition in contrast to other understandings of the term in UN circles is the focus on national policies and high-level decisionmakers, which 1) excludes development support activities at the subnational level; and 2) means that advice is often not purely technical, but has a normative (and, by implication, political) element. In UN jargon, it is common to refer to policy advice as “upstream” work versus “downstream” implementation work, although capacity building may be attributed to both. To provide a clear demarcation, policy advice, or upstream work for that matter, can be characterized as essentially about what should be done, whereas downstream work is about the how of implementing what has been decided politically.

There is a thriving field of research about policy advice in industrialized states, but externally provided policy advice in the context of development support is an underresearched topic. To give a brief overview of the most relevant recent literature: there are two academic studies, one on the International Monetary Fund,6 focusing on how its policy advice differs across country types, and another on the World Bank7 that investigates policy advice techniques. Regarding the UN development system, one finds a couple of expert publications, including a paper on the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) repositioning toward a greater policy advice focus,8 an insider account on a UN Development Programme (UNDP) country office,9 and a study on policy advice at the level of the UN’s resident coordinator system.10 The wider aid literature treats policy advice as part of technical assistance and capacity building and, therefore, offers only scattered insights but no consolidated accounts.11 From a bilateral aid perspective, this is understandable, as bilateral aid providers do not have a specific role in policy advice. Multilateral organizations such as the UN do, however, and—as I argue in this article—this requires treating policy advice as a conceptually distinct support modality.

2 Methods

The key proposition that I aim to demonstrate in this article is that UN country offices are not as focused on policy change as they should be. Two research questions follow from this proposition: First, what are the expectations for UN country offices’ focus on policy change? And, second, how much policy advice does in fact take place in the UN, and in what sense is this less than expected? To answer these question, the article builds on document analysis and triangulates the numerical and qualitative findings with academic literature on development effectiveness.

Regarding the first question, both aid effectiveness considerations and the UN’s multilateral features are used to make the case for policy advice. Methodologically, however, a more precise and objective yardstick for measuring the UN’s focus on policy change is needed. For this, the UN’s own mandates are used. A numerical estimate of the share of policy-related goals in contrast to downstream support activities can be obtained from an analysis of UN strategic plans. For example, the output indicator 1.2.1a “Number of parliaments in countries supported by UN-Women that introduce legislative measures to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment” in the UN Women strategic plan was coded as a policy advice activity because of the clear focus on policy change, whereas 3.2.1a “Number of countries supported by UN-Women where quality multi-sectoral VAW [violence against women] services are available” was not because it aims at infrastructure. However, as it cannot be excluded that a UN Women field office pursues the latter goal through policy advice, the numerical estimate obtained from the strategic plan analysis must be considered a minimum.

Essentially the same method is applied to a numerical analysis of UNDP projects as an element for answering the second question about the relative amount of policy advice compared to downstream activities (for the methodological details, see below Section 4). Yet the numerical estimate provides only part of the answer as it says little about what constitutes in practice an appropriate balance of policy advice and implementation activities. The main empirical basis for the analysis is therefore a qualitative analysis of country program evaluations. These evaluations provide detailed, unfiltered, and ex post insights into how UN field offices worked toward their goals. A downside of this source is the uneven attention given by evaluators to the issue of up- and downstream activities and their proper balance. While this deficit prevents a numerical analysis, it is possible to reconstruct five factors that limit field offices’ focus on policy change.

My research was also enriched by eight interviews in 2020 with program directors from UN entities, former UNDP employees, and Member State representatives. However, interviews are not the primary source for this article; they served to validate the approaches and findings. The article is informed by my recent field research and advisory activities to government and UN practitioners on related aspects of UN development work at the country level, in particular coordination and funding.12

The sample of UN entities consists of UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, and UN Women. Together, these four entities represent the UN development arm quite well, in financial terms (collectively, they account for half of the UN’s development assistance expenditures of $ 17.0 billion in 2020)13 and regarding the thematic spectrum they cover. The analysis of UNDP projects focuses on three developing countries of different income status (Namibia, Tanzania, and Malawi).14 On the main source, the evaluations, twenty country program evaluations from nineteen countries15 were analyzed, a number that was sufficient to reach saturation. The selection of evaluations was largely dictated by availability. The period of research was 2014–2017, the last strategic plan cycle for which evaluations were available in sufficient numbers at the time of this writing.

3 High Expectations: The Case for the UN’s Role in Policy Change

In a review of technical assistance, published in 2013, the authors suggest that it is better to focus pragmatically on “getting things working” rather than “perfecting the framework” of national policies.16 Given contrary opinions on policy advice, it might be fitting to start with briefly reviewing arguments against it. To start, consider the case of Uganda that reportedly has “the world’s best laws with international backing (e.g. … anti-corruption) yet has among the largest gaps between laws and practice.”17 This example suggests that policy change can be a low-hanging fruit, plucked to please donors while the real challenge of implementation is left unattended. A general argument against policy advice might hold that this support modality contradicts aid effectiveness principles that exist to prevent such failures as in the quoted example: policy advice can be seen as top down, externally driven, focusing on a small number of elites, and consequently poorly aligned with national priorities and local needs, when development support should all be about the opposite. To the extent that it involves lobbying, it directly violates the norm of ownership (if not sovereignty), if the latter’s definition includes that “political leadership … decide of their own volition that policy changes are desirable.”18 From a historical point of view, policy advice to governments gained importance in the 1980s and 1990s as good governance and good policies were recognized as key determinants of development, typically provided in the context of structural adjustment programs, budget support, and sector-wide approaches.19 Yet there also was the opposite trend of decentralization toward the subnational and community level that promised a more participatory development approach, greater accountability to the people affected, strengthening of civil society, reduced opportunities for aid capture, and more generally “a way to empower the poor.”20 There is only a limited role for high-level policy advice in this approach that appears to have become the dominant one.

3.1 Policy Advice through the Lens of Development Effectiveness

The first proposition that can be articulated in support of the policy advice function hinges on its arguably greater potential for development effectiveness. While policy-level engagement can be criticized for neglecting implementation gaps, a similar problem might reversely be the lack of attention to policy issues in downstream work. After being at the center of development efforts for more than two decades, capacity building has in recent years been reviewed rather critically, with one major line of criticism being that it tends to pursue “technical solutions to what are often political challenges.”21 As a result, a focus on capacity building may result in neglecting root causes and may even strengthen the wrong capacities, thus potentially prolonging an undesirable state of affairs.22 A similar rebuttal can be advanced on the objection that policy advice may result in quick wins without much ownership: if no meaningful ownership can be found at national level, it begs the question under which ownership downstream work can be realized successfully. It is certainly true that both up- and downstream work can suffer from (or be criticized for) the disregard of aid effectiveness principles. Downstream work as a more resource-based support modality, however, appears to also be more susceptible to rent seeking and other political economy issues of giving and receiving aid that are detrimental to development effectiveness.23

A frequently raised concern in UN country program evaluations (more below) is that interventions at the subnational level often benefit only a comparatively small subsection of the population, and often do so with limited chances for sustainable effect—meaning that, even in the case of a successfully completed project, no measurable contribution to national development has been made. Such resources would have to be considered wasted, reducing a country office’s overall efficiency in using its budget, given that UN development targets are formulated at the impact level of national development. Policy change, in contrast, by definition applies nationwide, provides a framework for stakeholders across society, and is there to stay until somebody takes the initiative to undo it. The involvement of political decisionmakers and ideally also stakeholders from the legislative and judiciary branches of government provides a chance for high-quality, effective ownership. Last but not least, SDG experts stress that the complex, often cross-sectoral sustainability transformations required under the 2030 Agenda are impossible without such central leadership,24 which is why the UN Secretary-General accords strategic importance to the UN’s ability to provide integrated policy advice to host governments.

3.2 The UN’s Predestination for Policy Advice

The case for policy advice does not rest only on the general merits of this support modality, but also on the specific roles of UN country offices. Every UN country office of the four organizations chosen for this research represents the “world organization” that has unique legitimacy with host governments in theory (given the UN’s universal membership and its principle of impartiality) and in practice, where UN organizations are the most trusted partners for developing countries.25 These qualities arguably bestow on the UN a responsibility for holding up global values, frameworks, and organizational mandates. Policy advice, as the means to do so, is the perfect reason why Member States should delegate authority to the UN as a “community representative.”26 The UN can, in principle, play a normative role in a way that bilateral aid providers cannot.

Admittedly, this markedly normative reading of the UN contradicts a key principle of UN development doctrine; namely, that all UN support has to be “at the request of [developing] countries” and fully respect their ownership.27 According to that doctrine, which is carefully guarded by the Group of 77 in the General Assembly, UN bureaucrats can advise on technical issues if requested to do so, but have no business to advocate for normative change. Yet in practice, policy advice in the name of global mandates is firmly established as a UN development support modality. How far the UN can go in lobbying for change before support turns into meddling in domestic affairs, and to what extent a host government represents the will of a country, is a matter of debate.28 What provides basic justification to the UN policy advice function is that, first, UN organizations are bound by the UN Charter’s value orientation, their individual mandates (see below), and their broadly recognized roles as stewards of international frameworks in their respective field (e.g., UNICEF and the Convention on the Rights of the Child). Secondly, as long as UN policy advice is about localizing policies to which host countries have formally committed at the global level, it can hardly be said to constitute external intervention.29

3.3 The UN’s Own Ambitions on Policy Change

Judging from official documents at headquarters level, UN organizations require no conversion to policy advice. All four organizations, with the partial exception of UNICEF, display a keen focus on policy change in their strategic plans, the four-year programs through which Member States mandate the organizations and which express the organization’s mission and identity: UNDP is presented as the organization “with the upstream, [sic] policy work.”30 UNFPA describes its strategies as “heavily focused on advocacy and policy dialogue/advice” with the aim “to shift national laws and policies.”31 In UN Women’s strategic plan, the first set of targets in four out of the five country-level impact areas are about the “adoption and implementation” of constitutional reform, laws, policies, and strategies.32 Across the board, policy engagement ranks higher than capacity building and, barely even mentioned, implementation. UNICEF’s strategic plan is the only one that puts service delivery, a downstream modality, front and center as constituting the “core” of its work.33

This focus on policy change is somewhat reduced in the operationalization of the strategic plans. Strategic plans contain approximately 100 output indicators that can be coded as policy focused or not.34 Figure 1 shows that based on my analysis, on average 39 percent of indicators are on policy change. This result is to be considered a minimum, as the remaining indicators are often formulated at the outcome level (something like “X % of the population enjoy access to clean water”), leaving the choice of support modality open. Just as relevant, and methodologically perhaps more reliable, is that compared with the following round of strategic plans (2018–2021), there is a significant decline of policy change indicators, down to 28 percent of indicators. According to the interviews,35 the organizations did not envision a shift in how they work in the field because of that; however, they felt pressure by donors for reporting quantifiable results.

4 Practical Constraints: Policy Advice in UN Fieldwork

Having established the expectation for the UN’s focus on policy advice, this section turns to the country level to analyze the practice of policy advice. First, I provide a numerical estimate on the scope, before analyzing qualitatively the factors limiting the provision of policy advice.

4.1 Numerical Estimate

The systematic analysis of UNDP projects from three countries yields a numerical estimate on the share of resources the three country offices spent on policy advice. Project documents typically contain three or four main outputs, or goals the project is set to achieve, along with a budget for each output. Detailed lists of output targets and planned activities provide additional clarity on what a project intends to do under each output. Outputs can therefore be coded as primarily about policy change or downstream work and, together with the budgets for each output, it is possible to identify the share of resources that is dedicated to policy advice activities. This analysis has some limitations as there remain ambiguities in the formulation of outputs and there is no guarantee that projects were funded and implemented as intended (the limited number of project evaluations available did not allow me to systematically assess factual implementation). The ambiguities from vague output formulation can partially be mitigated36 and, apart from that, errors in measurement to either side should by and large cancel each other out given the medium-n sample of fifty-three projects analyzed. Only projects that started during the strategic plan period were considered, and only the twenty largest projects, to cut off microactivities of sometimes unclear nature. Projects were sourced from UNDP’s transparency portal.

As Table 1 shows, policy advice accounted for approximately one-fifth of UNDP’s project expenditures in the three countries analyzed. This estimate—and, in particular, the small share of policy advice activities recorded for Namibia—contrasts with the notion of UNDP as the organization “with the upstream, policy work” and is also below the numerical estimate from UNDP’s strategic plan (32 percent, see Figure 1). The fact that Namibia, an upper-middle-income country (where UNDP claims to “operate mainly at the policy level, with limited downstream interventions”)37 displays a significantly lower share of policy advice than Tanzania, a low-income country, is interesting given the broadly held assumption in UN development discourse that policy advice should be the key engagement modality in middle-income countries.38

Table 1

Numerical estimate of the share of policy advice (in financial terms) in UN Development Programme projects (2014–2017)


Income status

No. of projects

Financial volume

Policy advice (%)


Upper middle income


$ 16.7 million



Lower income


$ 165.8 million



Lower income


$ 105.3 million


Source: Author’s own

Scattered evidence from other UN organizations confirms the order of around one-fifth, or even less, of development expenditures being dedicated to policy advice activities: regarding UNFPA, internal data from 2014, the first year of the strategic plan period, indicate that policy advice accounted for 11 percent, 14 percent, and 28 percent of UNFPA’s budget in low-income, lower-middle-income, and upper-middle-income countries respectively; factoring in the global allocation to these three country groups, policy advice accounted for an overall 14 percent of UNFPA expenditures.39 This number can be expected to have risen over the course of the strategic plan period (no official reporting exists) in which UNFPA intended to shift away from “delivering things” to “delivering thinking,”40 but is still below the expectation from the mandates (38 percent, see Figure 1). For UN Women, the country program in Tanzania had 23 percent of its outputs on policy change,41 while the UNICEF office in Nepal dedicated 21 percent of its expenditures to policy change.42


Figure 1

Mandated focus on policy change in terms of share of output indicators in the strategic plans

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 28, 3 (2022) ; 10.1163/19426720-02803005

Source: Author’s own

4.2 The Syndrome of an Insufficient Focus on Policy Change

The finding that approximately one-fifth of the UN’s outputs/resources at the country level are dedicated to policy change appears modest in light of the expectations set out above. Yet it would be difficult to argue objectively that this balance of policy advice and downstream work constitutes a real problem; a critical objection might be that implementation work is more expensive, as it generally involves not only analytical work but also a transfer of material resources, and that for every national policy there is a broad range of implementation challenges such as demand creation, capacity building, and monitoring. Therefore, to support this article’s key proposition that the UN displays an insufficient focus on policy change, this subsection presents a qualitative analysis of how in practice the policy advice function falls short of what is intended. The following review of country program evaluations, a valuable though imperfect source of information,43 shows that UN organizations often miss opportunities for addressing policy change. Five specific issues are identified that are presented in a nonsystematic, but somewhat natural order, starting with planning and implementation issues, moving on to underlying administrational structures, before arriving last but not least at the role of politics. Together, these five issues that overlap and point to each other can be said to constitute the syndrome of an insufficient focus on policy change.

Already at the first stage of the four-year program cycles, the often superficial application of planning tools constitutes a missed opportunity to pave the way for senior-level policy engagement. So-called theories of change, or logical models, serve to explain how development activities are expected to contribute to a nationwide sustainable impact.44 Preparing theories of change is a common practice in the development sector and is mandatory in the four UN organizations. Among the most frequently raised issues in country program evaluations is that these documents poorly articulate the path toward higher-level changes.45 This weakens the policy focus of a country office in two respects: first, the absence of a clearly defined and operationalized notion of impact, including the routes toward it, reduce the accountability and thus the incentives for country offices to adequately prioritize policy change as a key factor for impact. Second, as change at the impact level is never the UN’s responsibility alone, but requires complimentary actions of host governments, the lack of sound impact planning means that country offices are deprived of sufficient guidance for an ongoing dialogue with senior policymakers.46 In all fairness, using theories of change more as a compliance tool on outputs rather than, as originally intended, an instrument for impact-level effectiveness, is a deficit that is not unique to the UN.47

During country program implementation, a downstream imbalance manifests itself in the reliance on pilot interventions that are insufficiently focused on higher-level goals. “Pilots” are projects of limited scope that are intended to test or demonstrate a concept or solution that can then be scaled up to the level of nationwide change. According to the wider aid literature, they can play a role in narrowing the “micro-macro gap” between national policies and practice at the local level. As “local development needs and interests seldom enjoy a supportive policy environment,”48 pilots can help create local experiences as a basis for advocating for policy changes. In Namibia, for example, UNDP demonstrated that energy-efficient buildings can generate benefits, and then used this pilot to advocate for changes in the national building code.49 Yet evaluations reveal that such upscaling often does not take place, as either no plans are made for it or country offices do not go the extra mile to translate successful pilots into policy advice. Consequently, such pilots achieve no effect beyond a negligible circle of local beneficiaries.50 A case from UNICEF’s work in Serbia provides a hint as to the political economy behind pilots: out of fourteen pilots, only one was successfully scaled up, and all of them were funded by donors rather than through UNICEF’s core budget.51 This suggests that the decision to engage in pilots was driven more by a funding opportunity than by planning toward impact—a problem that has often been articulated regarding the UN,52 but also in the wider aid literature.53 Promising quick, tangible, and low-risk success, pilots are attractive for donors. But this spirit of conducting aid contradicts “the general proposition … that multilateralism offers governments a chance to delegate authority to an international institution to … tie their hands in a way that is conducive to long-term goals.”54 One evaluation explicitly recommends to pull out of the pilot business in favor of a more direct focus on policies.55

More on the administrative side, evaluations point out that country offices lack the capacity to generate knowledge needed for engaging meaningfully in policy advice. Eager to respond to (short-term) funding from donors and (equally ad hoc) demands from host governments, offices are stretched thin by their broad portfolio of mostly downstream activities.56 Formally, all four UN organizations have a knowledge management strategy,57 recognizing that knowledge is a key resource in any development work, but in particular for policy advice. But in day-to-day practice, the more urgent concerns of “getting things working” undermines the systematic gathering and utilization of data. Consider this finding on a UNDP country program:

The CPAP [country programme] does not sufficiently address knowledge management based on the experiences that can be gained from interventions … . Yet UNDP country programme interventions are rich in experiences that deserve to be collected and analysed … to inform policy dialogue.58

The tangential role of knowledge is also evident in the partnership choices of country offices. Another UNDP evaluation notes that the partnerships developed by the country office “have been aimed at generating funding or in-kind support, and the country office has not yet started to explore partnerships focused on knowledge exchange, which are critical in an environment of limited resources.”59 This again underlines how the (perceived) need for resource mobilization can shape the direction of a country office more than the organization’s mission and mandates. A strategic focus on policy advice would dictate a systematic, country-level partnership approach aimed at universities, think tanks, chambers of commerce, and also bodies with a regional outlook that can all help country offices to draw on a wide body of local knowledge to provide policy advice that is well adjusted to national and regional contexts.

Staff composition is another significant and systemic limiting factor for policy advice. Under efficiency pressures from their government boards, UN organizations have in recent decades resorted to increasingly working with junior staff and consultants at the country level.60 Such staff often do not have the trusted relationships, networks, expertise, and—most importantly—the seniority required for high-level policy advice.61 A UNDP country program evaluation confirms this, stating that “much of UNDP’s current technical guidance and advisory services has been outsourced, critically lacking internal sector-specific capacity and expertise” for policy advice.62 Another evaluation, this time on a UN Women country office, found “too little emphasis on the normative involvement” with government policies and connected this finding to “a low representation of senior staff in the current staff structure.”63 In downstream work, the resources UN organizations bring to the table can earn UN staff a certain degree of respect and goodwill from decisionmakers but, in the area of policy advice, personal relationships are key. Paradoxically, the offices most affected by lack of senior staff are those in the growing number of middle-income countries, where the UN’s main role is seen in the area of policy but where offices have to run almost entirely on earmarked project funding.

A last constraining factor arises from the political exposure that comes with policy advice. The terms policy advice and dialogue may convey the image of amiable exchanges over tea, which is not necessarily wrong, but to work toward policy change also requires taking a position in often fiercely contested domestic politics, in which the UN is just one actor besides other powerful political actors and groups.64 Furthermore, in conservative societies the gap between the local value system and that of the UN might be particularly wide, making policy change that touches on normative issues difficult. Where such a politically adverse environment meets the world of UN bureaucracy, two disincentives act against policy work: First, the unpredictable nature of policy change processes that require country offices to work “in iterative, adaptive and flexible ways”65 over long periods of time are difficult to reconcile with the UN’s four-year programming cycle and related accountability pressures. Second, given the thin line between support and meddling in domestic affairs (at least in the view of national actors), a UN country office may be at risk of damaging its privileged access to decisionmakers and societal legitimacy if it becomes too outspoken on contested policy issues.

As a result, the goal of affecting policy change may be deflected into less political approaches. Although generally disposed to stay out of politics, country program evaluations do note the failure to address structural issues, root causes, and systemic change at the policy level66 or at least point up the adverse sociocultural context in which country offices have to work.67 Studies on UN development work have identified a worrisome tendency of UN development organizations to respond to political and rights issues with technical solutions, capacity building, and resource-heavy allocations to the needy, all of which often fail to address the structural problem and can in the worst case be counterproductive, promulgating an undesirable state of affairs.68 Behind that is often the failure to engage the host government at the highest levels where political authority rests. UN projects are often implemented by or under the formal responsibility of line ministries, where ministers are reluctant to expose themselves politically. Writing from his experience as a UNDP employee, Nicholas Booth notes that “this is perhaps one explanation for the often-noted tendency of governance projects to focus on organizing workshops and study tours rather than on advocating controversial policy changes.”69

5 Conclusion

While UN development organizations do play a significant role in shaping national policies in developing countries around the world—and perhaps more so than commonly expected based on popular notions of the rubber-booted development worker—I have argued in this article that the UN should do more. From a development effectiveness and efficiency standpoint, from considerations regarding the UN’s legitimacy and multilateral role, and given the UN’s own mission and mandates, the approximately one-fifth of resources dedicated to policy advice appear too little. Five issues were identified that represent the insufficient focus on policy advice as they also explain it: poor planning for impact, focus on tangible results, lack of senior staff, rudimentary knowledge management, and the often adverse political environment in host countries. The common denominator that emerges from this analysis is that UN organizations are not systematically optimized for policy advice as a key strategy of working toward impact. Rather, their “business model”—this is UN jargon, but unwittingly fitting in its commercial connotations—is based on catering to the demands of donors and host governments who fund the UN.

Policy advice is not without downsides, as I briefly highlighted—it can overburden the absorptive capacities of host governments and policy change might fail to attract ownership at all levels of society. In the end, UN organizations and national decisionmakers might just be pulling “rubber levers” as national bureaucracies fail to implement policies in the formulation of which they had no significant role.70 Judging from the evaluations that I studied for this article, implementation problems are real and pervasive. So, is a greater focus on policy advice really the way forward? The answer hinges on the difference between more and better policy advice. The goal should not be for the UN to maximize the number of new policies it initiates or shapes. Good policy advice can also be about abolishing a discriminatory law. To play a truly “positive and influential” role, UN organizations need to tailor their advice well to local contexts. They also have to advise within the limits of what a host government and society can absorb, fund, and implement. Where political will is missing, it needs to be built and fostered. While it is attractive to dodge such problems by getting things working through implementation work, this does not solve the problem of weak national ownership. To the contrary, doing the work of national bureaucracies, regional and district governments comes with the risk of weakening them.71

Giving policy advice higher practical priority would require a shift in how the UN operates at the country level. Disincentives against policy advice would have to be removed. However, any such organizational adjustment will be half-hearted if not subtended by a clear notion of the role the UN should play in the global governance for sustainable development: Should UN development organizations be a kind of technical service provider, multilateral only in the sense of a collectively owned aid infrastructure? In that case it would be appropriate for them to operate in a decentralized and depoliticized way, entirely donor and demand driven. The cost of that model appears to be a limited ability to really work toward transformational change. Or should UN development organizations, in a world marked by centrifugal normative tendencies and pressing global challenge, fully embrace a normative role, bring their considerable normative force to bear on matters such as inequality, SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), and climate change? By implication, this could mean a significantly reduced presence in countries where the conditions for such a role are not given. Moving toward the latter would also require to make the UN a more universal organization with a role to play in all countries of the world, including industrialized countries.


UNICEF 2018, 146.


UN 2017, 7.


Dalberg 2017, 12.


Head of programming, UNDP, interviewed by the author, 6 August 2020, New York; head of programming, UN Women, interviewed by the author 21 August 2020, New York.


This definition closely follows CBI 2011, 23.


Schlaufer 2019.


Bazbauers 2020.


Dinello 2016.


Booth 2016.


CBI 2011.


See Cox and Norrington-Davis 2019, 2; Timmis 2018, 2; Arndt 2000, 157, 170.


Weinlich et al. 2020, 2022.


UN 2022, 1.


Another consideration was to avoid fragile contexts and such countries where UNDP receives more than the usual share of its resources from the Global Environment Facility.


These are the program evaluations for UNDP: Guatemala 2019, Madagascar 2019, Malawi 2016, Namibia 2019, Pakistan 2017, Timor-Leste 2019. For UNFPA: Kyrgyzstan 2016, Liberia 2017, the Philippines 2019, Sierra Leone 2018. For UN Women: Cameroon 2017, Kenya 2017, Liberia 2018, Rwanda 2018, Tanzania 2017. For UNICEF: Moldova 2017, Serbia 2019, Angola 2018, Nepal 2017, Ethiopia 2020.


Tavakoli et al. 2013, 35–36.


Cox and Norrington-Davis 2019, 23.


Killick 1998, 87.


Land et al. 2015.


Grindle 2004, 534; Nganje 2015; Werker 2012, 17.


Cox and Norrington-Davis 2019, 10, 18; Greenhill 2006, 23–45; Keijzer and de Lange 2015; Reality of Aid 2016.


Landolt 2012.


Werker 2012.


Breuer et al. 2021.


UN 2018, 53.


Abbott and Snidal 1998, 3.


UN 2012, 4; see also Baumann 2017.


Darrow and Arbour 2009.


Interestingly, 90 percent of the indicators of the 2030 Agenda, though not legally binding themselves, are backed up by international law, mostly human rights law. UN 2021, 63.


UNDP 2013, 13.


UNFPA 2013, 9.


UN Women 2013, 11, 12, 13, 15.


UNICEF 2013, 13.


This information is contained in the “results frameworks” annexed to the strategic plan document.


Head of programming, UNDP, interviewed by the author, 6 August 2020, New York; head of programming, UN Women, interviewed by the author 21 August 2020, New York.


To account for outputs that are either only partially policy or implementation focused, or very unequally budgeted, projects were rated as either 0, 25, 50, 75 or 100 percent policy focused. To give an example, if two out of four outputs are clearly about policy change, and each is budgeted by $ 1 million, then $ 2 million out of $ 4 million are budgeted for policy advice and the project is rated 50 percent policy focused. If, however, the two policy outputs are budgeted with only $ 0.5 million, then policy change accounts for just $ 1 million out the total $ 3 million budget. In that case, the project is rated 25 percent policy focused. One would arrive at the same rating if two out of four outputs (again, each $ 1 million) were mixed, involving both policy advice and implementation goals to an equal extent. This procedure requires close examination of project documents and introduces some subjectivity. However, the 25 percent interval was chosen as the best compromise between the need for precision and the unavoidable margins of error.


UNDP 2018, xii.


Dinello 2016; Booth 2016.


Dinello 2016, 60, 66.


UNFPA 2013, 13.


UN Women n.d., 35.


Ernst & Young LLP 2017, 51.


A note on the quality: evaluations were chosen as key source because they provide comprehensive, detailed, substantiated, and reasonably independent information. However, they vary in the attention given to policy advice. One evaluator, who asked to comment on a specific evaluation, said that questions about the right balance of policy change and implementation, or up- and downstream work, “are luring at the back of my brain all the time” (personal communication with the author 16 January. 2020). Indeed, some evaluations quite critically analyze program implementation in terms of alternative approaches and sustainable impact. Others appear to be more favorably disposed toward implementation work and focus more narrowly on outputs. Given these differences, it is not possible to compare UN organizations based on country program evaluations, and neither can the frequency of an issue being highlighted across the sample of twenty evaluations serve as an indicator to its salience.


Ringhofer and Kohlweg 2019.


To cite just a few: UNDP 2017, 17, 23, 36; Sabaris et al. 2018, 47, 63; UNFPA 2018a, 12, 63–64; UN Women 2017a, 25, 2018a, 33.


UNDP 2019b, 11.


Ringhofer and Kohlweg 2019, 120.


Ubels, van Klinken, and Visser 2010, 167; Visser 2010, 50.


UNDP Namibia 2014.


UNDP 2018, 29, 2019b, 29, 2019c, 36, 2017, 18, 52; UN Women n.d., 29, 44.


Kacapor-Dzihic, Nurkic, and Zarkcovic 2019, 63.


Weinlich et al. 2020; UNICEF 2018, xi.


Holzapfel 2014; Bain, Booth, and Wild 2016, 21.


Sridhar and Woods 2013, 333.


UN Women n.d., 48; see also UN Women 2017a, 42.


UNDP 2016, 15, 2017, 39–40; Kacapor-Dzihic, Nurkic, and Zarkcovic 2019, 33; UNFPA 2018a, 41; UN Women 2017b, 37.


Dumitriu 2016.


UNDP 2019b, 29; see also UN Women 2018a, 33, n.d., xii, 48; Kacapor-Dzihic, Nurkic, and Zarkcovic 2019, 53.


UNDP 2018, 30; UN Women n.d., xi.


Terzi and Fall 2014; Weinlich et al. 2020, 128.


Laws and Marquette 2018, 2.


UNDP 2017, xiv; UNFPA 2018a, 66.


UN Women 2017a, 47.


In recent years, scholars have advanced the concept of “thinking and working politically”; see Laws and Marquette 2018; Bain, Booth, and Wild 2016; Menocal 2014. The concept does not focus on, but appears to be particularly relevant for, the policy advice function.


Menocal 2014, 2.


UNDP 2019a, 14; UN Women 2018b, 57; UNDP 2018, 30, 2019b, 22.


UN Women 2017b, 36; UNFPA 2018b, xv.


Landolt 2012; Fukuda-Parr and Hegstad 2018; Hagn 2018.


Booth 2016, 47.


Diamond 2020, 9.


Econometria and JaRc Consulting 2019, 37.


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