Reforming the United Nations Development System

The United Nations Development System (UNDS) possesses unique assets stemming from its multilateral character. These assets need to be put at the service of the transformations envisaged in the 2030 Agenda. The UNDS has been undergoing an ambitious reform process. Not least in light of the current pressures on multilateralism, both member states and UN organisations need to step up their support for reforms to succeed. The COVID-19 pandemic exemplifies challenges that a single state cannot manage on its own – no one is safe until everyone is safe. It is a globally shared experience of crisis. To deal with such global challenges, global responses are needed, organised in a multilateral and inclusive way. The UNDS is the biggest multilateral development actor. For the past years, it has been accounting on average for roughly one third of overall Official Development Assistance to the multilateral development system. Its functions range from providing a forum for dialogue, decision-making and norm-setting, to research, advocacy, policy advice, capacity building, technical assistance, and humanitarian aid. With this multifaceted profile and its broad thematic and geographic scope, the UNDS is uniquely placed to be an important change agent. It can help governments and citizens to advance the transformation towards sustainable development.


At the same time, the UNDS needs an overhaul in terms of how it operates, what it delivers and how it is funded. In 2019, a far-reaching reform went into effect that seeks fundamental changes at the national, regional and global level. The stakes of these reforms are high. Their failure would considerably weaken the reinvigorated multilateral response which today’s global challenges call for and risk reducing the UNDS to a mostly humanitarian implementing body. Yet it is needed as a champion of the global transformation towards sustainable development on the basis of human rights and other agreed norms. Over the last years, the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) has been contributing to this ambitious reform process with research, analysis and policy recommendations. As one of very few research-based think tanks that engage with UNDS reform, DIE has examined multilateral decision-making processes, funding patterns, and coordination practices at country-level, as well as the content of current reforms and their early implementation. In 2020/21, a research team of the Institute’s Postgraduate Training Programme investigates the current state of UNDS reform implementation at the country level.

Research by DIE offers insights into the incentive structures under which UN entities and their staff operate. It analyses how (a lack of) formal provisions, accountability, staff capacities and administrative harmonisation drive or impede coordination. DIE research also sheds light on the struggle for power and control at play in the intergovernmental decision-making among 193 UN member states. In a comprehensive study on earmarked funding, DIE researchers highlight that governments tying financial contributions to specific thematic or regional purposes can have negative effects on UNDS delivery. DIE has provided policy advice on how to best address the unintended consequences of funding practices to different Federal Ministries of Germany. In discussion with decision-makers from the UN and other member states, DIE has identified ways in which they can better nourish the multilateral assets of the UNDS.


Through this combination of in-depth analysis and engagement with practitioners, research by DIE pro-vides the basis for policy approaches that strengthen the multilateral development system in times of crisis. An important partner in DIE’s efforts has been the Swedish Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation (DHF) which aims to advance international policies for sustainable development and peace through dialogue and other means. Together with the DHF, DIE convenes international workshops and meetings that bring together experts and practitioners to support reform processes in multilateral development organisations. Researchers at DIE have contributed to various editions of DHF’s annual flagship report on UN development finance. These reports provide pertinent and timely analyses on innovative funding instruments both with regard to SDG financing and UNDS funding. Through these re-ports published in collaboration with the UN’s Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office, DHF has succeeded in in-creasing not only the accessibility of rather technical but highly consequential funding flows to the UN but also the understanding of the importance of these flows among a broader range of decision-makers. DIE further collaborates with partners from the Managing Global Governance (MGG) network, most notably the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, to investigate the role of the “Global South” at the UN. Chinese funding for and decision-making on the UNDS are the subject of an empirically rich study that has been met with interest inside and beyond the UN community. In addition, UN organisations themselves are also valued cooperation partners for DIE, most notably the UN System Staff College’s (UNSSC) Knowledge Center on Sustainable Development in Bonn.


Seventy-five years after the founding of the United Nations, the rules-based international order is under pressure, arguably to a degree never seen before. This defines the parameters for how UN reform is envisioned and implemented. While current UNDS reform efforts are certainly ambitious in terms of what seems politically feasible, they fall short of what would be needed to effectively address the challenges of today’s interconnected world. Against this backdrop, DIE advocates for governments to not only politically and financially support current UNDS reforms across ministries but also use the momentum arising from the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 to further a more ambitious UNDS. With a strong commitment to increasing the competences, funding and independence of the United Nations, member state governments can contribute to orienting international policies towards the global common good.

The authors

Dr. Silke Weinlich is Senior Researcher in the Programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation” where she leads a project on the reform of the United Nations Development System. In addition to the United Nations and its reforms, current research interests include multilateral development cooperation and global governance.

Henrik Hammargren is Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala, Sweden.