The United Nations provides more than 130 developing countries with an enormous range of assistance and advice, on issues as diverse as AIDS prevention, election monitoring, disaster risk reduction, improving rural livelihoods, and life-saving humanitarian action. This broad array of advice and support comes from twenty-two specialized agencies, funds and programs (each with its own independent Board, budget and program), along with ten offices and commissions based in the UN Secretariat. In any given country, there may be as many as thirty agencies and offices in operation. Though the diversity of these agencies and offices is often a strength, it also creates a significant challenge: ensuring that the advice and support provided by UN actors within a country is well coordinated, efficient and effective.

Since 1997, agency leaders have been meeting at the global level as the United Nations Development Group (UNDG). The UNDG has made significant progress in improving operational collaboration, efficiency and transparency. However, the agency leaders have never jointly set priorities on which to base their work. One reason is that there are still significant differences of interest and different levels of capacity for collaboration among the UN agencies and offices.

Last December, the UNDG asked CBI to help facilitate an effort to reach agreement on the first-ever global strategy for the group. CBI Managing Director David Fairman spoke individually with the 13 agency Deputy Directors charged with developing the strategy, and then facilitated their dialogue and negotiation over a series of retreats and working group meetings. Strong agreement emerged on a clear set of priorities:

  • Make UN Country Teams the central focus of the joint work of the UNDG, and give them the tools, incentives, accountability and support they need to collaborate effectively
  • Increase the effectiveness of the UN’s country-level development work by helping Country Teams work “upstream”with senior policy makers, and align their joint priorities with national priorities and UN comparative advantages
  • Streamline the way that the UNDG works globally, and make it more responsive to the operational needs of UN Country Teams and less directive of those teams

At the same time, significant differences became apparent among the agencies on how best to achieve these goals, and on the effectiveness of some of the existing UNDG incentives, supports and global working groups. CBI helped the Deputy Directors to clarify and jointly investigate differences in understanding and interpretation of facts; to negotiate for joint gains to bridge differences in agency interests; and to use dialogue and a collegial spirit to overcome tension and miscommunication in inter-agency relationships. To their credit, throughout the process they maintained a constructive approach and carried out complex consultations within their agencies in tandem with meetings.

In April 2010, the heads of all 32 UN agencies, funds, programs and offices approved a two-year UNDG strategy for the years 2010-2011, reflecting the consensus recommendation of the Deputy Directors, and also approved several shifts in roles and responsibilities to support its implementation. Currently, CBI is facilitating the UNDG Advisory Group’s efforts to implement a work plan for the strategy.

According to several members of the Advisory Group, the experience has demonstrated the value of CBI’s approach to facilitation: understanding in depth the substantive and organizational issues that drive stakeholder representatives; developing one-to-one dialogue, rapport and trust with individual stakeholders before facilitating group discussion; and being able to move between “pure” process facilitation; energizing and motivating a group; summarizing and synthesizing discussion at key points to capture progress and agreement; and offering constructive criticism and “what if ” options at moments when the group is bogged down.

For CBI, it has been another opportunity to support the UN development system in its efforts to improve the lives of people in countries around the world, and to hone our ability to facilitate strategic planning in highly complex, inter-organizational contexts.