How would Napoleon have approached the 2030 Agenda?

BY Lars Tushuizen | August 25, 2016|Comments 3

For months the trumpets sounded and the drums beat on a new milestone in UN development — a beautiful baby, called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was born. It’s neither a boy nor a girl,  it’s gender balanced — a small step for men, but a giant leap for mankind.
So our development problems are solved. We have a “plan”. Which, as we all know, means we are all but there. Or so we would think.

Truth be told — the Millennium Development Goals did address a range of significant development issues and created a common cause that rallied the development world. But there is a thing that bothers me about these sweeping development frameworks. A fundamental thing that few know about and is not even discussed while thinking through implementation of programmes to achieve the SDGs. To address this fundamental notion in development programmes, let’s look back in time. 

The Russian Campaign in 1812

During  the Russian Campaign in 1812. Napoleon tried to engage the Russian army for a decisive action at the Battle of Maloyaroslavets. His generals were planning their attack (programme) without consulting the logistics officers that needed to aptly plan the logistics and operations support for their plan. His troops exhausted, his operations disarrayed from the start —  with few rations  and no winter clothing — Napoleon lost and was forced to retreat. His vision was solid but he failed to achieve his objectives and lost 95 per cent of his assets, including his men.

Reflecting on this historical occurrence, let’s add a relative perspective to our action plan with the SDGs. We talk about how we will engage universally with all the people we are to serve, we talk about recruiting the best and the brightest the world has to offer, we talk about using big data and real time data to inform our programmes, and most of all, we talk about impact and results. Don’t get me wrong, the SDGs are a great achievement from a planning, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting perspective. And it will have a great impact if we manage it.

But to achieve these lofty goals, there is very little thinking going on about the need and the resources for business operations to be reformed. Programmes consist for a large part of business operations processes- one way to look at a programme is that it is a collection of procurement of supplies and services, recruitment of the right staff with the right skills, logistics to move people and supplies around to the population that needs it, ICT to support the planning, reporting and collaboration, and increased analysis  analysis of ever growing data sets.

If business operations is from Mars, programme is from Venus

There for sure is a fundamental difference between business operations and programme. After all they involve very different skills and expertise. But this does not mean we should approach them as separate areas, where we plan and strategize in a very siloed approach. Especially in an environment where the focus is on integrated programming across agencies and mandates, joint annual planning and advanced collaboration in resource mobilization and implementation. This separation does not have to be. It should not be. We have the instruments to bring operations and programme planning together (as outlined in the Standard Operating Procedures for Delivering as One). Programmes and operations are two sides of the same coin – both are indispensable in delivering development impact. We cannot afford to have separate strategic planning and implementation. They are too closely linked to keep them separate.

There is always more room for improvement

The UN has introduced innovations in business operations through the business operations strategy, which is closely linked to the UNDAF and programme planning. This is a great start and the UNDG outlined quite an ambitious vision for the role of business operations under the SDGs. But what is needed is a change of mindset of both programme and operations staff, both of senior management and our rank and file. Instead of treating business operations to engage once the programme is set and treat them as an external force that needs to deliver services to the programme, business operations needs to be engaged in the projects. What is needed is a change in project development and implementation to ensure business operations as well as programme staff are part of the same team. Some agencies already do this, but there is more room for improvement.

In the end it is like a war, a development war

We think about the attack plan, the maneuvers that will get us to our goal and not to forget, the victory speech we will give to position this development war that ends all development wars (or all development, but that is besides the point). But what war is ever won without ensuring the logistics and operations of the army are developed at par with the strategy so the soldiers of reform and development don’t die from cold at the battlefield?

We all know what happened to Napoleon. He had a plan, but he did not think through the operations and logistics to implement that plan. Based on the epic defeat and learning from his mistakes, how do you think Napoleon would implement the SDGs?

Would we repeat history without learning from key events such as the Russian defeat?


Lars Tushuizen Lars is Business Operations Advisor at the United Nations Development Group working with the Development Operations Coordination Office. You can follow him on Twitter


  1. Kanni Wignaraja says:

    I enjoyed the creative use of historical allusions and even the mixed gender metaphors! Another lesson from the end of Napolean’s closing chapters – he just didn’t seem to learn from this 1812 defeat, if I recollect. For soon after returning from exile and heading back into battle, he got thoroughly beaten by Admiral Nelson at the battle of Waterloo in 1814. May be this time he had his ships in good shape and his operations well oiled, but not his SDG, I mean seafaring planning and tactics! So yes, it always takes both.

  2. Yves Sassenrath says:

    Excellent and very insightful ! Right on the money as usual! We would not have come as far as we did in closing this artificial and unnecessary dichotomy had it not been for your brilliant mind and tireless efforts!

  3. Philip Dive says:

    Hello Lars, an interesting article, thank you. Given the historical reference, I think we might do very well to consider how the Duke of Wellington, or Field Marshal Gebhard von Blucher, or Admiral Horatio Nelson, or the Russian Emperor Alexander would have approached the SDGs, rather than Napoleon, given they all resisted and / or beat Napoleon and his ‘reform agenda’ for Europe. To suggest a more up-to-date case study, may I offer Field Marshal William Joseph Slim. During the Second World War he led the 14th Army, the so-called “forgotten army” in the Burma campaign and is considered by many historians to be the best example of leadership in recent times. ‘Defeat into Victory’ is the tagline that most associate with Field Marshal Slim. It would be good to ponder how he would have approached the 2030 Agenda.

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