Raising our impact in middle-income countries: What it will take

BY Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen | March 2, 2015|Comments 5

Conflicting emotions hit me today as I read of a man in Turkey who was given a life sentence after killing his wife for giving birth to a girl: revulsion, frustration and, also, pride.
As a former member of the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) in Turkey I am proud that we worked with women’s groups to help Turkish legislators increase the penalty for honor crimes and violence against women. Yet, I also feel deeply frustrated because, despite many years of UN support, Turkey remains one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.

I am hopeful that the new universal development agenda, including the sustainable development goals (SDGs), will increase the focus on inequalities, gender equality, as well as safe and just societies. This is clearly needed because, despite real development gains in middle-income countries (MICs) such as Turkey, inequality, social exclusion and democratic governance deficits still exist.

A changing dynamic

Today, partnering with MICs has become the new normal for the UN, driven in part by the following factors:

  • numbers: over 100 MICs are home to 5 billion people and 73 percent of the world’s poor;
  • projections: by 2040 most African countries will be MICs;
  • the changing universal development agenda; and
  • growing economic power and investment capability of MICs.

The UN is expected to support all countries reach the SDGs – including MICs. But how do we best support the development aspirations of governments and people in MICs? How do we support countries that have strong policies on paper, but where the real challenge lies in their implementation? And how will we respond to and fund requests for support as un-earmarked funds and traditional donor support for MICs shrink?

The answers, I am convinced, lie in integrating UN actions in all MICs across all dimensions: clarity and unity of stance on global norms and standards; joint analytics; coordinated strategic positioning; and effective joined-up operations, including pooling human and financial resources.

An urgent agenda

There is no time to waste. Greater relevance and impact requires the urgent implementation of a change agenda with the following transformative elements:

1)      Consistent application of gender and human-rights based approaches (HRBA) to identify and focus UN activities on addressing the underlying causes of discrimination and abuse. UNCTs (supported by unwavering global and regional support – particular in moments of tension) must be driven by a strong commitment to the normative mandates of the UN.

2)      Integrated country analysis across UN system entities, so that the core areas of inequality, vulnerability, human rights and climate change analysis, as well as political and humanitarian risks are joined up and support more integrated and shared policy outcomes.

3)      Truly transforming the UN into a knowledge bank and broker. The goal is to build joint networks of high level experts from across and outside the UN system, which the UNCT can draw on when faced with specific requests.

4)      The universal application of the Standard Operating Procedures for Delivering as One, enhancing the coherence, relevance, effectiveness and efficiency of our actions.

5)      Extensive promotion of national ownership, transparency and accountability to beneficiaries. Becoming more ‘coalition-ready’ is a key immediate challenge for UNCTs.

6)      New in-country funders (governments, philanthropists, private sector and individuals) are increasingly ready to fund UN activities in MICs. This makes a strong case for single window modalities, such as the One Fund.

7)      Cost-reducing common services and operations are needed. The single UN operational back-office is a must in MICs.

8)      A shift in results-based management systems to enable integration of UN ‘up-stream’ activities, putting increased emphasis on outcomes, rather than outputs and project budget-attributable results.

There is no doubt that MICs have enjoyed extraordinary progress alongside unacceptable — and unsustainable — levels of want, fear, discrimination, exploitation, injustice and environmental folly. These problems are not accidents of nature. They result from actions and omissions of people, public institutions, the private sector and others charged with protecting human rights and upholding human dignity.

A strong, integrated and coherent UN can help bring know-how and means to address these challenges, but we need urgent leadership and joint action now.


Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen Anne-Birgitte is the Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund . She also chairs the ASG Advisory Group to the UN Development Group Chair. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. Tatyana Haplichnik says:

    Absolutely agree! But continuing to follow the UNDAF processes in some of the countries of the Eastern Europe region I wonder, what it will take for the UN agencies to make it a trully joint process of identifying (a limited number of) the key issues through analytical exercise and then stay united in finding solutions for them instead of trying to make a joint UN results and resources framework an all-purpose list of agencies-specific priorities? What it will take to prioritise impact over the broad coverage, familiar actions over innovative approaches requiring new ways of doing things, new partnerships and dificulties in negotiations with the government? What it will take to prioritise UN one simple logo over each and every agency’s visibility?
    I know and see, there is a sttong movement to this direction and this is the only way. Perhaps, to start with one issue, like violence against women or any other – the most critical or obvious, easy-to-start-with – issue and try to follow all the described principles in addressing it.

  2. Getting this right (#3) is key for SSTC and the UNs continued relevance and effectiveness!

    3) Truly transforming the UN into a knowledge bank and broker. The goal is to build joint networks of high level experts from across and outside the UN system, which the UNCT can draw on when faced with specific requests.

  3. Cheikh TIdiane Cisse says:

    Well said AB!!!
    UN is still very relevant in MICs, as we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. And this should translate on the way we do business in such contexts

  4. Ian says:

    Nice to see #3 on the list. I’d argue that it is not only “high-level” experts that are needed but “low level” ones too. A lot of useful development knowledge comes from practical experience on the ground, not only technical experts. The UN can play an important role in helping connect this real life knowledge between countries through its own programmes and through supporting south-south and triangular cooperation.

  5. Karen Daduryan says:

    Thanks AB for this clear and comprehensive roadmap for the UN’s meaningful engagement in MICs – for real impact on people’s lives. This is inspiring and very much resonates with our experience in EECA region as we move on with developing many UNDAFs and Partnerhsip Frameworks in the region this year. The synchronized roll-out of these strategic frameworks (14 over two years) creates a unique opportunity for the UN system to push for the implementation of the transformative elements across almost all programme countries in our region. But it will require profound change in the thinking and culuture of the UN itself in the first place. We can surely see significant progress in this, even compared to a year ago, but perhaps not enough yet to trigger the profound transformation that you are outlining. We will continue pushing for the change from within!

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