You are here: Robert England: the UN at the frontline of development

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is one of the less well known parts of the UN System in developed countries, where the Security Council or UNICEF have a much larger profile.  By contrast, in most developing countries UNDP’s name is synonymous with the UN more generally, inter alia leading the UN’s country presence through the UN Resident Coordinator system.  

UNDP is also one of the least understood parts of the UN, being more politically complex than most UN organisations while itself charged with managing some of the trickiest of development issues, such as democratic governance and post-crisis early recovery.  As such it is frequently caught in the crossfire between different factions in the UN’s inter-governmental processes.

Insiders often remark that, while UNDP globally has been engaged in a process of existential angst more or less from its birth in 1966, it has always made most sense at the country level, where practical managers work with national counterparts to address specific development challenges.  Sometimes described as an “‘opportunist with principles”, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  UNDP at this level has over the years made many fine contributions to achieving sustainable human development in its broadest definition.

Such achievements are, however, difficult to document and can seldom be aggregated to a global narrative, because they are by their nature country-specific, founded on national ownership and dispersed across a wide range of issues. Roy Morey has managed to resolve this conundrum with a personal account of his career in UNDP, focused principally on East Asia.

From the outset of his book, it is clear that Morey’s career was more interesting than most: originally a professor of political science at Denison University, Ohio, Morey joined the Domestic Council staff of John Erlichman in the first Nixon Administration, transferring to the State Department in Nixon’s second term, completed by President Ford, where he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organisation Affairs.  In this phase he was instrumental in the creation of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and witnessed the US’s troubled relationship with UNESCO and the so-called New International Economic Order of the 1970s.

Morey then joined UNDP in 1978 and spent the rest of his career working in development.  Except for several short stints at headquarters, his work was at the individual country level, which is what makes his book such interesting reading.   He does not dwell much on the ever-changing theologies of development, but rather on the practical realities of supporting positive change at the country level.  He also discusses, again from practical experience, some of the eternal verities of development – the importance of national ownership, the significance of gender, the larger context which defines possibilities and the importance of timing and sequencing to achieving sustainable change.

Apart from providing an excellent potted history of the origins of the UN and of the birth of its development work after the Marshall Plan, his book discusses opium eradication in Thailand; the unique development challenges of the micro-states of the Pacific; the liberalisation of Chinese development policies, and the corrective jolt of Tiananmen Square; the dynamic opening-up of Vietnam and the rapprochement with the US.  He is an astute observer and makes a convincing case for the positive role the UN played in many development processes.

He completes this tour de force with his own seasoned reflections on the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of the UN; on the development issues that really matter, such as national ownership, gender and good governance; and, to add spice to the final chapter, he also discusses the competition between the US and China in the 21st Century, arguing that, far from being a zero-sum game, the two major powers need each other.  This should be reassuring for Morey’s angst-ridden fellow Americans, for he had a ringside seat during one of the most tumultuous periods in China’s recent history.

Morey writes fluidly and sometimes humorously; he sets his work in a wider UN and country context (League of Nations, Marshall Plan, Post-Vietnam War, Deng reforms in China ); and he informs his trenchant insights with personality profiles – Morey met and worked with many historically interesting people -  and leavens it with some enjoyable travelogue. Above all, he demonstrates a clear grasp of both the limits and of the potential of the UN as an instrument for promoting poverty reduction and good governance around the world. This should be reassuring for those who believe that, despite all its problems, the UN still has an important role to play in supporting development.

Robert England is a UNA-UK member and worked in the United Nations system for more than 40 years.
"The United Nations at Work in Asia: An Envoy's Account of Development in China, Vietnam, Thailand and the South Pacific" by Roy D. Morey, McFarland Publishing, available from Amazon, in hard copy or as an e-book.