Reimagining Development Futures: What We Can Learn From UNDP’s Integrated and Systems-Driven Approaches

By
Haoliang Xu
November 03, 2021

COVID-19 has led to the first decline in global human development in 30 years. According to some indicators, the world is back at levels last seen in the 1980s and extreme poverty is rising for the first time in a generation. Recent Ipsos data on public perception mirrors this situation: 63 percent of people across 28 countries believe their country is on the wrong track, and a majority of citizens don’t think their country’s economy will recover any time soon.

With an ongoing global pandemic and a ravaging climate crisis, we enter this decisive decade in a perfect storm. Six years ago, multilateralism made great strides when the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all UN Member States to respond to challenges of this magnitude. But in the midst of the pandemic, it’s clear that we need to rethink not only the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’ of SDG implementation.

At UNDP our focus is on integrated and systems driven approaches to complex development challenges. This means looking beyond sectoral challenges for opportunities for transformative change, understanding interdependencies and leveraging linkages across interventions to achieve broader goals. Rather than seeking to answer a question, our approach is to work collaboratively with our partners to solve puzzles. This requires new tools, resources and capabilities for development practitioners to navigate today’s complex challenges.

Integration in action

Faced with the “biggest international challenge since the Second World War” as the UN Secretary General put it, we are leveraging our integrator function to help countries navigate the COVID-19 recovery. As the technical lead for the UN’s socio-economic response, UNDP has supported more than 120 countries with socioeconomic impact assessments and bespoke recovery plans together with our UN partners.

Last year, we launched the COVID-19 Data Futures Platform to provide policy makers, activists and researchers with an open resource platform which translates multidimensional data into actionable insights and supports users to design development solutions that build forward from the pandemic. One of our first projects was to use scenario modelling to understand how we can advance the SDGs under different conditions. The findings were worrying. If we don’t change course, we will see a continued slide in human development, and 8 out of 10 people that will become poor by 2030 because of the pandemic will live in countries on the lower end of human development, widening the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. At the same time, however, the research shows how a combination of policy choices and investments in governance, social protection, green economy and digitalization – through an ‘SDG Push’ – could help countries including Guyana, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua and Pakistan to exceed pre-pandemic development trajectories.

Integrated approaches are part of UNDP’s DNA, and are actively advanced across our development portfolios. One critical example is the Climate Promise, which draws upon our expertise across energy, forests, water, resilience, agriculture, health, youth, finance, governance, gender equality and green jobs. This is a commitment to ensure that any country wishing to increase the ambition of their national climate pledge under the Paris Agreement, is able to do so. With 119 agreed Climate Promise workplans, it is the world’s largest offer of support to countries’ climate pledges.

‘Rising Up for SIDS’ is another example. This is UNDP’s offer for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which elevates integrated support across climate action, blue economy and digital transformation, with access to sustainable finance as the key enabler. Action is well under way: from the Maldives safeguarding freshwater through integrated water solutions, to Suriname investing in mangrove ecosystems to secure food and coastal protection, and Papua New Guinea boosting climate action and livelihoods through sustainable land management.

As part of the Financing for Development agenda, Integrated National Financing Frameworks help countries achieve the SDGs holistically. Working closely with system UN entities, the EU and other partners, these frameworks have been developed in over 70 countries, helping establish finance strategies for SDG-aligned national development plans. They aim to strengthen planning processes and overcome impediments to financing sustainable development.

Many countries are leading the way to land SDG integration on the country level. And over the past year and a half, the world has witnessed many bold and innovative policy choices that seemed impossible before, to stem the impact of COVID-19. For example, trailblazing digital solutions and new use of data in Nepal and Moldova help reach people at risk of being left behind. A temporary basic income, or similar measures, have been introduced in Tuvalu, Colombia and Togo. Indigenous communities play a key role in fighting the pandemic in Peru through nature-based solutions. And young people lead the way in Libya and Ukraine towards a more inclusive COVID-19 recovery.

Now is the time to reimagine development futures

The impact of COVID-19 on development gains has been significant and continues to evolve. Using integrated analysis, we recently showed that fair and equal access to COVID-19 vaccines is intrinsically linked to prospects for recovery – and that long-term socioeconomic impacts will hit poor countries hard – unless we course correct now.

At a time when the growing death toll from the pandemic is testing the faith in multilateral responses, survey results from the UN75 global consultation are encouraging. Over 87 percent of one million respondents believe global cooperation is vital to deal with today’s challenges, and that the pandemic has made international cooperation more urgent. Reflecting on our next moves, one of the lessons we’ve learned is the need to address systemic origins of risks. Our collective efforts must focus on the root causes of complex challenges and address the drivers and obstacles to progress. This spirit must also be the lodestar at this fall’s pivotal global meetings, including the UN General Assembly, the High-level Dialogue on Energy and COP26, if we are to give people and planet a chance.

Moving forward we need to acknowledge the complexity of the issues we are dealing with, focus on portfolios of options for different ‘futures’ and continue engaging with partners within and outside of the UN that bring different perspectives and know-how. It is only through an integrated and systems driven approach that we can manage the complex challenges we are facing today and work towards a future with a sense of optimism. Our SDG integration website is an open resource for anyone interested in integration in action and our engagement platform SparkBlue, a place for peer learning and public e-discussions. We welcome everyone to add their voice in our common effort to achieve the SDGs.


About the Author:

Haoliang Xu (MIA ’94) serves as UN Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director of Bureau for Policy and Programme Support. Previously, Mr. Xu was UNDP’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific and he served as UN Resident Coordinator and senior UNDP country positions in Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Timor-Leste, and Iran. In his current role, he works with colleagues to provide cutting edge knowledge and practices in sustainable development to UNDP’s country offices. You can connect with him and his team on Twitter @HaoliangXu and @SDGintegration or via email at sdgintegration@undp.org.