Abstract for:The Road to Development Is Paved with Good Intentions: Inter-organizational dysfunction in the UN development system

The ability of multiple organizations to effectively coordinate their work in pursuit of shared goals is important across many fields, but perhaps nowhere more so than in sustainable development. Advancing sustainable development requires addressing numerous highly interconnected issues across multiple sectors. The interconnections present not only a substantive challenge, but an organizational one as well. Despite widespread agreement on the need for more integrative approaches and strong motivations to implement them, many organizations working on different aspects of sustainable development persistently fail to coordinate their work effectively.

I examine the puzzle of persistent coordination failure in the context of the UN development system, which plays an important normative and operational role in guiding development efforts worldwide. Using causal loop diagrams informed by field observations and expert interviews, I present a dynamic explanation of the relationships between various parts of the UNDS and the challenges of coordinating work on sustainable development. I demonstrate how intendedly rational attempts to improve efficiency and performance by UN agencies and the countries that control them inadvertently set off self-reinforcing processes that drive persistent fragmentation and coordination failure. Unless these dynamics are accounted for, ongoing attempts to improve coordination in the system are likely to fail.