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Interview with Joakim Harlin: Improving country-level coordination

August 2009


Joakim Harlin, senior water resources advisor with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is the coordinator of the UN-Water Task Force on Country-level Coordination. We spoke with him about various aspects of country-level coordination and the Task Force’s work.

In a recent interview, Bai-Mass Taal, Executive-Secretary of the African Council of Ministers (AMCOW), said that improving the coordination at the country-level was the most important contribution that UN-Water could make. Would you like to comment?
“Bai-Mass Taal’s comment really addresses the entire rationale for UN-Water. UN-Water was created to strengthen the joint impact of the UN toward reaching the Millennium Development Goals and Johannesburg Plan of Implementation adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. We work on global policy, advocacy and coordinated actions at the regional level, but ultimately it is concrete actions carried out at the country-level by national governments themselves that will determine whether these targets are met.”

“As UN-Water’s terms of reference make clear, the coherence of UN System actions at the country level is crucial to achieving the overall objectives underlying the establishment of UN-Water.”

“I can understand that for Bai-Mass Taal, someone representing African countries, many of which are struggling to reach these goals, country-level coordination is a core interest. The UN-Water Task Force on Country-level coordination focuses on this particular issue, but its work is meant to strengthen UN-Water as a whole and improve its member’s capacity to scale up the delivery of services at the country level.”

What are the difficulties involved in improving country-level coordination?
"Coordination at the country level is a complex task because every country is unique. Priorities and capacities differ from country to country. There’s no cookie-cutter approach we can take to improving coordination. It requires patience and careful in-country analysis."

"However, I think we can point to several recurrent challenges that need to be faced. First, governments and other stakeholders are often simply unaware of the problems and potentials of developing the water sector. The water sector tends to be under-prioritized and under-funded. So the need for increased coordination is not always perceived."

"Even in countries like Tanzania and Mozambique, which have a number of coordinating instruments in operation and bilateral donors in place, their relative success in coordination in the water sector is mainly limited to rural water supply and sanitation. For other sub-sectors, such as water resources management, adaptive responses to climate change, agricultural land and water use and pollution, cross-sectoral coordination is still largely absent."

"Because of this general lack of understanding for the need for cross-sectoral coordination, there is often no clear counterpart for UN-Water teams to meet when discussing coordination issues. This complicates the process."

"Also, there is often a lack of financing and capacity for improving in-country coordination. For example, in China, hydropower development receives lots of financing, but hardly any funding is available for other water-related sectors and for coordination. Cambodia provided a clear example of a country where there was a lack of capacity to work in a coordinated way."


What have you learned during the process?
"One thing we observed across the board was that UN-Water, its role and the purpose of our Task Force were not at all well understood in the countries we visited."

"Because of this, there was some times a negative perception of UN-Water during our field missions. We were occasionally seen as some sort of global agency parachuted in to evaluate what they were doing and tell them what to do. Of course this wasn’t the intent of our field missions at all. Quite the opposite; we came to listen and learn. We wanted hear from the people in the country about what is working, what are the gaps and how UN-Water could add value and help scale up the provision of services. When that was understood, we were able to open a dialogue and work together in a constructive way."

"For example in Uruguay, where water is not as prominent a development issue as in many African countries, they have a Common Country Assessment (CCA) and United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), but no formal coordination mechanisms in place for the water sector. During our visit, the national counterparts we met with recognized that the existing system did not reflect the country’s needs and challenges of the water sector. So soon after our field visit, and as a direct result of our interactions and consultations, they established a national coordinating group for water."

"During our interactions, people recognized the need to eliminate fragmentation and more take a more holistic approach in the water sector; both from a thematic point of view, but also in terms of creating greater harmony among the different stakeholders, the non-governmental organizations, international financing institutions, UN partners and national counterparts. There was an expressed need for UN-water to strengthen existing coordinating mechanisms so that they include water or to create entirely new coordinating mechanisms for the water sector. This is at the national level and within the UN System."

"However, we also need to recognize the fact that in some countries, like Albania, there was not a strong expressed need for UN coordination. In Albania, huge donors like the World Bank and the European Union dominate the development of the water sector and improved UN System coordination in this area is not seen as particularly important."

"From this, it’s clear that for UN-Water to play a role in improving country-level coordination, we need to place a priority on informing stakeholders at the country-level about UN-Water and its goals. But we also discovered information needs to flow in two directions. UN-Water members need to be more attuned to the existing coordinating mechanisms in the country. When projects are formulated in headquarters they often bypass existing structures. Country-level coordination would improve if headquarters understood how existing structures worked and engaged with them."

"Another thing that we found was that within counties there is lack of clarity among UN-Water members about their roles and responsibilities. Who does what is sometimes not clear and relationships are not always well defined."

"In some countries, one UN agency may have a huge presence and large financial portfolio, while other agencies are almost unknown. This can lead to situation where the agency acts unilaterally without considering the comparative advantage of other UN agencies. On the other hand, there are certainly cases where the strong presence of a single agency can bring very good results. In Angola, UNICEF is a strong lead agency and has focused on community water infrastructure and delivering water to suburbs and slums. It has worked well with other agencies, which play a complementary role to UNICEF’s activities. The UNDP, for example, supports decentralization and local governance in the water sector. The situation is working nicely. There’s very good collaboration."

"So to improve coordination we have to clarify the roles and responsibilities and recognize each other’s strengths and the comparative advantages. This isn’t just something that is important for UN-Water members, it’s important for stakeholders in the country as well. For example, in Panama, national counterparts are very active and well-coordinated, but they are confused about the roles and responsibilities of the different UN agencies operating in the country. They are looking for an entry point for greater collaboration with the UN, but are having difficulty finding it."

"Also, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of regional collaboration as an entry point for improved coherence and collaboration at the national level. There are several cases where ongoing UN regional collaboration has led to joint national projects. This is especially true in the Atlantic Coast of Central America where regional collaboration has provided a model for in-country joint projects financed through the Spanish MDG Achievement Fund. Similarly, many countries felt that UN-Water has a clear role to play in supporting greater coordination in transboundary water management, and that this work at the regional level would deliver definite benefits at the country level."

"From our field visits, we found that UN-Water was seen as being able to contribute to supporting the development of in-country information systems. These systems could help overcome the fragmentation that currently exists among the different sectors and operate between a variety of sectors and a variety of stakeholders. In fact, we found that there was an expressed need for some sort of global knowledge-sharing mechanism that could stimulate a dialogue among countries working on the same problem and facilitate an exchange of information about projects, examples and success and failures in the area of coordination. Such a mechanism could ensure that UN country teams had access to other country teams information and serve to establish a community of practice for all UN-Water agencies."

"Finally, one of the most important things confirmed during our work, is that bilateral donors are definitely interested in scaling up support for water related initiatives, on the condition that greater coordination among the different organizations and their in-country counterparts is assured. So if we can succeed at improving the coherence and coordination of our activities at the country-level, there will certainly be a pay-off."

What’s in store for the future?
"At UN-Water’s Senior Programme Managers (SPM) meeting in August, the Task Force will present a consolidated report on its work."

"The consolidated report will contain the results of the mapping exercise of UN agency country level presence in the area of water as well as the desk study of the coordination mechanisms that relate to water in the One UN countries. It will also include the findings of the Task Force’s country mission reports to selected One UN countries, as well as the Philippines. We have also carried out a study based on information gathered from questionnaires completed by every country that had submitted proposals to the first phase of the Spanish MDG Achievement fund. One of the conditions for receiving financing from this fund was that at least two UN agency had to work together. So we feel this study provides real examples of in-country coordination."

"Of course, in our report, we will make recommendations and suggestions for the way forward."

"Based on the decisions taken at the SPM, we’ll then move on to the next phase of the work. We have to realize the Task Force is a work in progress. We don’t have a multi-year plan of work. We are trying a variety of different approaches to understand the state of play in terms of country-level coordination and are taking stock of the findings at regular intervals. It’s an iterative process."

"UN-Water may decide that before taking substantive action, we need to look at further examples from different types of situations. For example we have not looked closely at countries with federal systems of government. China may also require a closer look. We may also need to expand the mapping exercise."

"After the report has been reviewed, we will make the findings and annexes accessible to a broader audience. We will also engage closely with the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) and prepare a document for donors and partners."

Last update:07 Oct 2014