The World Bank Group institutions and the different UN agencies face challenges as crises are increasingly complex, multidimensional, and difficult to tackle alone. In some cases collaboration becomes not a choice, but necessity. 

In a recent blog, World Bank Vice President, Hartwig Schafer outlined steps by Bank to scale up its partnership with the UN agencies. Improving policies and frameworks to engage UN agencies in delivering Bank-financed operations is a major step toward better partnering and a promising start. Indeed, as we learned from the Bank’s recent collaboration with UN agencies in the fight against Ebola, timely collective action can make a difference in dealing with humanitarian and development crises. Yet, for such collaboration to be effective, a number of enabling factors, such as improving the staff incentives and establishing systematic strategic dialogue, also need to be in place.

A background study for IEG’s evaluation of World Bank Group Engagement in Situations of Fragility, Conflict, and Violence’ (2016) assessed Bank Group’s collaboration with UN agencies in middle-income countries experiencing fragility, conflict, and violence.

We at the World Bank are accustomed to think about our partnership with UN agencies mostly in the context of fragile and conflict-affected states, where we rely on the UN’s political mandate and boots on the ground. Yet, the demand for collaboration often goes beyond the countries and situations in this category. The World Bank Group institutions and the different UN agencies face challenges as crises are increasingly complex, multidimensional, and difficult to tackle alone. In some cases collaboration becomes not a choice, but necessity. 

The cases of collaboration that IEG reviewed between the World Bank Group and the UN agencies in middle-income countries in situations of fragility and violence revealed the gamut of issues that arise when there is a need and an opportunity to “go far, quickly.” IEG found that partnering with UN agencies is often hindered by high transaction costs and sometimes even by competition for influence and for limited donor resources at the country level. The benefits of effective partnership are clear, yet the successful cases of collaboration show that incentives to go the extra mile to work in partnership are often not strong across institutions. 

There are good examples of collaboration between the World Bank Group and various UN agencies in the areas of citizen security, institution-building, and improving social cohesion. The joint UN-World Bank FASTRAC facility in Mindanao, Philippines helps build trust and consensus between the Government of Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Bank’s support to an e-voucher program in Lebanon, in partnership with the World Food Program (WFP) and the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), allowed humanitarian partners’ good-practice solutions to be scaled up. In Lebanon, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNHCR, and the Bank also provide a concerted response to the emergency and development needs in the education sector in the framework of the country’s Reaching All Children with Education program.

Ways of partnering with UN agencies vary; nonetheless, IEG found that operational collaboration was the most challenging because the existing mechanism for cross-financing is complicated. All the successful cases of cross-funding had to go through extensive and painful negotiation processes. However, the value added and the impact of this particular type of partnership in middle-income countries were often small compared to the high transaction costs required to make it happen. In these situations, modalities for collaboration that created a shared vision, such as joint analytical work harmonizing Bank-UN policy response, and programmatic collaboration committing the institutions to align their resources against common objectives, were found to be more effective.

So what can the Bank do at the corporate level to enable agile partnering with the UN?

Start with a clear division of labor. Collaboration tended to be effective when the division of labor was clear and based on each partner’s comparative advantages. Putting the complicated mechanics of operational partnership aside—which the Bank now aims to improve—cooperation was often easier with UNHCR and WFP or the International Labour Organization (ILO), for instance, than with the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The relationship between the World Bank and UNDP has tended to be more contentious in part because of some overlap in their respective mandates in development. This overlap creates tension and competition, which in turn is often fueled by donor preferences in the allocation of resources at the country level (for example, the establishment of the Lebanon Syrian Crisis Trust Fund).

Strengthen common understanding through high-level dialogue that has to be translated into more nuanced strategic dialogue and technical guidance.  For instance, regular strategic consultations between the Bank Group President and the UN High Commissioner helped strengthen the partnership between the Bank and UNCHR and establish a common understanding of the priorities that should guide future joint analytical, policy, and operational work. This dialogue was followed by a series of joint analytical work on the Syrian crisis and in several African countries.

Leverage staff experience and good relations with partner institutions. Behind initiatives that go beyond the institutional boundaries are often proactive team leaders and supportive country managers. A common factor in more collaborative behavior, for instance, was team leaders who had prior work experience at the other institution, which means first- hand knowledge of what the partner institution can offer, and a relationship that can be the basis of trust.

Experience has shown that the Bank and its UN partners can potentially reach farther by working together. Such effective partnership requires reaching a common understanding of key issues, operational policies and tools that facilitate cooperation and cross-financing, institutional incentives that encourage forging partnerships, and measures to improve communication and staff exchange.

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