Navigating development complexities needs integrated leadership

In the Art of UN Leadership interview series, Frode Mauring, recently retired United Nations Resident Coordinator (UNRC) talks about development coordination in the country context.

In this conversation with Edit Morin-Kovacs he gives diverse perspectives and candid reflections on the leadership needed to move development forward.

Frode MauringAbout Frode Mauring

Frode Mauring is the former United Nations Country Teams (UNCT) lead and UN Resident Coordinator in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the United Arab Emirates, the Russian Federation, Kosovo and North Macedonia.

Other roles included serving as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People Special Representative, participating in the UN system reform in as head of agency. In 2019, he worked as a Senior Adviser in the start-up phase of the UN Development Coordination Office in New York.

Before joining the UN system Frode Mauring worked internationally in the private sector for 15 years.

The UN Development System (UNDS) reform was initiated in 2019 to enhance the effectiveness and coherence of UN’s efforts in supporting the implementation of Agenda 2030. The goal is a more integrated, coordinated UNDS aligned with the needs of the countries for sustainable development. As Resident Coordinator (RC) and head of UN Agency Frode Mauring experienced system and leadership challenges, before and after this reform. His experiences highlight the complexities inherent in navigating the reform process.

‘I think that coming from the private sector brought two different things to the table. One was on substance, and one was on leadership’. He started working for the UNDP under the leadership of Lord Mark Malloch Brown who introduced a ‘new kind of leadership away from the risk averse to more risk taking and more result oriented, not process oriented.’

Frode Mauring believes in delegation and visionary leadership which he practiced in several complex settings. He brought his private sector experiences from countries in development situations onboard.

‘The changed RC role is absolutely a work in progress’

‘I could observe first-hand what causes challenges in terms of the business environment or what Kofi Annan called the obstacles to unleashing private entrepreneurship. And typically, these were bad policies’, he expands.

‘You cannot talk about sustainable development without the private sector being part of it. Unless you want to create a permanent dependency on transfers to programme countries, the conditions must exist for establishing a private sector that in turn produce value and wealth for the society. That is the basis for investing in human development. Together with other partners and the host countries, the United Nations has to contribute to the establishment of an environment that facilitates and not hinders enterprise formation and thus sustainable growth’.

‘The changed RC role is absolutely a work in progress’, he says.

‘The idea from the start has been an RC that is coordinating the delivering as one, not only the development activities, but also humanitarian programmes when relevant. Where there is a UN mission, the RC is also part of the leadership of that as for example a Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, as standard operating modality.’

‘I really believe it is essential and in all these places I have seen many good examples of why integrated leadership is needed. In most places it has always been easier to get the resources for the here and now such as the immediate needs which is standing in the way of sustainable solutions. That is why it is extremely important that there is one hat, one person combining all these things, we call this the Peace-Humanitarian-Development (PHD) nexus, the RC needs to be dealing with these issues in parallel.’

‘When it comes to how the RC role is accepted, after the reform, the acceptance of the RC leadership role has been positive and very different from what it was before, a looser coordination role, due to the parallel role as an agency head in the old system.’

‘Another thing that has changed is that the UN Secretariat feels more ownership for the RC as being the UN representative in the field. There has been a visible shift as the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) or the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and other entities engage a lot more now with the RC. This role was historically more limited to Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) as the secretariat function.  The increased ownership is a really positive development.’

However, Frode Mauring observes on the challenging side that it has become a lot more political with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) wanting a more top-down approach.

‘When you look at humanitarian coordination, it is beyond the UN, it also includes the civil society sector.’

‘While it is understandable that ECOSOC wants the UNDS used for implementing global agendas, this has increased planning and reporting workloads.  It also puts more demand on the UN coordination in balancing addressing national priorities against global agendas. Different UN agencies are not always having their priorities consistent with the overall global priorities in the 2030 Agenda and the balancing of sometimes opposing forces has become more demanding post reform compared to pre reform’.

Frode Mauring together with UN Secretary General Ban Kee-moon during meeting in Moscow 2010.

Frode Mauring’s versatile professional journey includes roles both in humanitarian and development spheres, requiring contrasting mindsets. The former considers immediate focus on crisis situations and the latter a long-term impact orientation in sustainable development.

‘When you look at humanitarian coordination, it is beyond the UN, it also includes the civil society sector. The multitude of international NGOs and national NGOs is another part of the picture that requires soft coordination skills.’

Development cooperation is more typically the UN working together with the government and the humanitarian imperative is the humanitarian principle and these activities do not necessarily require the approval or signature of the government, which is needed for development activities, so it is a different way of operating,’ he explains.

Still, he cautions, ‘if we have them separately, we are not really operating efficiently. If you only focus on humanitarian issues, it does not have a horison nor sustainability and it creates dependency and it has to be that you are getting out of the humanitarian situation, and you do that through development lenses over time towards a more sustainable situation.’

He says it is a gradual process. Like ‘if there is a natural disaster, you focus on the immediate needs and then you link it to more sustainable solutions. But if you do not have that link, plus in a protracted humanitarian situation, if you don’t see these things in context, you don’t operate very efficiently.’

‘Let us look at disaster resilience. If you do not focus on it, you will likely have more costly humanitarian situations. For example, next time there is a typhoon, you are as unprepared as you have always been because you have not focused on how to build systems that are more resilient and the loss of life might be the same because you have not worked on capacity development, infrastructure resilience and early warning and how to evacuate people in time.’

Reflecting on the type of leadership that is needed in such environments, Frode Mauring says that ‘leadership is exactly what it says. It doesn’t mean that you are the foremost experts in all topics, but you need to know how to play the orchestra. Each one has a separate set of skills. It also has to be inclusive, because otherwise you don’t get the best out of the team and there’s been a lot of focus on diversity such as gender. That is one aspect.’

He also emphasises the importance of local colleagues. ‘If you only lean on an international expert who might sometimes have specific technical competencies and so on, then you really don’t get the most of your team because one of the things that the local staff has is the local connection, the sense of ownership and the linkages set with our counterparts. And they focus on building and maintaining relationships and ensuring that the development process is not about transactions. It is not a one-off and that means that you are not forcing solutions but that you also build consensus and thus lasting impact.’

The last aspect of leadership that Frode Mauring highlights is ‘adherence to values, because in different settings you could potentially be pressured to bend the rules, maybe sometimes for what is perceived as a reasonable reason. But you have to maintain the UN values in your spine across all different settings. People would look to the RC, as the one to set the example for others to follow. If it fractures there, then how can you expect that it holds in the rest of the organisation?’

The conversation circles back to the last post Frode Mauring held as RC in the Democratic People´s Republic of Korea (DPRK) between 2019 and 2023. ‘There is hardly any more complex environment to operate in’.

Each place where Frode Mauring worked had its own complexities, ‘but nothing is quite similar to the DPRK, that’s for sure’, he says.

‘A country that faces UN and unilateral sanctions. There is a government that wants to focus on the development and doesn’t really recognise that they have any humanitarian problems. And then you have the international community that doesn’t want to do development but wants to focus exclusively on humanitarian aid because of the political situation.’ These are the challenges RC Frode Mauring had to work with.

Frode Mauring visiting UNICEF health project focusing on children health and combating malnutritionin in DPRK.

‘I have tried to expand this rather sandwiched position of the development system in DPRK by building an acceptance on the inclusion of nexus issues. It is an imperative to work on important global agendas because there is only one planet. The DPRK doesn’t have its own atmosphere or its own oceans that are disconnected from the rest of the planet. If you look at, to the extent possible, most of the 2030 Agenda would be possible to implement in DPRK.

One example is the Convention on Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions, ie the Montreal Protocol. It’s not a separate ozone layer for the DPRK. The same would be for climate action, it is as important as everywhere else, and it’s also incredibly inefficient not addressing it considering how climate affects food security for example.

If we cannot support climate adaptation in DPRK, which is affected by climate change, the future impact of typhoons on the country will be more severe. It needs disaster resilience. It’s colossally inefficient to be boxed in a narrowly defined humanitarian space only, and this is precisely why I have been trying to expand that envelope that we are operating in.’

In conclusion Frode Mauring maintains that UN agencies don’t have a direct political function but like in DPRK it is important to be present.

‘I never believe in isolation, isolationism. From the international community side, engagement has a value in itself not to create too much of a demonic view of your adversaries in both directions.