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This report intends to understand what an ‘effective’ multilateral system should look like, taking as a lens the four principles of effective development co-operation – country ownership, inclusive partnerships, a focus on results, and mutual accountability and transparency.


There is a default focus on the UN Development System (UNDS), which accounts for close to two-thirds of the UN system’s global expenditure, and the majority of its offices in countries across the globe. This was also the dominant subject among respondents. Other parts of the multilateral system do feature however, with international financial institutions being a notable reference point, as well as represented among respondents. In terms of methodology, there are two main parts: extrapolations on existing research; and a qualitative analysis of primary data of partners’ interview responses. Interviewees were selected from four main partner-types, with bilateral development partners (donors, otherwise referred to as ‘bilateral partners’) making up the majority, given their capacities dedicated to funding and governing the system.


In terms of existing research, the paper finds that resourcing to the multilateral system (and notably the UNDS) has shown a clear and strong growth trend: a first indication that partners are broadly confident in the capacities of the system to deliver effectively for them. Recent survey data of bilateral partners puts three of the four effectiveness principles among the top motivating factors for engaging with the system, while quantitative analysis by the Global Partnership itself, as well as others, indicates multilateral organizations can often perform more effectively – in terms of the principles – than bilateral partners working alone. But a clear constraint on the effectiveness of the system is how it is funded and supported by its partners.

An analysis of partners’ responses, disaggregated by principle, provides more insights into partners’ expectations, and how the system supports effective multilateral action. While country ownership remains a broad objective for nearly all partners, definitional challenges remain (the role of Parliaments, for instance, and other important institutions of the State come to the fore here, not to mention civil society). And similar issues emerge when considering inclusive partnerships. The ability of the system to focus and clearly report on results is a common theme. But beyond this, there is a clear value placed on the system’s ability to go beyond narrow programmatic results, to represent broader normative agendas. And whilst there is a perception of multilateral organizations as fundamentally transparent, this remains the subject of on-going work, not least within the UN system/member state ‘Funding Compact.’


The Compact, along with the development-oriented international financial institutions, and humanitarian funding modalities and mechanisms, are each identified as avenues for further exploring how development partners might make the multilateral system more effective still.  

Drawing on interview responses and qualitative findings, the conclusion uses the concept of a ‘trilemma’ to illustrate how the multilateral system, as a policy-space that allows partners to limit individual risk, enables them to manage and navigate otherwise potentially contradictory objectives.

Recommendations for each partner-type to bolster the multilateral system – and its effectiveness – based on this analysis, and cultivate this unique policy-space, are provided in an annex.


This report is a product of the Action Area of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation, that focuses on effective multilateral support, as part of its 2020-2022 Work Programme.

Throughout the consultations process, an interim report has been produced, for the purposes of sharing key ideas which have been initially validated through continued feedback and reflections from partners and participants.