5 Ways to Transform Development Support:

Here’s what we’ve started in Cambodia

by Pauline Tamesis and Rany Pen

Climate change, growing inequalities, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, mass migration. The challenges we face today are unparalleled in human history.

In Cambodia, like many countries in Asia, we are witnessing rapid urbanization. This can be a good thing but if not managed properly it can increase inequality and make the poor poorer. The country’s rapid economic growth has been impressive, but we must work together to ensure that all people have the opportunity to reap its rewards, while also safeguarding the environment.

The institutions of the 20th century have served us well and helped to spread democracy, lift millions out of extreme poverty, and promote human rights. But those same institutions are under stress and unable to cope with the pace of change around the world. We need to cast aside the old, bureaucratic ways of working. In other words:

We. Must. Change.

To make the UN fit for the 21st century, here are five ways we, at the UN in Cambodia, are transforming the way we work:

1. Leading with passion

We need to open minds and hearts through our actions. By creating an environment where the people view us, the international civil servants, as making a difference in their lives, we can build trust.

This calls us to redefine the notion of ‘experts’. We must listen more, nurture the expertise within communities, and co-design solutions as partners. In other words, we work from what Cambodia has, and find solutions together with communities.

At the UN in Cambodia, we know that communities hold a wealth of local knowledge that we don’t have, so we’ve embarked on a new style of leadership and learning through a pilot initiative, the SDG Leadership Lab. Through this journey, we’ve found that by being active learners alongside our local partners we define problems and solutions from their perspective.

2. Inspiring through action

In everything we do, see, hear, and the communities we interact with should inspire us. From the volunteers within the United Nations to the teachers in rural villages to the local civil servants, people across the globe are serving for the betterment of humanity.

The ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot, and will not, be achieved unless all people and every sector of society is pitching in to help. And for those that are going above and beyond, we must elevate their stories to inspire others to take action.

Take, for instance, two young Cambodian women — Sokanha Ly and Bunhourng Tan — worried about Cambodia’s growing waste problem, the young entrepreneurs dedicated their studies and free time on how they could turn mounting plastics into a green product. Then, in 2016, they co-founded a start-up called Eco-Plastic to transform trash into roads.

Then there’s Seng Noeun, a rural elementary school teacher like no other. She has not allowed her limitations to define what she can do, rather adapted by attaching her motorbike to drive up to 12 students to school every day so they get an education.

Using stories like these inspires all of us to contribute to the public good. This is inspiration in action and will keep us all moving forward.

3. Knowledge is currency

Knowledge is the UN’s currency — driven by the community and our partners. Information is power, let’s put it in the hands of people to design their own solutions to their challenges. The UN is a unique platform that can bring together diverse partners to the table, break down silos, learn from each other to find solutions that often do not need — or call for very little — funding.

4. Learning from our mistakes

If learning is part of our everyday work, then even failure is an opportunity to understand how we can do better. Entrepreneurs may be the best models for how to accept failure, take risks, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. Take for example internet startups. 74% of startups fail due to premature scaling and 29% runs out of cash before they’re able to get fully established. But those who “fail fast and fail often”, are more likely to succeed.

We need to embrace innovation and intrapreneurship. By placing experimentation, innovation and collaboration within the very DNA of the UN, we lead by example. We no longer have the luxury of time. To avert the challenges we are facing today, we must adapt and transform the way we work now.

5. Acting now (but with foresight)

As humanitarians, we are quick in responding to emergencies and disasters. But as development practitioners, we do not have a rapid response mindset in our day-to-day work.

While research and analysis are important, information and knowledge can be gathered quickly, such as through feedback loops and prototypes, without having to wait for end of project evaluation and studies. We need to be fully networked, understand the ecosystem and anticipate issues before they arise. We need the ability to imagine divergent futures.

To be fit for purpose in the 21st century requires us all to be able to respond to the needs of the country’s leaders and citizens efficiently and quickly.

We also cannot do it alone. Across our institutions we must work together. Too many barriers exist across UN agencies and between development partners. Fostering collaborative approaches to development, beyond traditional partners, is no longer a recommendation. It’s a must!

The world is counting on us and it’s time for us to lead. Will you come together with us?


Pauline Tamesis, United Nations Resident Coordinator to Cambodia, has more than twenty years of experience in development policy and management in the UN system, government and with civil society. In previous assignments, she served as Country Director for UNDP in Bangladesh, Asia Regional Democratic Governance Practice Leader and Anti-Corruption Policy Adviser with the UNDP Bureau for Development Policy in New York.

Rany Pen, Assistant Resident Representative in charge of Programme at the UNDP, is responsible for the management and implementation of various programmes in partnership with the Government, Civil Society, and private sector. For more than 10 years Rany worked on justice sector reform, gender equality, human rights, and democracy issues.