Speakers Call for Country-Specific Approaches as Economic and Social Council Discusses Regional Commissions’ Role in Supporting Sustainable Development

ECOSOC/6987
22 May 2019
2019 Session, 16th & 17th Meetings (AM & PM)

Speakers Call for Country-Specific Approaches as Economic and Social Council Discusses Regional Commissions’ Role in Supporting Sustainable Development

Regional commissions contain a wealth of information, assets and expertise, but greater transparency and efficiency are required to boost their role in supporting sustainable development, panellists and Member States told the Economic and Social Council on the second day of its segment on operational activities for development.

Under the theme “Getting the regional architecture right:  a round table on the way forward”, panellists in the first of two interactive dialogues with Member States held today noted the challenges represented by a wide distribution of 54 global regional hubs.  Speakers stressed the importance of an approach better tailored to individual countries, and national ownership and leadership with host countries consulted.

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, delivered a presentation at the outset of the meeting on the Secretary-General’s proposals, including the creation of a unified regional collaborative platform to integrate expertise in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.  The Secretary-General also wants to establish knowledge management hubs to help Member States and country teams access regional policy expertise, she said.  “It is essential that we proceed with a tailored approach in each region,” she said, calling for “more results for people and more value for money”.

Masud Bin Momen, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh, sharing the perspective of a Member State, said that a new generation of United Nations country teams must become better at leveraging regional assets.  He noted that engaging with multiple actors is difficult for many developing countries when there are many implementing agencies at the national level.  National ownership is fundamental in the revamped architecture, with Member States being consulted at every step.

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and Coordinator for the Regional Economic Commissions, said that when regional reform started, “it was like a wall fell”.  Highlighting efforts to combat tax avoidance and addressing climate change adaptation and resilience, she said those initiatives recognize the nexus among development, humanitarian and migration challenges.

However, Mourad Wahba, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), countered the notion of a “wall falling”, saying change has been very patiently introduced at the regional level.  Noting the need to integrate policy and operations in a search for coherence, he said a strong presence at the regional level aids humanitarian relief, development operations and political analysis.

Jens Wandel, Special Adviser to Secretary-General on Reforms, noted regional assets are spread over 145 offices globally, with different levels of concentration from capital to capital.  That geography is very complex, making it difficult to concentrate United Nations activities.  It is, therefore, important to build a transparent, effective system so that information within the United Nations is more available, to make the Organization more responsive.

In the afternoon, the Council held a session on a “Multi-country office review”.  Noting that the review team visited 15 States and spoke with 500 individuals, including Heads of State and Government, Ms. Mohammed said the United Nations aims to strengthen these offices in order to ensure no one is left behind.  Outlining plans to increase resources for the offices – a concern voiced by several delegations during the session – she cited a proposal to leverage more funds through such mechanisms as the Joint Fund for the 2030 Agenda.  A first-ever office will be established in the North Pacific, and there may be additional presence in the Caribbean, she added.

Noting that 38 of the 41 countries served by those offices are small island developing States, Fekitamoeloa Katoa ′Utoikamanu, High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, said they each face complex and unique challenges whereby climate change is, for many, a “make or break” situation requiring urgent attention.

Thilmeeza Hussain, Permanent Representative of the Maldives and Bureau member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), called for tailored financing, capacity-building initiatives and regional coordination, as well as concrete proposals and a time frame with milestones to advance efforts towards realizing the 2030 Agenda.

The Council will meet again at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 23 May, to conclude its work.

Presentation by Deputy Secretary-General

AMINA MOHAMMED, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, offered recommendations for restructuring United Nations regional assets in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  She said the Secretary-General has proposed a number of elements to ensure more effective collaboration among all United Nations entities at the regional level, starting with creating a unified regional collaborative platform to integrate expertise in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.  That platform will function as a unifying mechanism to harness regional assets and translate outcomes of the Regional Sustainable Development Forums into concrete responses.  She said the Secretary-General asked the Development Coordination Office to serve as a Secretariat of the platforms.

The Secretary-General wants to establish knowledge management hubs to help Member States and country teams access regional policy expertise, she said, also citing the importance of greater transparency and better reporting of system-wide results.  Aiming to work with all development entities to enhance administrative functioning and leverage economies of scale, the goal is to maximize the impact of investments and redeploy resources to priority regional needs.  “It is essential that we proceed with a tailored approach in each region”, she said, stating the Sustainable Development Goals are humanity’s boldest agenda but cannot be achieved without a stronger regional response.  Calling for “more results for people and more value for money”, she added “We need political will and leadership at all levels to take it forward”.

Interactive Dialogue I

The Council held an interactive dialogue on the theme “Getting the regional architecture right:  a round table on the way forward”.  Moderated by Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, former Prime Minister of Niger and former member of the Independent Team of Advisors to the Economic and Social Council Dialogue, it featured presentations by:  Masud Bin Momen, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh; Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), and Coordinator for the Regional Economic Commissions; Jens Wandel, Special Adviser to Secretary-General on Reforms; and Mourad Wahba, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  Pieter Leenknegt, Head of Unit, Belgian Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid, served as lead discussant.

Mr. BIN MOMEN, noting the large number of United Nations entities Bangladesh hosts, said regional commissions contain a wealth of information, assets and expertise, representing the best place to go when working towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals.  However, the new generation of United Nations country teams must become better at leveraging regional assets, which can be done through enhanced collaboration among stakeholders.  A more tailored approach for each region must set a holistic agenda.  While partnerships hold the key for progress, expertise can also be beneficial.  Engaging with multiple actors is difficult for many developing countries when there are many implementing agencies at the national level.  To address this, resident coordinators could play a role in facilitating and improving relationships.  National ownership is fundamental in the revamped architecture, with Member States being consulted at every step.  He suggested a regional collaborative platform to ameliorate the current situation.

Mr. LEENKNEGT, as lead discussant, pointed out that the multi-office review offers more recommendations than the regional reviews, wondering if layers of responsibilities could be defined in the suggested regional collaborative platform.

Ms. BÁRCENA said that efforts are being made among the regional commissions.  When the reform started, it was like a wall fell, she said, adding that the regional commissions are now directly interacting with resident coordinators and Member States.  Emphasizing the convening capabilities of intergovernmental sectoral bodies, she said platforms have been created in each regional commission to address the 2030 Agenda goals.  Highlighting several examples, she pointed to efforts geared at combating tax avoidance and addressing climate change adaptation and resilience.  Such initiatives recognize the nexus among development, humanitarian and migration challenges.  The forums serve as a meeting place for key actors to discuss problems, involving governmental implementing agencies, Member State permanent representatives at United Nations Headquarters, the private sector and civil society and resident coordinators.  Regional collaborative platforms are needed, but must be decentralized, located in the regions and coordinated on the policy side by the regional commissions.  Going forward, the regional commissions and the United Nations Development Coordination Office must work closely together on this and other endeavours.  The regional commissions are working on Sustainable Development Goals gateways under the guidance of the Global Statistics Commission to make available comparable data on progress towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals, information on data gaps and peer learning processes.  In Latin America, ECLAC is assisting States in addressing data gaps, with a view to improving data collection and analysis.  “We have to build our own capacities,” she said.  Providing examples of taking a region-by-region approach, she said regional specificities are best defined by each regional commission.  Turning to several other concerns, she cautioned against reducing regional assets into only the numbers of personnel and budgets, noting that “assets” include knowledge, convening roles, data and statistics, policy and partnerships.

Mr. MAYAKI noted that her comments on the Caribbean and Central America pointed out how change is progressing on the ground, and the importance of multiple stakeholders.

Mr. LEENKNEGT said adding more hubs to the already existing 54 geographic locations would complicate matters.  Regional economic commissions require more clarity in how they function.  He also cited problems in divisions of labour in what the United Nations and Member States are expected to do at the regional level.

Mr. WANDEL said regional assets are spread over 145 offices globally, with different levels of concentration from capital to capital.  That geography is very complex, making it difficult to concentrate United Nations activities.  The Goals present an opportunity to listen better to regional policy agendas, with the aim of responding better at the regional level.  It is important to build a transparent, effective system so that information within the United Nations is more available, to make the Organization more responsive, he said, stressing that the objective is to propose common standards and implement and deepen reform.

Mr. MAYAKI noted the importance of functional leadership at the regional level.  He asked Mr. Wahba how United Nations country teams can leverage regional assets.

Mr. WAHBA said change has been very patiently introduced at the regional level, and that the United Nations has gradually introduced structures to improve responsiveness to the needs of Member States.  He referred to a chain of support at that level, and a gradual inter-agency construction based on regional needs.  He noted the regional collaborative platforms offer access to knowledge and expertise, offering coherent policy advice at that level.  The regional level prioritizes a search for efficiency and cost-saving at the country level.  He noted the need to integrate policy and operations in a search for coherence.  A strong presence at the regional level aids humanitarian relief, development operations and political analysis.

Mr. LEENKNEGT addressed the efficiency issue, noting decentralized Headquarter functions are the result of that.  However, he said the parties cannot brush over the highly inefficient scattering of United Nations hubs worldwide, and there must be an effort to reduce the 54 hubs to something more manageable.

When the floor opened, delegates posed questions to the panellists and addressed concerns about how best to improve the regional architecture.

An observer for the State of Palestine, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, noted the importance of coordination at the regional level.  Regional economic coordinators should strengthen regional and subregional partnerships.  He said the Group seeks a more detailed update on repositioning of regional assets and a clear road map for the regional approach.  He added that the Group underscores the importance of national ownership and leadership in all matters pertaining to the ongoing implementation, including effective and timely reporting from resident coordinators and country teams back to host Governments.

An observer for the European Union said regional commissions can do a lot, but more information is needed to clarify how assets are being used, particularly what 6,000 people will be doing in 134 offices around the world.  Moving forward, more detailed evidence-based discussions are needed that go beyond the areas highlighted by the Deputy Secretary-General.  Many more walls need to fall in the future, he said, asking the panellists to outline the next steps to move towards more detailed discussions and related decisions.

Mr. WANDEL said plans are to set up a work programme and regional management teams while focusing on integrating the back-office work being done at the country-office level towards one track instead of two.

The representative of Mexico said ECLAC has already given countries in the region guidance on discussing 2030 Agenda issues, including migration.  He wondered how various reports from regional commissions and other organizations are being used and what type of dialogue will occur with Member States going forward.

The representative of El Salvador asked about future steps the Secretariat will take, including mandates based on the Secretary-General’s proposals, and whether or not Member States will be consulted.  Pointing out ongoing actions, with ECLAC already having established a regional forum, he wondered how reporting will be done on various activities.

The representative of Brazil said more information is needed on the five proposals to clarify accountability and responsibility.  More broadly, the reform must not reduce countries’ voices and must avoid overlaps.

The representative of Germany asked the panellists to identify overlaps at various levels.

The representative of China wondered how policies discussed at national levels can be used at the regional level.  He also asked for suggestions on how to best implement reforms and how to better mobilize resources.

The representative of Cuba asked about the next steps going forward where Member States can discuss these matters, as the current dialogue is limited by time constraints.

The representative of Thailand, noting that her country hosts a range of regional offices, asked how to improve efficiency and cost effectiveness.  She also asked how regional economic commissions can support countries more in terms of data collection and analysis with a view to better informing decision-makers.

The representative of Norway asked the panellists for details on the type of mapping of publications and reports, including what kind of expertise regional commissions and agencies have at the country-level, with a view to preventing overlap or identifying gaps.  She also wondered about the connections and functions of regional collaborative platforms and issue-based coalitions.  Further, she wondered if those platforms should be a mechanism or a structure.  As for country-level reforms, she asked if the regional commissions will provide advice directly at the country level or to the resident coordinator or the United Nations country team.

The representative of South Africa raised a question about how reforms will impact subregional and regional levels and what efforts will be made to upskill or reskill personnel at regional commission offices.

Mr. LEENKNEGT said that beyond the five key areas of transformation, issues that can be discussed in the future include how some existing functions can survive with the reforms.  Above all, it is important to get it right at the regional level, he said.

Mr. BIN MOMEN, noting that today’s discussion shows that the reform efforts have generated much interest, said that what is missing includes feedback from Member States at the country-level.  The Permanent Representatives in New York experience a gap in terms of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.  Such feedback must be factored into future discussions.  In addition, regional mechanisms must position themselves to lead discussions on emerging issues, such as the fourth industrial revolution, which will have a serious impact on the lives of many, and on how Member States can tackle them.

Ms. BÁRCENA said regional commissions are ready to focus on improving efficiencies and finding ways to work more closely together.  The regional collaborative platforms should act as a convening space and should report to the Economic and Social Council, while communicating with Member States to identify their needs.  Regarding overlaps, she said efforts are being made to tackle the problem.  Stakeholders must work together, she said, noting collaborative efforts with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).  Highlighting the differences between the commissions, she said ECLAC is learning from the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) experience.  At the same time, efforts are also being made to produce joint reports, and multi-country office exercises are continuing to improve efficiencies.

Mr. WANDEL, on behalf of the Secretary-General, proposed establishing a mechanism with a view to working together in moving forward with transparency and in constant collaboration with Member States.  Only with such a mechanism can overlaps be identified and addressed.  On the regional collaborative platform, the concept came from efforts aimed at breaking down silos by creating a mechanism to address policy, operational and managerial issues.

Mr. WAHBA said that to enhance efficiencies, efforts should unfold from the country to global level.  Regions should be regarded as one in a chain of reform efforts and not as an isolated element.

Also participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Switzerland, France, Turkey, United States, Finland, Canada, Russian Federation and Egypt.

Presentation by Deputy Secretary-General

Ms. MOHAMMED, delivering her afternoon presentation on recommendations from the review of the multi-country offices, said their emergence worldwide in an ad hoc manner has not yielded the results expected.  She noted 38 of 41 countries covered are small island developing States.  That is why strengthening multi-country offices is urgent in delivering on the promise to leave no one behind, and the review team visited 15 States and spoke with 500 individuals including Heads of State and Government to that end.  She noted the Secretary-General is committed to ensuring multi-country offices tailor support to each country, and strengthening United Nations leadership in them, stating the recruitment of resident coordinators will be crucial.

Increasing resources for multi-country offices, she noted, includes a proposal to leverage more funds through such mechanisms as the Joint Fund for the 2030 Agenda.  A first-ever office will be established in the North Pacific, and there may be additional presence in the Caribbean.  She cited the important roles of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States in policy and advocacy support for the latter States.  The Secretary-General has also asked the United Nations Chief Economist to find concrete ways to expand those States’ access to development finance.  Noting that most countries covered by multi-country offices are middle-income, she stressed:  “We cannot afford to see countries reverse hard-won gains.”  She estimated that the operationalizing process will take 12 to 18 months, with some key measures implemented before the end of 2019.

Interactive Dialogue II

The Council then held an interactive dialogue on the “Multi-country office review”.  Moderated by Mirgul Moldoisaeva, Permanent Representative to Kyrgyzstan, it featured presentations by:  Thilmeeza Hussain, Permanent Representative of the Maldives and Bureau member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS); Odo Tevi, Permanent Representative of Vanuatu; and Fekitamoeloa Katoa ′Utoikamanu, High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

Ms. MOLDOISAEVA, opening the discussion, suggested the dialogue consider several questions, including what the United Nations development system needs to change in the way it programmes its work compared to its approach in a single country office configuration, how it can best support multi-country offices in dealing with transboundary issues as they implement the 2030 Agenda and the Samoa Pathway, and what kind of country team collaboration with regional and subregional intergovernmental organizations and mechanisms would best serve States covered by multi-country offices.

Ms. HUSSAIN outlined several elements important to small island developing States, including tailored financing, capacity-building initiatives and regional coordination.  Each region should also receive unique attention, she said, noting that, for instance, recommendations for the Pacific region were specific.  However, more concrete proposals are needed along with the development of a time frame with milestones to advance efforts towards realizing the 2030 Agenda.

Mr. TEVI, noting that a multi-country office serves Vanuatu, said international support must help to address challenges such as climate change.  Indeed, multi-country offices must translate regional strategies into national scenarios and continue to make better use of available resources.  However, more information is needed, he said, emphasizing that countries must take full ownership of processes to deliver development gains to its people.  Resident coordinators should also focus more on States’ needs.  Adapting to changes on the ground, the offices must also pay more attention to the needs of small island developing States.

Ms. ′UTOIKAMANU, recalling that 38 of 41 countries served by these offices are small island developing States, said they each face complex and unique challenges whereby climate change is, for many, a “make or break” situation.  At this critical juncture of implementing the 2030 Agenda, she underscored that several countries’ existence is threatened by climate change.  Pointing to ongoing efforts to provide strategic guidance through this review process, she said the process must be robust and include input from key stakeholders.  There is only one way forward:  fully consulting with Member States.  In line with the Secretary-General’s recommendations, she would provide later in 2019 a detailed road map in support of small island developing States, with the aim of advancing progress on the ground.  This review and the one planned for the Samoa Pathway are opportunities that cannot be missed, she said.

Ms. MOLDOISAEVA, moderating the interactive discussion, opened the floor to delegates’ comments and questions.

The representative of Barbados, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said that from the outset, her group had insisted on a comprehensive review and expressed regret over the lateness of the multi-country review.  Despite 22 countries in the Caribbean being covered by multi-country offices, only seven were visited during the review.  She called for further clarity and a stand-alone analysis of the Caribbean, without which the review is incomplete, stating the region is “woefully underserved”.  She noted funding in this area for small island developing States represents only 0.65 per cent of global United Nations expenditures.  “None of our countries should be left behind,” she stressed.

The observer for the State of Palestine, speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, inquired about the budgetary issues regarding the new office in the North Pacific.

The representative of the United States asked how improvements will be measured, and about data analysis regarding the multi-country offices.

The representative of Trinidad and Tobago, aligning himself with CARICOM and the Group of 77 and China, said the recommendations were generally promising, but stressed the multi-country offices must build national ownership and be in line with national development strategies.  He noted the multi-country offices require greater funding, especially in the Caribbean.

The representative of Antigua and Barbuda, aligning himself with CARICOM and the Group of 77 and China, said the multi-country office in Barbados must be improved and outfitted with the capabilities to meet the needs of small island developing States.  Its inadequacy was revealed by the 2017 hurricane season, and the leadership and coordination efforts of the United Nations were fragmented.  As a member of the steering committee serving the Caribbean small island developing States, he said “our input was at times pushed aside in favour of a predetermined course of action”.  Questioning how funds were deployed, he asked about the timeline of implementation of recommendations.  He also asked if implementation would carry a cost to small island developing States and whether funds would be diverted from other areas to meet implementation.

Ms. MOLDOISAEVA turned the questions back to the panellists, also noting that Gunilla Olsson, Head of the United Nations Development System Transition Team, would act as a resource person during the discussion.

Mr. TEVI said that, from a country perspective, measuring success would be enhanced at the multi-country office level, which should consider the unique situations of specific countries and be subjected to various monitoring and evaluation exercises.

Ms. HUSSAIN recognized the request for clarity on sources of funds and for establishing measurable targets and milestones.

Ms. ′UTOIKAMANU, acknowledging that further work is needed for the Caribbean and Pacific regions, said the steering committee held five meetings to consider a range of issues, including the budget, time frame and the number of countries visited in each of the regional groupings.

The representative of China, recognizing the special needs of small island developing States, asked for clarification on the role of economists in helping multi-country offices in terms of policy support and recommendations.  With regard to the Northern Pacific area, he wondered about the division of labour in the two existing offices - one in Fiji and one in Samoa - and how they could help States advance on the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda and the Samoa Pathway.

The representative of Marshall Islands, noting that her country is served by a multi-country office in the Pacific region, said the current system cannot continue.  While recognizing the consultative nature of this process, she did not want progress on the ground to be stalled.  She also pointed out the 3,000-mile distance between her country and the nearest office, adding that instead of visits of a team of five people for one week, one person could make a five-week-long visit to better understand the situation on the ground.  Effectively structuring multi-country offices would enhance efforts to overcome barriers to realizing goals set out in the 2030 Agenda and the Samoa Pathway.

Ms. OLSSON asked how the continued dialogue of the multi-country office review should be rolled out.

Ms. ′UTOIKAMANU said the North Pacific office question had been somewhat clarified by the representative of Marshall Islands, given the cost of travel from the office in Fiji is prohibitive and has affected the attention to the five countries covered by it.  Turning to the question of the United Nations Chief Economist working to support small island developing States, she said the Deputy Secretary-General had noted such States are mostly middle-income and have difficulty reaching funding for development programmes and in response to disasters.  She noted those States remain vulnerable, and despite graduation, they require urgent funding.

The representative of Antigua and Barbuda said he had wanted answers to specific questions including the one he had asked about funding.

The representative of New Zealand cited the importance of having a conversation about how the United Nations can better serve small island developing States, which represent 20 per cent of Member States.  He stressed “countries are countries” and must own their own national development plans.  He echoed the Marshall Islands representative’s call to move on and pick up things that need to be sorted out.  He then asked about the new North Pacific office, its architecture, engagement and funding.

The representative of Trinidad and Tobago said that his previous questions had not been answered, and that his colleague from Antigua and Barbuda had also asked about funding for small island developing States.

Ms. OLSSON, addressing the issue of funding, said that increasing support to small island developing States is long overdue.  However, development funding will not be diverted with regard to increasing the capacities of multi-country offices.  Instead, donors have already indicated their support for improving these offices’ effort with a view to advancing the 2030 Agenda.  The operationalization phase will begin soon after this review process, intersecting with the implementation of other reform efforts.  Other issues to be discussed and further elaborated on during the operationalization phase include the resident coordinators’ role.  The implementation phase should take about 12 to 18 months to “get it right”, she said, adding that progress on the process will be reported to the Council during a review in 2020.

For information media. Not an official record.