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ECOSOC/7049
20 May 2021

Stress Tested by COVID-19 Pandemic, Repositioned Development System Rises to Challenge, Top Economic and Social Council Officials Say as Operational Activities Segment Ends

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a stress test for the repositioned United Nations development system, which rose to the challenge and has made the most of the Organization’s assets to help countries worldwide emerge stronger from the crisis, senior officials of the Economic and Social Council said today, as it concluded a three-day annual segment on operational activities for development.

The annual segment for the Council’s 54 Member States focused on this year’s theme “Amplifying the United Nations development system’s impact in support of the Decade of Action”.  During the three-day segment, 10 sessions highlighted global lessons learned and obstacles faced, with Member States participating in interactive dialogues with the Secretary-General, Deputy Secretary-General and heads of United Nations entities and partners.

“There is no question in anyone’s mind that the pandemic served as a litmus test for the repositioned United Nations development system, which it passed with flying colours,” said Sergiy Kyslytsya, Council Vice-President responsible for the operational activities for its development segment.  He noted the pandemic had accelerated the evolution of a new generation of United Nations country teams, well-equipped to address complex and varied challenges faced by countries through a whole-of-system approach, making the most of the Organization’s assets at global, regional and country levels.

The segment “lived up to the expectations that it be a platform for accountability on the results of the United Nations development system in supporting countries in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, he said.  However, he emphasized that participants in the session on the Funding Compact acknowledged that:  “We will get the United Nations that we fund”.  Now in its third year, United Nations development system reform has been complex and far-reaching, he said, and has clearly moved from architecture and process to results.  It is better-positioned to help countries build back better from the COVID-19 crisis through more collective and sustainable support and embark on a path towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Liu Zhenmin, Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, in a pre-recorded statement, said that the level of participation in this segment demonstrates Member States’ steadfast commitment to development activities at the United Nations at a time when the pandemic has affected nations worldwide.  COVID-19 has been a stress test for the system, which rose to the challenge.  The world must now step up support in critical areas highlighted in the new quadrennial comprehensive policy review, including social protection, education and forging and strengthening partnerships.  Support must also grow for climate action and biodiversity.

In the spirit of leaving no one behind, such efforts must be inclusive when building back better, he said, emphasizing that over the next years, the United Nations will be needed in many areas, from health to climate change.  Collaboration around collective responses characterizes the world’s reaction to COVID-19, he said, emphasizing that such partnerships must continue to guide future development efforts.

Earlier in the day, the Council held three sessions on the themes “Addressing multidimensional poverty and leaving no one behind through a whole of system approach”; “Unleashing the United Nations development system’s regional assets:  the path forward”; and “Joining forces with international financial institutions during and after the crisis”.

Session 8

The Council held an interactive dialogue in the morning on the theme “Unleashing the United Nations development system’s regional assets:  the path forward”, chaired by Sergiy Kyslytsya (Ukraine), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council and Chair of its Operational Activities for Development Segment, and moderated by Jens Wandel, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Reforms.

The dialogue featured several panellists:  Alicia Barcena, Vice-Chair of the Regional Collaborative Platform and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); Ahunna Eziakonwa, Vice-Chair of the Regional Collaborative Platform and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Gwi Yeop Son, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia at the United Nations Development Coordination Office; Ted Chaiban, Regional Director for Arab States at United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); Fatima Kyari Mohammed, Permanent Observer of the African Union to the United Nations; and Philipp Schoenrock, Director of the Centro de Pensamiento Estratégico Internacional; as well as a keynote address by Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group.

Mr. WANDEL said the session would allow the Council to work as an accountability platform.  Member States had requested that repositioning be conducted on a region-by-region basis, and the United Nations development system responded by creating collaborative platforms.

In her address, Ms. MOHAMMED noted regional collaborative platforms have been established in all regions to coordinate assets.  Issue-based coalitions rally United Nations system-wide expertise to address changing regional and country priorities, and all have made good progress.

In March, chairing the first annual meeting of the platforms, she saw the potential to bring together collective expertise in support of country needs and priorities.  Citing regional specifics, she noted that in Africa, United Nations development system entities worked together to deliver essential support for COVID-19 initiatives.  In Arab States, the MANARA Regional Knowledge and Data Hub is being established as a one-stop shop for all United Nations sources and Member States.  In the Asia Pacific region, the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF developed strategic and operational guidance through the issue-based coalitions on human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment to address service gaps and ensure health services during the pandemic.

The data and statistics group in Europe connects country team statistics focal points with the global statistics community, while in Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, 19 entities and resident coordinators produced a comprehensive development plan for investment opportunities in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and south-east Mexico.  With those foundations in place, “We must aim higher for the coming year,” she said, ensuring all countries and regions have equitable access to vaccines.  Africa will require debt relief and liquidity support, while in Europe and Central Asia, it is essential to increase fiscal space and support structural reforms to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  Meanwhile, the Latin America and Caribbean region needs support in addressing barriers faced by middle-income countries and small island developing States.  Early assessment of the impact of COVID-19 by eight United Nations entities is helping the regional country platform in Asia and the Pacific identify priorities.  In Arab States, she cited the priority of addressing the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity degradation and pollution on water availability and migration.  “We are on the right path at the regional level, but we still have a great deal to do,” she said.

Ms. BARCENA emphasized that Latin America and the Caribbean have been hammered by the human cost of the pandemic, with 8 per cent of the global population but 30 per cent of its fatalities, magnifying structural gaps in the region.  Addressing a roster of issues, she noted the middle-income traps the region faces.  Her group promotes a “Caribbean-first strategy”, citing the importance of a Caribbean resilience fund with a debt swap initiative.  It is important to bring resident coordinators to intergovernmental bodies on all issues, she noted, and further cited a comprehensive development plan for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and south-east Mexico.  She also emphasized the importance of addressing structural causes of migration.

Ms. EZIAKONWA cited the important milestone of formally establishing regional collaborative platforms across all five regions.  In Africa, thanks to issue-based coalitions, regional assets are now aligned to core priorities for the continent’s development, focused on areas including climate action and resilience, peace and security, human rights, and forced displacement and migration.  She noted the COVID-19 response was an early demonstration of results from optimization, as the United Nations system assembled to set up the Africa Knowledge Management Hub on the virus.  Going forward, she noted the need for more action at both subregional and country levels.  Building on success in the Arab region, the regional collaborative platform should support the development system in promoting game-changing solutions and breakthrough innovations.  In the Africa region, the African Union Commission is an important entry point.  “I would say the experience so far is we are on the right track,” she said.

Ms. SON noted progress in Europe and Central Asia in operationalizing the five key areas advanced by the Secretary-General, with the regional collaborative platform architecture fully set up and functioning effectively.  Seven issue-based coalitions — “the engine room” of substantive regional collaboration to support the country teams — bring on average 11 agencies to work on jointly-agreed service areas.  She cited the example of the coalition on gender, which organized a virtual dialogue with over 100 regional women leaders to discuss the pivotal role they play in preventing and resolving conflicts.  Despite the progress, the pandemic continues to challenge the fundamental social fabric and expose economic vulnerabilities in many countries.  The United Nations development system at the regional level must, therefore, offer its best assets for “recovering better”.  She cited regional architecture in Europe and Central Asia composed of 31 United Nations entities, which could be more available at country level, on such topics as innovation in urban planning and cyber security.

Mr. CHAIBAN also cited significant progress under the regional collaborative platform, including development of the MANARA Regional Knowledge and Data Hub, a digital one-stop shop for data on monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals and pooling knowledge products and tools, accessible in English and Arabic.  Eight issue-based coalitions have been set up to support country teams and Member States, including on migration, and supporting COVID-19 vaccine rollout.  Work on that Data Hub must be accelerated, he said, finalizing the regional roster of experts to provide Member States, resident coordinators and country teams with United Nations expertise.  Humanitarian needs in the Arab region are increasing, he stressed, with over a third of global needs or $9 billion required in assistance, including the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan framework to address the large influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

Ms. MOHAMMED emphasized the high priority of recovering better from the pandemic.  Africa faces economic challenges due to increased public debts, with middle-income countries lacking policy space to address the socioeconomic effects of COVID-19, which also made it difficult to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals, as Africa was already off track, reversing many years of progress.  The African economy will decrease between $349 billion and $643 billion from pre-pandemic status — a best-case scenario, she stressed, while 14 million more Africans slipped into extreme poverty in 2020.  Transformational recovery from the pandemic will be required to reduce the potential effect of future crises, she said.  The lack of resource for programmes in Africa is a major challenge, requiring new common funding pools and innovative budget models.

Mr. SCHOENROCK said despite progress, the United Nations is still “leaving value on the table”.  The first challenge in impediments to reform is the “three United Nations”, meaning those of Member States, the Secretariat and partnerships.  Strengthening collaboration and partnerships with non-United Nations stakeholders including private partnerships is “mission critical”, he said.  Interregional collaboration is also crucial, while knowledge hubs should become the “institutional nervous system” of the United Nations development system.

The representative of Turkey asked how entities should address cross-regional issues like air pollution.

The representative of Mexico said contributions of regional collaborative platforms should be geared towards generating economies of scale.  He also commended ECLAC for its cutting-edge analysis, and decision to establish a sixth issue-based coalition on financing and development.

The representative of the Russian Federation asked how reforms affect the commissions’ mandates to support international conventions, and what additional measures should be taken to bolster the regional dimension of the development system.

The representative of the United States said the United Nations should construct a regional commission system organization chart to enhance Member States’ understanding of the system and guide future work in refining linkages.

Ms. BARCENA cited 285 measures taken by countries suffering extreme poverty, reducing the percentage of those suffering from 230 million people, or 98 per cent, to 208 million, representing 78 per cent.  Responding to the United States’ delegate, she said geographical mapping is being developed in four countries:  El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.  Ms. EZIAKONWA said interregional collaboration is a game-changer, and it is important to build joint initiatives around commonalities.  Ms. MOHAMMED emphasized the importance of finding innovative mechanisms for financing, and for greater coordination and knowledge-sharing.

In concluding remarks, Mr. WANDEL said there is a design for organizing the regional United Nations, but it is a work in progress, unfolding in substance and practicalities.

Session 9

The Council then convened an interactive dialogue on the theme “Joining forces with international financial institutions during and after the crisis”, chaired by Mr. Kyslytsya (Ukraine), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council responsible for the operational activities for development segment, and moderated by Elliot Harris, United Nations Chief Economist and Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development.

The dialogue featured panellists Bodo Ellmers, Programme Director of the Global Policy Forum; Robert Powell, Special Representative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the United Nations; Laura Jaitman, World Bank Group Special Representative to the United Nations; Matthias Naab, Resident Coordinator in Cameroon; Marcos Neto, Director of the Sustainable Development Goal Finance Hub in UNDP; and Andrea Suley, Deputy Representative of UNICEF in South Sudan.  Serving as discussants were Helena Fraser, Resident Coordinator in Uzbekistan, and Gerard Steeghs, Director of the Department for Multilateral Organizations and Human Rights at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

Mr. KYSLYTSYA welcomed the panellists’ presentations on how they work together to support countries in achieving balanced sustainable development and mobilizing the financing they need.  Closer collaboration between the Organization’s development system and international financial institutions is an important dimension in the Secretary-General’s road map for financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, he said, adding that it is also a key aspect for ensuring such integrated United Nations system support.

Mr. HARRIS said the discussion’s theme spotlights that fact that it remains a challenge to bring development partners together.  One challenge is finding a balance towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals, he said, inviting the panellists to elaborate on their experiences.

Mr. ELLMERS said the Global Policy Forum has found that financing for development efforts in fact advanced during the pandemic.  Focusing on debt relief, he said a major concern today is rising debt and interest rates, which could put many developing countries on the brink economically.  To address this, he suggested a new debt structure mechanism and a coordinated effort, including legal support and capacity development.  Pointing to new developments, he said a decision to allocate $50 billion in special drawing rights has been made, along with an allocation mechanism, adding that a harmonization of international financial institutions’ efforts could better align initiatives with national development plans and programmes.

Mr. POWELL said good coordination and trust among international partners is critical to achieving common goals, pointing to unprecedented coordinated interventions by Governments and central banks in 2020 that helped to prevent an economic crisis that would have been three times worse.  IMF engages regularly with the United Nations, he said, adding that improvements can be made in the areas of climate change, social spending and conflict prevention.  Turning to special drawing rights, debt and lending facilities, he stressed that decisions and operational aspects necessarily take place through bodies with the relevant international mandate, like the Paris Club.  However, the United Nations plays an important advocacy role, providing a forum for a wider discussion of ideas, including with the private sector, civil society and academics.  The United Nations integrated national financing frameworks initiative should build on existing work of all development partners.  The Organization’s economists should draw on IMF and World Bank analytical work in their assessments and fully engage with the Fund’s Resident Representatives.

Ms. JAITMAN highlighted World Bank strategies to step up efforts to deal with rising poverty and hunger levels.  Assisting 112 countries, it delivered record lending, a 65 per cent increase from the previous year, while partnering with many United Nations agencies.  Joint efforts include vaccine delivery to 22 countries, which will soon expand to reach 40 nations by June.  The World Bank also signed more than 100 new agreements with UNICEF over the past year.  In terms of green, resilient recovery efforts, she said projects include health and long-term climate change action, expressing hope that these strong partnerships will continue.

Mr. NAAB, noting that Cameroon’s current public revenue remains below the minimum target of GDP required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, highlighted the country’s experience with the integrated national financial framework.  Results from its 2019 Development Finance Assessment showed a misalignment between national planning system and national budgeting system, resulting in a mismatch between expenditure patterns and national priorities.  There was less effective public expenditure, limited domestic resources mobilization with a tax-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio lower than the African average, despite enormous potentials, and insufficient and inappropriate credit to the economy.

With $1 million from the Joint Sustainable Development Fund for this process, the Government is presently costing its National Development Strategy, aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, he said, and a steering committee, including representatives of the United Nations and its entities and international financial institutions, is working to facilitate the completion of the final two building blocks of the integrated national framework in 2021.  As Cameroon is in the early stages of developing this framework, its completion and implementation are expected to raise resources for the 2030 Agenda, he said, highlighting the high degree of United Nations collaboration.  Indeed, this framework project is a good demonstration of the partnership potential of the United Nations and international financial institutions, he said, adding that a better coordination of development finance is an indispensable lever for achievement of the 2030 Agenda.

Mr. NETO said collaboration is key to assisting Governments in making necessary changes, adding that a recent survey on the integrated national financial framework had identified 200 areas of policy reform.  More broadly, socioeconomic recovery plans implemented during the pandemic further demonstrates that collaboration works.  Citing several examples, he said Uzbekistan and other countries fostered close partnerships that emerged rapidly to design and operationalize effective responses across sectors.  In one sense, COVID-19 has brought partners together more than ever before.

Ms. SULEY said South Sudan’s indicators have been affected by the pandemic, like many other countries.  South Sudan has received an IMF disbursement to help with the implementation of social safety net programmes.  Turning to the worrisome food security situation, she said joint efforts are under way, involving the World Bank, UNICEF and other partners.  Partners are tackling the pandemic and other concerns, including child health.  The pandemic and its economic consequences risk reversing development gains, and despite current efforts, much remains to be done.  However, COVID-19 has demonstrated how quickly partners can act together.

Ms. FRASER said the pandemic has indeed brought development partners together.  In Uzbekistan, such efforts capitalized on synergies in health and other sectors, involving 17 United Nations entities and six international financial institutions.  Lessons learned include that the sense of urgency enabled partners to set aside previous competition and focus on coherence so the host Government could draw on the best support analysis and take action accordingly.  The power of working collectively, combining financing, policy influence and the United Nations convening role, was evident indeed, she said.

Mr. STEEGHS said the funding that is needed to realize all the Sustainable Development Goals requires creating tools for innovative financing.  The Netherlands is trying to advance such tools, but more must be done.  In terms of collaboration, he was pleased to hear from some panellists that COVID-19 pulled partners together.  Building on such partnerships is essential, as is coordinating with host Governments and international financial institutions.  It is not just about getting the numbers to add up in the end; it is about a long-term strategy, considering climate concerns, debt and productivity growth, among other things.  Highlighting several areas for action, including boosting private sector involvement, he said:  “We need to use this crisis to come back greener and more coordinated.”

In the ensuing discussion, delegates asked a range of questions.  The representative of the Philippines, offering examples of lessons learned and strategies to advance progress on the 2030 Agenda, said more financing must reach middle-income countries.  The representative of the United Kingdom asked about how Member States can overcome existing barriers.  The representative of Germany said his delegation stands ready to provide funding for more integrated programmes.

Responding to these comments and questions, Mr. NETO offered examples of partnerships, pointing to a current IMF-Islamic Development Bank joint project in Morocco.  In terms of private sector partnership pipeline, he said UNDP and partners recently launched a platform covering more than 100 areas in 15 countries for investors, with a return on investments on projects in line with realizing the Sustainable Development Goals.

Mr. POWELL, recalling both great and terrible collaboration efforts, said a current challenge is prioritization.  Special drawing rights are often misunderstood, he said, adding that a model is currently being developed for implementing this tool.  A challenge in debt relief today is to get countries to address the issue sooner.

Ms. FRASER said effective collaboration stems from knowing partners’ strengths.  In Uzbekistan, efforts aimed at, among other things, gender equality.  A win-win solution drew on the combined weight of partners, linking prior actions of development financing on gender-based violence for current projects and pulling expertise from UNFPA and other entities.  As partners become more familiar with each other’s strengths, she said, there will be more and more such strong collaborations going forward.

Mr. ELLMERS agreed that more efforts are essential to address the needs of middle-income countries.  Attention is also required to close the gaping hole of a gap in debt service costs, he said, also noting that much of COVID-19 financing went to the private sector.

Mr. NAAB said an integrated approach in Cameroon provides a great opportunity to mainstream this strategy with the IMF while bridging the gap between the development and peace nexus.

Ms. JAITMAN said there were no barriers to collaboration with World Bank partners.  The resident coordinators play a key role in facilitating discussions with Governments, she noted, adding that the World Bank will continue to work with the United Nations to strengthen partnerships, which operate in such areas as peace and security.

Ms. SULEY said that while South Sudan’s national development strategy aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals, there is no financing strategy.  However, an ongoing process is supporting the Government, she said, emphasizing that the pandemic has fostered an urgency to forge partnerships in this regard.  The resident coordinator’s role is important, she continued, noting that collaboration with the private sector has great potential, including in the area of solarization.

For information media. Not an official record.