Sima Bahous: Remarks at the Arab Priorities in a Time of Change

Apr 7, 2013

Opening Remarks of Sima Bahous, Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant  Administrator and Director of Regional Bureau forArab States, United Nations Development Programme

Arab Priorities in a Time of Change

Intercontinental Hotel
Amman, Jordan
7 April, 2013

Your Excellency Nasser Judeh, Foreign Minister of Jordan,

Your Excellency Helen Clark, Administrator of UNDP,

Dear Colleagues,

I am very pleased to be here in Amman for this UNDP regional meeting on Arab Priorities in a Time of Change. 

Thank you Helen and allow me now to give the view from the Regional Bureau for Arab States.

Dear colleagues, over the nine months that I have been Director of RBAS, I have been impressed with the people of this organization at every turn. While I have not as yet visited all of our Country Offices, the visits I have made so far have left me with a strong appreciation of your values, commitment, and expertise. I have also been very impressed by our colleagues who serve you in RBAS and other NY-based Bureaus and Departments.

Thus it is no surprise to me that we are achieving important results. But there is much more to be done.

I believe that to deepen our impact we will have to sharpen our substantive competence and focus, and also reorganize ourselves to provide better support to our national counterparts and drive a regional programme that is close to the region and fit-for-purpose.

Allow me to share a few remarks on my own strategic vision, a vision grounded in the UNDP mandate and anchored in the priorities of the countries we serve. 

The past two-plus years have brought about the most significant wave of change that this region has seen in decades. People in many countries across the region have voiced demands for a new course, and change indeed has come in different ways. Some countries have embarked upon the beginnings of transitions. Others have initiated new types of reform.

These breakthroughs bring much to celebrate.

However we are also seeing that change does not come easily.

The initial euphoria felt in many countries has given way to concern. As old assumptions have been swept away, new questions have come to the fore. Economies have stagnated and social indicators fallen back.  In many cases, the vulnerable have become more-so. Violence has escalated. New crises have emerged. And the entire region is experiencing a moment of profound instability.

In this context, many in the region and around the world are finding cause for pessimism. 

But my vision is optimistic – it has to be. Of course we comprehend the concerns and we are clear about the risks. The progress of this region will not be linear and will not be predictable.

But at the fundamental level, underneath the surface, I believe that we may be seeing signs of a shift towards a future of sustainable human development.

The region we strive for is one where economies are significantly more inclusive; where efforts to reduce poverty and inequalities are underpinned by participation, voice and accountability; and where peace, security and resilience are the bedrocks of human progress.

For UNDP, supporting advances towards this vision will require focus on the most important results.

The Corporate Strategic Plan will guide us in this regard.

The Regional Bureau for Arab States will move quickly to operationalize the plan in light of regional priorities. Indeed, to be the first regional Bureau to do so. For this reason I have called for the development of a Framework which will guide our work for the next four years.

The Framework will be shaped by the Corporate Strategic Plan and informed by national and regional priorities. Our approach to its formulation will be highly consultative and the final product will depend on your inputs. 

Allow me to reflect on five substantive priorities. 

These priorities are inspired by the core principles of inclusion, equity and sustainability, and also by the primacy of combating poverty and empowering women and youth to drive development and shape their future. 

First, sustainable economic transformation and job creation. Our region has the highest unemployment rates in the world, especially among youth, and also the lowest labor force participation rate, in particular among women.  And too many of the jobs that do exist are insecure, locking people and communities into long-term poverty and vulnerability.

The employment imperative is rightly front-and-center for Arab countries, and for our partners. I believe that we can make a major contribution by helping to demystify the issue, and by clarifying policy choices for structural transformation and job-rich growth, in close contact with your counterparts as well as in cooperation with the League of Arab States and other partners such as the Arab and Islamic Funds.

A second priority is to support faster progress in closing gaps in gender equality. The advance of girls and women is of fundamental importance for achieving sustained and inclusive growth, poverty eradication and sustainable development. Indeed, as suggested in the Human Development Report 2013, if there is any silver bullet for development, it is women’s empowerment.

But in our region we are lagging far behind on this count. While progress on parity in education is noted, gaps are great in terms of women’s economic and social empowerment, political participation, and access to justice.

And indeed, amidst the changes underway in the region, the situation is now more challenging than ever.

Tomorrow a new RBAS Gender Steering Committee will convene.  I count on you to lay the groundwork for innovative and specific proposals on how to carry this agenda forward in the new context in which we are working.

A third priority is governance — as a linchpin of sustainable human development.

Difficult governance transitions are underway in diverse ways across the region, with societies negotiating new balances between political norms, social values and the role of religion in public life, while also addressing urgent social and economic priorities. People want capable institutions that drive progress against poverty and inequality.

RBAS will strengthen its role in supporting our national partners to upgrade governance systems to meet the demands of the day.

Fourth, our work to promote early recovery and steady return to sustainable development from situations of crisis will receive a major boost. Many of our countries have shown chronic fragility over decades, with repeated relapse into crisis. Others are now experiencing new kinds of instability. Securing and building the peace, strengthening social cohesion, and supporting the development of representative institutions will require sustained attention and engagement.

And a fifth priority relates to accelerating progress on the MDGs while supporting efforts towards an inspiring, relevant and regionally-owned Post-2015 Development Framework.

I urge you to push forward with your MDG agendas wherever they have traction, and to continue to sign new countries onto the MDG Acceleration Framework over these last 1,000 days and beyond.

At the same time, many of you are also active in facilitating national consultations on the Post-2015 development agenda.

The process towards a Post-2015 agenda has transformative potential because it represents a new opportunity to build on the success of the MDGs while transitioning to a more resource-efficient, resilient form of growth that reduces poverty, inequality and vulnerabilities.

The Post-2015 process so far has also shown the benefit of working closely with our sister agencies across the UNDG, and I aim as we move towards 2015 to build on this momentum and strengthen the collaboration within our regional UNDG in support of the UNCTs. I believe that the Arab Development Forum scheduled for later this week will be a major catalyst in that direction.

Dear Colleagues, as we move towards sharpening what we there are implications for how we do it. As a Bureau we must accelerate our transformation to keep pace with our quickly changing region, especially in light of the very challenging financial environment.

We have undertaken a functional review and we have devised a five-point agenda for organizing how we provide more relevant, more-timely and more cost-effective support to our Country Offices.

The objectives of the reorganization are to be more agile and responsive to the needs of the region, and to provide greater support for the development of new programme initiatives that meet the challenges of the day.

The first part of the agenda is to reposition RBAS as a true one-stop shop for all the oversight, support and partnership offered to Country Offices by the Regional Bureau and all HQ units.

The second part is to enhance the substantive support you receive. We will create a Policy Support Unit which will drive a Regional Programme that is very close to the region’s needs, with a focus on regional initiatives that generate new development ideas and create new partnerships. The Regional Programme will also foster an enabling regional environment in support of your work at the country level. This will be complemented with the work of the Regional Center, which will sharpen its focus on providing advisory services to COs.

The third part is to set up the Operations Hub here in Amman, that Helen mentioned. The Hub will allow us to cluster the operations activities we carry out across the region. We expect that the Hub will make us leaner and more responsive to countries’ needs.

The fourth is to strengthen our development analysis and advocacy. The changing times bring both obligation and opportunity for us to engage stakeholders in broad and continuous dialogue. Our Arab Human Development Report will continue as our flagship in this regard, but we must more clearly see this as intertwined with a broad and continuous process of engaging with regional institutions, experts and civil society through more frequent events, fast-moving analysis, and continuous outreach. One interesting idea we are advancing from HQ is the creation of an Arab Media Network for Development, which will bring together Arab Media outlets to upgrade their focus on development issues.  This could lead to a step change in the visibility of our results… and the resonance of our ideas.

And the fifth is to strengthen our role in forging regional partnerships and fostering South-South cooperation. We will deepen our engagement with countries in the region which are transforming their roles in international cooperation by better understanding their aspirations in the true spirit of regional partnership. And we will champion the increasing interest that countries have in the mutual exchange of development knowledge with fellow developing countries.

As we reorganize we will also pursue innovation that can help us deliver new results in cost-effective manners.

The societies around us are embracing new ways to shape the future; we need fresh thinking too.

RBAS will set up an Innovation Fund to provide seed money to Country Offices experimenting with approaches that go beyond traditional project implementation methods and expand our boundaries into new areas with a focus on initiatives that can prove results and be scaled up by our country partners.

As a closing thought, let me just reflect that over recent years we have seen very clearly that many people around the Arab region care very much about the same things we do — they care about poverty reduction, jobs, and voice and participation; they demand inclusion, sustainability, and dignity; they want youth empowerment, and more opportunity for all. 

It strikes me that what people want across the Arab region is to advance along paths that are very much aligned with our mandate. The world people want in the Arab region is different than the way the region is today.

But it is our mandate and our opportunity to help our counterparts and constituency bring this world into view. Thus, as here in Jordan, our most relevant days around the Arab region are upon us now.

Sharpening what we do, and strengthening how we do it, we will be able to play a strong role in engaging and supporting the Arab region to meet Arab Priorities in a Time of Change

I am looking forward to our discussions and their outcomes. Thank you. And thank you once again to Jordan and its Leadership for hosting this important meeting.

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With that said, it is a pleasure to introduce our Keynote Speaker, His Excellency Nasser Judeh, Foreign Minister of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Dear Colleagues, His Excellency Mr. Judeh has had an accomplished career in public service, international affairs, and the private sector. He is a skilled diplomat and a strong advocate for international cooperation to support progress for all. I have had the privilege of knowing His Excellency for some time, and I can assure you that you will find his remarks most stimulating. Thank you again for joining us, Your Excellency. The floor is yours.


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