Helen Clark: Speech at opening of Regional Management Cluster Meeting for UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States

Mar 20, 2016

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator

Speech at opening of
Regional Management Cluster Meeting for UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
9.30 am, Sunday, 20 March 2016,


It is my pleasure to welcome you to the Regional Management Meeting of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS).

Allow me first to express our thanks to the Government of United Arab Emirates (UAE) for hosting us, and to the International Humanitarian City and Dubai Electricity and Water Authority for supporting this important event.

We also thank the acting RC/RR for UAE, Frode Mauring, UNDP’s UAE Country Office, and our Amman Hub for their hard work to ensure the success of this meeting.

At the outset, on behalf of UNDP I would like to extend our sincere condolences with respect to yesterday’s tragic FlyDubai plane crash which resulted in significant loss of life. Our thoughts are especially with the families, friends, and colleagues of those from several nations who perished.

We gather here in UAE where the national vision and strategy for the future – Vision 2021– embraces the concept of achieving sustainability across the social, environmental, and economic spheres.

UAE is also supporting sustainable development in other countries. Since its foundation in 1971, UAE has supported many humanitarian relief and development initiatives - across education, water and sanitation, and other areas, and in amounts which often exceed the international target for advanced economies of providing 0.7 per cent of annual Gross National Income in Official Development Assistance. Partners like UAE will play a critical role in the successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.

UNDP enjoys a solid partnership with UAE, and aims to make it even more strategic. At the national level, we have partnered in promoting clean energy production and consumption, the participation of women in the economy and the society, boosting youth empowerment, and fostering economic and social progress overall. At the regional level, UNDP and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation have worked together on the Arab Knowledge Report series since 2007, and, now, most recently on the Arab Knowledge Index.

Arab States Region – Progress and Challenges

Overall, the Arab States region contributed a great deal to global growth in recent decades, and a number of countries saw significant advances on the Human Development Index.

Critical areas for the MDGs, like school enrolment rates, literacy rates for young adults, and gender parity in primary schooling, made considerable progress. The most recent data available for the Arab States region shows that:

  • around 85 per cent of children of primary school age were enrolled in school in 1999, and that rate rose to 92 per cent in 2011. Many countries in the region, including UAE, have achieved, or are close to achieving, universal primary school enrolment;
  • the Gender Parity Index (GPI) for primary education rose from 0.77 in 1999 to 0.93 in 2011; and
  • Between 1990 and 2012, the adult literacy rate in the Arab States rose from 55 per cent to 78 per cent and the youth literacy rate from 74 per cent to ninety per cent. 

The region as a whole has been able to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health significantly - an achievement which enables the realization of other goals related to the health status and well-being of societies. Important advances have also been made on improved sanitation.

But overall regional figures hide significant inequalities. Some countries in the region are very affluent, and some are very poor. Some are peaceful, while others are mired in conflict and experiencing significant development setbacks. This may account for the Arab States region being the only region in the world which is estimated to have a higher extreme poverty level now than it had in 1990. It is also the only region which has seen an increase in the prevalence of hunger, doubling the number of people suffering hunger and malnutrition since 1990 – a number which now stands at 33 million. 

The region continues to struggle with widespread gender inequality: women still have much less access than do men to paid employment and political representation, despite the notable gains achieved in girls’ and women’s health and education.

While many Arab States had achieved significant advances on the areas measured in the Human Development Index, UNDP’s Arab Human Development Reports have made it clear that more progress has long been needed on the broader aspects of human development, such as greater equality, participation, empowerment, voice, and rights.

Environmental degradation, including damage to the climate ecosystem and biodiversity loss, together with tremendous water scarcity, has a severe impact on the region. Climate change is a present and growing threat, posing increasingly high adaptation and mitigation costs, especially for the most vulnerable countries and communities. The impact of adverse weather-related events such as heat waves and droughts is growing.

Most distressing though is the level of conflict in the region. Since 2009, more than forty per cent of Arab States have experienced at least one internal conflict. In some countries, there has been loss of life on a terrible scale, and now conflict in the region has generated the largest forced displacement crises since the Second World War.

These conflicts and crises have taken a heavy toll on development, halting or reversing hard-won MDG gains in some countries, including among some of the previous best performers on the Human Development Index. To take the starkest example: before 2011 Syria was a middle-income country; today over eighty per cent of the Syrian population is estimated to live in poverty. Protracted crises pose new and daunting challenges to poverty reduction and sustainable development overall. The most recent data on sub-regions within the Arab States region showed that the reversal of gains on hunger and poverty in Western Asia noted in 2013 has continued since then.

The major development-related agendas agreed on by UN Member States last year are all highly relevant to the challenges facing the Arab States, and to the work of UNDP in the region.

These include the Sendai Agreement on Disaster Risk Reduction; a positive and realistic new framework on financing for development – the Addis Ababa Action Agenda; the new global climate change agreement reached in Paris; and the overarching development framework expressed in Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The 2030 Agenda – a breakthrough for sustainable development

The 2030 Agenda is universal, and it is about ends and means. Its human development goals are complemented by goals promoting inclusive growth, creating decent jobs, investing in essential infrastructure including energy and information communication technologies (ICTs), and promoting that fundamental precondition for sustainable development - peaceful and inclusive societies. Agenda 2030 is clear: “there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development”.

For high-income countries in the region like UAE, many of the MDG targets presented no serious challenge. But the new agenda requires every country on earth to lift its game.

Agenda 2030 is clear in its ambition to leave no one behind in development. Reaching the last mile in development means reaching the 125 million people in our world who currently require humanitarian assistance. The average amount of time people worldwide live in displacement arising from war and persecution is estimated at seventeen years. Thus, meeting needs generated by crises requires both humanitarian and development responses. Shrinking the need for humanitarian relief by building resilience is the emerging consensus on approaches to protracted crises.

This year, the implementation of Agenda 2030 must begin in earnest. The agenda calls on the UN development system to provide integrated and coherent support to Member States’ efforts to achieve the SDGs – and we are intent on doing just that.

The approach we have adopted is called ‘MAPS’, which stands for mainstreaming, acceleration, and policy support:

  • Mainstreaming refers to the support we can give governments as they incorporate the agenda in their national and local strategies, plans, and budgets, and strengthen their data systems.

  • On acceleration, we can help identify the obstacles and bottlenecks in the way of making progress on goals and targets, and identify actions which could speed up progress on multiple targets at the same time.

  • On policy support, we can provide co-ordinated and demand-driven advice and technical assistance across many SDGs.

Implementing Agenda 2030 can also add to the current momentum for encouraging the UN’s development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding actors to work more closely together. This is very important for a number of countries in this region, and could help ensure at least a minimum of traction for the SDGs in those countries.

UNDP can bring its strengths to bear on reducing humanitarian needs in the Arab States region and elsewhere through a series of interventions, including on disaster risk reduction; ongoing support for human development during times of protracted crisis; and in recovery from and transitions out of crisis.

We have been pioneers on the resilience agenda which calls for development support to complement humanitarian support. It is not a question of either/or – both are needed. This agenda got a big boost from the Resilience Development Forum we convened with the support of the Government of Jordan at Dead Sea last year, and then at the London Conference on Supporting Syrians in February where support for resilience-based approaches dominated the discourse.

The efforts of UNDP in response to all crises – whether those caused by conflict, natural disaster, or any other factor – must always aim to build the foundations for development, and to build resilience to future shocks. These issues will also be important elements of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.

On SDG implementation UNDP has much to offer, within the framework of the overall UNDG agenda. Our support will focus on three aspects:

  • First, we will help advance a ‘whole of agenda’ and ‘whole of society’ approach which is coherent across thematic issues and encourages partnerships for implementation.  

  • Second, we will mobilise our expertise and programme support around SDG 1 (end poverty in all its forms everywhere); SDG 10 (reduce inequality within and among countries); SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and on other SDGs where we have particular strengths - including on the environment, sustainable energy and climate change; women’s political and economic empowerment; and health – the latter based on our extensive experience gained in partnership with the Global Fund and as a UNAIDS co-sponsor.

  • Third, we will support countries to monitor, report, and apply lessons learned on SDG implementation based on our many years of working to advance the MDGs.  

Support for resilience building will be particularly important for leaving no one behind as Agenda 2030 demands. RBAS and the Country Offices in this region have been at the forefront of the global policy shift in bringing development and humanitarian responses closer together.

Supporting the realization of youth potential across the region is also critical. All countries in the Arab States have large youth populations. This demographic profile presents the potential for tremendous dividends – but only if there is investment in youth potential. Youth across the Arab States region have been in the vanguard of those demanding change. They want decent work and the full exercise of citizenship. The Arab Human Development Report to be launched soon on youth will help invigorate our thinking and our programmes in this regard.

Just as the programmes we deliver need to change to address the new challenges facing the region, so UNDP itself needs to keep changing to ensure that it can deliver effectively.

We have made good progress during this strategic plan period in moving our services out to the regional hubs closer to where they are needed, and in getting more joined-up delivery and better quality programme design, but more needs to be done to ensure that we are using our resources most effectively.

You will be discussing this in detail tomorrow, but let me emphasize now how important it is that we can demonstrate to both our donors and programme country governments that we are using their money wisely, that we are properly charging costs to where they are incurred, and that we are investing our own resources in ways which will best deliver results.

In this region, and around the world, UNDP is well placed to help countries deliver on all the major global development-related agendas agreed last year. Our expertise and experience across poverty reduction, MDG implementation, governance and rule of law, and building resilience, along with our knowledge networks and co-ordination role within the UN Development Group, make us well equipped to help.

These are volatile and unpredictable times. But, under Sima’s leadership, and with the commitment of all our leaders at country level and in the Amman Hub, I am confident that the Regional Bureau for Arab States and its Country Offices will continue to be regarded as indispensable partners in this region. Many of you and your staff are serving in countries facing very grave challenges, and are often away from your families. I thank you for your courageous efforts, and I thank all our staff throughout the region for their work to deliver on our mandate.

It is my hope that this regional management meeting will be successful in bringing everyone up to speed with global and regional developments, and with what is happening within UNDP and the broader development system. The objective is for each of you to return to your duty station well equipped to lead efforts in support of sustainable development progress across the Arab States region.

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