Sima Bahous: Remarks at the Meeting of Regional United Nations Development Group – Arab States/ MENA

Nov 2, 2013

Remarks of Sima Bahous
United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Assistant Administrator and Director of,

Regional Bureau for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme;

Chair of the Arab States and Middle East and North Africa Regional United Nations Development Group

Meeting of Regional United Nations Development Group – Arab States/ MENA

Amman, 2 November 2013

I appreciate the flexibility of my colleagues and friends in the Regional United Nations Development Group (UNDG) in finding a new time for this meeting and for agreeing to meet on a Saturday.  I acknowledge our guests at this meeting, in particular Margot Ellis, Nigel Fisher and Ferid Belhaj. We also have with us today the UN Resident Coordinators for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Political Developments

Our colleagues from the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (DPA) were keen to attend but could not be with us today.  As you know they are all working hard to make the long-awaited Geneva II conference a reality.

However I did have the opportunity to speak with the team of the Joint Special Representative (JSR), Mr. Lakdhar Brahimi, including the Deputy Joint Special Representative (DJSR), Mr. Nasser Al-Kidwa. While of course we would have preferred to have them join our meeting directly, as at our last meeting, I am happy to share with you the update that they provided me.

I was briefed to the effect that Mr. Brahimi has been on a successful visit in the region and in neighbouring countries, including his visit to Syria this week. Mr. Brahimi is emerging from these visits as cautiously optimistic. I understand that there seems to be a growing readiness to engage in the Geneva II talks, aided by positive international developments including the completion of an important stage of the process in relation to the destruction of chemical weapons, the recent Security Council Presidential Statement, and the renewal of international dialogue with Iran. However at the same time, there are concerns that the Syrian opposition remains fragmented. Nonetheless there are hopes that the upcoming meeting of the League of Arab States, scheduled for 5 November, may result in strengthened momentum for participation by opposition representatives in the Geneva II talks. If all goes well, the Geneva II conference could take place around 23 November.

With these visits now concluded, the JSR and his team will meet with the P3 in Geneva, followed by meetings with the P5 and the United Nations Secretary-General. He would then work on the logistical issues regarding invitations to the Geneva II talks, including discussions on the list of participants. He recognizes that these talks may be followed by further discussions, but stresses the importance of having a single set of interlocutors for the dialogue to yield results.

In our discussion the Deputy JSR also stressed repeatedly what he described as a catastrophic humanitarian situation, a situation which indeed has worsened considerably since our meeting a few months ago. He noted the urgency of international action. The Presidential Statement of the Security Council was an important step in this direction, but now it is essential to translate this statement into real improvements in the humanitarian situation.

On the political front, the Deputy JSR highlighted the grave security risks arising from the Syrian situation, including the kindling of sectarian strife, and the resort to violent extremism amongst some parties. He feared the possibility of a spread of these ills to the entire region. He also noted the insufficiency of current humanitarian and development efforts as Syria’s neighbours are, in his view, perhaps close to a breaking point.

On the development situation, stress was placed on the fact that, where possible, it is important for communities to feel and see the dividends of peace. Where groups are disarming and where local initiatives on cessation of hostilities are underway, there is a need for development to resume. Early recovery programmes would help strengthen these local initiatives. The JSR’s team also highlighted the crucial nature of continuing with “day after” planning with renewed vigour in order to enhance UN readiness to assist Syria as and when needed, and to provide continuing strong support to neighbouring countries affected by the conflict.

Context and Objectives of the R-UNDG Meeting

This meeting takes place at a time when the international community continues to be seized by the crisis in Syria, in both its protracted political and humanitarian consequences, as well as in its deep impact on neighboring countries – mainly in their ability to cope with development pressures brought about by the massive flow of Syrian refugees. This R-UNDG has been equally focused on the Syria crisis and its impacts in our last several meetings, in November 2012 and April 2013, as well as in our August 2013 teleconference.

In these three previous meetings, we looked to develop a shared analysis and understanding of the crisis and its impacts, outlining the actions and responses of individual agencies, and looking toward a joint R-UNDG response.  We must again and again acknowledge here that the depth and scope of the crisis, now nearly three years in the making, has tested us all. The toll of this crisis on the lives and livelihoods of Syrians, on host countries — communities and governments alike — will undoubtedly have lasting effects. 

With the continued political impasse, even as negotiations on a Geneva II conference are underway, there is growing international consensus that a serious development crisis is unfolding. The response to the humanitarian and refugee crisis must be significantly augmented by more robust, targeted development responses that consider country contexts, and are both immediately-implementable and forward-looking.  This of course is particularly the case for countries neighboring Syria, where the coping abilities of peoples and governments are severely strained.

What is the evidence-base of this development response? What are its guiding principles and goals? What is its scope and with whom? What mechanisms can be put in place to facilitate this collective development response? These questions are precisely the subject of this meeting.

Without taking away from the upcoming sessions, as I would like that we spend as much time as possible in collective discussions, let me share with you two general remarks that are at the heart of the agenda of our meeting today. The first is on the depth of the development impact of the crisis, and the second is on the complementarity with the humanitarian and refugee responses.

On the Development Impact

As you know, in my capacity as Regional UNDG chair, and as I mentioned in previous R-UNDG teleconferences and other exchanges, I commissioned a study to capture the impact of the Syrian crisis on development.  Given the priority to focus immediately on the most affected countries, we decided that the study would start with Lebanon and Jordan, with a possibility of expanding to other countries as we progress.

You are already aware that since that time, the Lebanon Economic and Social Impact Assessment was launched by the World Bank and the UN, to support the Government of Lebanon.  We then met in New York, and subsequently in Washington, DC.

A second important initiative is currently underway in Jordan, in the form of the Multi-Sector Needs Assessment in which we are all participating in support of the Government of Jordan, and which is to be completed this month. These country-specific assessments are yielding important inputs for our study and indeed were themselves made more useful by our inputs.

Given these assessments, as well as several others undertaken by individual agencies and research groups, our focus today is on what we are able to aggregate as initial findings that are common and relevant from a multi-country, sub-regional perspective, and therefore provide a reasonable basis for joint action by the R-UNDG.

In the first draft of the study on the development impact of the Syria crisis I shared with you, you will note the differentiated development capacity of governments at central and local levels, and differentiated sectoral priorities facing local communities and institutions, as well as the subsequent need for context-sensitive local response frameworks.

A major feature of the refugee crisis lies in the significant ‘localization’ of the vulnerability burden. Major host areas in both Jordan and Lebanon were indeed among the poorest and most vulnerable prior to the crisis, and the consequences are already revealed in these communities in deepening poverty and increasing inequalities and geographical disparities. Access to and quality of basic services is significantly compromised, and, not coincidentally, the ability to monitor development has slipped.

In this context it is clear that a comprehensive development response in any one of these countries impacted by the crisis must be anchored in national development plans and frameworks reflecting a capacity-development approach whereby national partners can continue to expand service delivery in response to the crisis, as well as sustain and strengthen their future development pathways.

Here I come to my second point.

On the Complementarity of Humanitarian and Development Efforts

If we know that the development context of these countries has been deeply affected by the crisis, what are some key principles and approaches for the way forward?

I shared with you a document on the Resilience-based Development Response that is intended to provide us points of reflection for this meeting. This is a conceptual framework geared to complement the current humanitarian response, and to allow for agreeing on basic principles and actions for a proposed Road Map for its implementation. The humanitarian response is essential, of course, and we should view the development track as complementary and urgent, but distinct. Development support is necessary to ensure that national and local government levels are able to sustain the presence of such population movements. It is aimed not only at a recovery of the Syrian population, both inside and outside Syria, but at the coping mechanisms of the States and communities that are receiving and hosting migrants in relation to this crisis.

At this stage of the crisis the cost of stabilizing economic trends and sustaining the rapid population growth is beyond State capacity in all affected countries. Support from external actors – whether the United Nations or national and international non-governmental organizations — cannot and should not replace national and local government responsibilities. We have heard from Government officials in Jordan and Lebanon, that while recognizing the urgency of the humanitarian response, they also see the development approach as urgent and essential.

In the context of the Syria crisis it is imperative that the international community mobilize a fast-track development response to complement humanitarian efforts and support affected countries in avoiding a “vulnerability trap” by:

  • Coping with the increased demand on basic services (shelter, water and sanitation, health and education services, employment, et cetera);
  • Recovering from downward economic trends (including the degradation of infrastructure, and social tensions); and
  • Sustaining institutions and capacities to anticipate, prevent and effectively manage future shocks, and to reduce vulnerability to future crises.

This conceptual framework should be operationalized and mechanisms put in place to continue to collect and share lessons and information at a sub-regional, strategic level, while ensuring that our respective Agencies can move it forward together at a country level. We will have a good opportunity to discuss this further in a dedicated session later today.


I believe that our meeting today is a milestone in the overall approach of the UN Development Group to envision and put into place a joint sub-regional development response to this protracted political, humanitarian and refugee crisis.  It is incumbent upon us to do so if we are to respond to national priorities, and reach all those people impacted by the crisis, inside and outside Syria, refugees and hosts alike.

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