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Edition Interviews: UN Assistant Secretary General Haoliang Xu

The United Nations Assistant Secretary General, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific Haoliang Xu talks exclusively to The Edition about the United Nations and Maldives.

Ahmed Aiham
24 June 2019, MVT 09:58
The Edition sits down with the United Nations Assistant Secretary General Haoliang Xu. VIDEO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA / THE EDITION
Ahmed Aiham
24 June 2019, MVT 09:58

The United Nations Assistant Secretary General and UNDP's Regional Director for Asia and Pacific Haoliang Xu, is responsible for overseeing the development programmes of 36 countries.

Transcript as follows.

- Video begins -

[Question] Classified as a 'Developing Country' since January 1, 2011, what have been the main areas of focus in the Maldives over the last eight or so years?

Haoliang Xu: In the development field, there are two systems of classification, one is based on income -– World Bank publishes the threshold that classifies countries as a low-income country, middle-income country and upper middle-income country.

So what you're talking about is perhaps the World Bank classification of a country, from low-income to middle-income.

The other classification is based on whether the country is a least developed country or not, that is the UN definition.

Based on certain criteria, not just income, countries can be classified as a least developed country and graduiate into a normal developing country. Whatever system of classification we talk about, the fact is that the country's development challenges do not change drastically overnight, because a country moved from one status to another.

Therefore, our corporation, our support to the country, will also not change drastically, but it is always dependent on the host country’s government and based on national priorities and the discussion of what we should do.

Over the last few years, our work has focused on a few things, For example, we always try to focus on the people's needs and the people’s capacity, building resilience through natural disasters and climate change.

We have always worked with governments to build institutions in different areas - government capacity, parliamentary, judiciary and so forth, so the country can implement the development objectives effectively.

One of the important areas of focus is biodiversity and climate change, environment, protection and conservation, because the environment is such an important asset for Maldives, for its economy, for its tourism, for its fisheries. These are few areas where we have consistently worked in.

[Question] As our economy is dependent on our coastal resources and is entirely spatially dispersed, how best can UN assist with meeting the hurdles that result from the current situation that Maldives is in?

Haoliang Xu: I think the country is very dispersed. It is true. Hundreds of islands for example. People residing in more than 180 islands, plus more than one hundred islands that have resorts. So it is really challenging to deliver services to the population.

I think one thing that we have tried to do is to use technology. One example is in the area of disaster risk protection - early warning is always a very important means to reduce damage to people’s lives and to damage of property.

Working with the government together, we’re testing a method to use mobile phones to send early warning signals, messages to the population. Therefore, making distance less challenging in this regard.

There are also other applications that we can use, for example, in many other countries, we have used digital technologies to connect communities with the government and use electronic means to provide government services. So, it reduces the need of the population to directly go to the government for services.

For example, there are many services such as birth certificate, the permit to open a business that can be processed online. This way, you can reduce the time and the cost of people to get these services and also increase transparency, reducing the potential of officials using their discretionary power to slow the process or make it difficult for the public.

There are different ways we can do it, but technology is always part of the answer.

[Question] Multiple projects have been funded by the organization throughout the decades, especially in the field of conservation. However, there's been reports that some of the projects did not move past the pilot phase. What is the UN's reasoning behind the failure to culminate?

Haoliang Xu: I think when we talk about developmental successes and failures, I think we need to look at this issue from a few point of views.

First – the national governments and governments at different levels are the owners of the countries development plans and objectives.

The national government is parliament, including the people at different levels – civil society groups, private sector…

So the national partners work together to make sure that there’s a very clear national consensus on development objectives and have national plans and financing plans to achieve these objects.

As an International Organization, as the United Nations, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank – our job is to provide assistance to the national government and other institutions, to make sure these national objectives are achieved. I think this is the general framework.

Secondly – In development work, there is always successes and failures. What’s important is that we learn from the failures, learn lessons and improve other problems and not repeat mistakes.

So we need to look at specific cases of where we succeeded and failed.

In the past, the framework that defined international corporation is the Millennium Development Goals until 2015. From 2015, the international collaborative framework is the 2030 development agenda – the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

We now need to work with the government very closely, to review the past four years of Maldives’ effort to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

As the new government in the (Maldives) Partnership Forum review their priorities for the future, let's look at how we can use the international development framework to support national development aspirations.

There are a lot of successes that are significant, that is I think the main trend of our collaboration.

Over the last 40 years, the way UNDP has been working with the Maldives, we have worked together for a very long journey.

The Maldives have developed over from a low- income to a middle- income country. Maldives has graduated from the least- developed country category, so there are a lot of successes.

In our efforts, we make small contributions, it is merely national efforts that led to this stage of development.

Just to give one example of success – in the Baa Atoll, we have implemented the biodiversity conservation project with funding from the Global Environmental Facility. It was international financing that supported this work.

There’s a system now, that local communities are now charging a fee from tourists, and using this income to put back into conservation efforts, to make the system a sustainable operation.

We invested with international resources and the national partners and made it work with a domestically sustainable system. This is just one of many many examples where our collaboration has resulted in good success.

[Question] As the UN Assistant Secretary-General and the Asia-Pacific Regional Director, which UN-led project in the Maldives are you most proud of?

Haoling Xu: Again, it’s quite a big question, very difficult, we have done so many projects over the many decades in Maldives.

What I would say is that our focus, our collaboration with the government, the objective is to always improve the lives of people.

I know that the current government has a very strong focus on service delivery in terms of health, water, education, waste management and so forth.

I would give an example that speaks to that agenda. In the areas of water and security, we know that Maldives has been experiencing the impact of climate change. Also, the tsunami in 2004, has drastically changed the water supply on many islands.

In terms of climate change, the wind pattern has become very different than the past. It is less predictable, resulting in stronger winds in a short period of time, rather than spread over longer periods of time.

So, water security has become a big problem for the population. Over the last 10 years, I was told that 90 islands every year, is asking for water emergency assistance from the central government.

Over the last two-three years, we have worked with the previous government as well as the current government, working on a project that is financed by the Green Climate Fund, with the objective to provide water storage, desalination and distribution systems at different levels on 49 islands, that will benefit 100,500 people across the country.

This is a project I think is very significant. The budget is over 30 million dollars, with co-financing from the Green Climate Fund and the government of Maldives.

Once it is finished in about a years’ time, nearly 30 percent of the population will benefit from the project and will not need emergency water supply from the central government, that will reduce cost, provide productivity, and help ask them to focus their attention on other more productive sectors of their economy.

I think there’s a lot of things but I think this is one project I feel very proud of.

[Question] In terms of gender equality and women empowerment, how does Maldives compare against other countries in the Asia-Pacific region?

Haoliang Xu: I think this issue of gender equality and women’s empowerment is very important to the UN, to your countries’ government and to the population as well.

It is also a difficult issue because it has a lot to do with traditions and the traditional role of women in society and homes. So it is not an easy issue to address.

I think gender equality is a principle that we need to agree on, because in the convention relating to women, CEDAW, there are principles that governments have endorsed.

In this regard, in terms of statistics, internationally, typically, there’s a consensus that you need 30 percent of women in parliament to enact laws that actually address women’s needs – the gender equality needs.

Now, in the Maldives, we see a decline in the percentage of women in parliament from the last Majlis to this Majlis to about 4 percent. So there is room to increase women’s representation.

This is important is because the laws that parliament allocate, the budget the government makes, will impact the lives of women, girls and children.

We do need voices of women in political decision- making, so that national laws and national plans actually help improve their lives at the speed we need to see.

Gender-based violence is a very difficult issue. According to a UNFPA study, one in three women experience violence, but we need to deal with it.

The labour participation of women in Maldives is also low. It is half of the man’s participation rate.

Again, it’s a very difficult question because women spend a lot of time at home to do housework, so women have a double burden in many societies.

They have to work and have a high level of responsibility at home. So how do you address these questions? So we need to work together to discuss problems and find solutions.

[Question] What challenges exist for young individuals today in terms of influencing policy-level action and social change? Do you think young people have a better foothold than before, as agents of change?

Haoliang Xu: I would think yes. It is not always easy for young people to have voices in society, let alone in decision making, but I think there’s an increase in recognition that young people are an important force for change and making development happen.

Maldives is a very young society, I think 40 percent of people are considered youth. Different statistics can go from 35 percent to nearly 50 percent, so a very young very population.

You cannot ignore the fact that youth is an important force for change, but youth face lots of challenges.

In the Maldivian society, for example, because of the small island, the nature of the society and the limitations on what young people can do after they receive an education, the productive opportunities, economic opportunities are limited in many cases.

So we need to work together, again, to find solutions.

UNDP doesn’t have solutions necessarily for Maldives’ challenges. We have a lot of experience across the world in many countries on how to support young people, to participate, to have economic opportunities, but we need to use that experience in the Maldives.

We are preferring collaboration to bringing our regular programme, youth leadership and entrepreneurship to Maldives. In August, we’re working to organize a national dialogue on this Issue.

We have a brand called the Youth Co-Lab, so a youth collaborative laboratory. We work together to create solutions, especially on entrepreneurship, job creation and small and micro-enterprises that young people can organize themselves.

So here you have a lot of issues - If we provide training for young people to create their own business, what about financing? If we help them have aspirations and plans, but the financing doesn’t come, again, you set up high expectations that cannot be met. You create more failures.

So, fortunately, I understand that this government has plans for micro-financing schemes to support young people. We will work with the government very closely for this issue.

There are different things we can do to support young people but yes, the youth is important.

The UN secretary general has a youth envoy, who is a young woman from Sri Lanka. So she was actually part of our collaboration with young people in Sri Lanka. She became the Secretary General’s envoy on youth participation and involvement. We can bring her to Maldives, to support this kind of dialogue and engagement.

We look forward to working more on these kinds of issues with the Maldives governments and youth groups.

- End of Transcript -

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