Interview with Gyan Chandra Acharya, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS

Gyan Chandra Acharya, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS. UN Photo

6 February 2014 – In September of 2012, Mr. Gyan Chandra Acharya was appointed United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS). This Office was established by the UN General Assembly in 2001 to guide the Organization’s efforts in assisting these countries as they coped with the unique challenges they faced due to their levels of economic development, geographic isolation, and susceptibility to natural disasters.

Mr. Acharya, as Permanent Representative of Nepal to the United Nations, contributed since 2009 as Chair of the Global Coordination Bureau of the Group of Least Developed Countries, to the successful conclusion of the Fourth UN Conference on the those countries (2011) and its follow-up process. He was also closely involved in the 2010 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) mid-term review process and the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).

A strong advocate of the issues affecting least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States, he has stressed that the challenges they face are “livelihood issues” requiring urgent global attention and support. In his first conversation with the UN News Centre he expanded on those points and made a clear case for the pro-active role of all stakeholders in galvanizing international support for these diverse and vital groups of countries.

UN News Centre: Thank you for talking to us. Your Office has a very long name and an acronym that’s difficult to pronounce. Can you tell us in simple terms The simplest way to describe my Office is to say that I represent the interests and concerns of the world’s most vulnerable you characterize your mandate?

Gyan Chandra Acharya: Thank you very much. I think the simplest way to describe my Office is to say that I advocate for  the interests and concerns of the world’s most vulnerable countries. When you look around at challenges some nations face, these are the countries with very low levels of human development, very high levels of poverty and vulnerability; whether due to economic shocks, climate change or the swing in the international financial structure.

These countries bear the brunt of all these problems. I would also say that they are among the so-called “bottom billion” people facing the severe development challenges. The first  category of countries, I represent, is the least developed countries.

Secondly, I represent landlocked developing countries, which face huge development challenges because they lack access to the sea. Without that access, import, export and trade capacity, and even the movement of people, become very expensive. It has a huge impact on economic growth and development.

Thirdly, I represent Small Island Developing States – those islands that are far away from the world’s major economic centres. They have small populations, small economies; the distance between one island to another is huge, and they have to import many things they need. Furthermore, they face the the huge impacts of climate change.

Because these countries share similar characteristics and vulnerabilities and are at the bottom of the world’s development ladder, the United Nations is trying to ensure how  best help [them] move toward sustainable development. That is my responsibility.

UN News Centre: What role do you play in helping these countries overcome such serious vulnerabilities?

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulates Gyan Chandra Acharya following his swearing in during a two-day retreat for senior officials of the UN system, in Turin, Italy (September 2012). UN Photo/Davide Bellucca

Mr. Acharya: We organize many international conferences to sensitize the international community to the challenges these countries face. At the same time, there are also other international conferences and activities that take place on thematic issues. [Meetings on] the least developed countries might, for instance, examine the fundamental structural challenges they face in eradicating poverty or providing basic services. We also examine what the international community is doing in terms of lending support, advancing the capacity and providing resources to these countries.

But when we organize these conferences, we always try to ensure that there is strong participation, including that of the leaders of the countries themselves, as well as the wider international community, donors and emerging economies, the private sector and civil society. We make every effort to ensure that a multi-stakeholder approach is taken in order to resolve their development challenges.

We also try to make sure that whatever is agreed on policy issues as well as on resource mobilization, issues are also implemented nationally. It is first and foremost the responsibility of the countries concerned to have strong leadership and good governance, as well as to mobilize domestic resources for these purposes. But in today’s interrelated and globalized world, they cannot do everything on their own; they have to look for international support because of their lack of capacity, lack of institutions, and of course, lack of resources. So, while we try to make sure these approaches are integrated within country frameworks, we also work with regional agencies and banks, including the World Bank, to make sure these countries get the necessary support.

I would say [OHRLLS] supports capacity [building] and resource [mobilization] for these countries, and we also try to make sure that they have strong, robust international support to move forward. I would also say that we try to ensure that issues that are very important to them are part of the global discourse and processes. For example, we try to ensure how they can be a part of the effective implementation of the Millennium Development Goals process and the processes surrounding Rio +20 follow-up.

USG Acharya addresses a High-level event on raising the visability towards the 2014 Third International Conference on small Island Developing States. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Ultimately, we try to make sure that by enlarging the scope of collaboration and partnership with the international community, these countries will be able to deal with all the challenges and vulnerabilities they face. Take climate change, for example, these countries are among the most affected but contributed to it the least. They can’t mitigate or adapt to the impacts of [this phenomenon]. They are negatively affected by sea-level rise, melting glaciers and increasing temperatures. So we try to see that these countries get the necessary help.

UN News Centre: I assume that most of these categories of countries have different priorities. For instance, with landlocked developing countries, I imagine there is a political process to ensure access to ports and expand transportation. Could you tell us a little about that?

Mr. Acharya: That’s a very important question. There are 31 landlocked developing countries and the average distance from relevant seaports is about 1,500 kilometres. Kazakhstan, for example, is some 3,000 kilometres from the sea, which means that the cost of doing business there and in other countries in similar situations is enormous.

My Office carried out a study on this ahead of a major international conference [this year] on the landlocked developing countries, and we [saw] that doing business while dealing with huge transportation fees and inadequate infrastructure seriously impacts economic development and growth. Adequate infrastructure is important, especially since the transit countries for many landlocked nations are also part of the developing world and may not have the resources or policy competence to ensure the smooth transport of goods through their territories.

So there is a need to ensure that they work smoothly together on infrastructure issues as well as transit policy matters. At the same time, development partners should help these countries find ways to reduce costs, modernize operations, streamline documentation and increase overall efficiency. A recent study has shown that with better access to the sea and more free flowing goods and services, these countries could possibly boost their gross domestic product (GDP) by 15 to 20 per cent, which would really help them deal with challenges such as poverty eradication.

As for the least developed countries, we are very happy that globally, poverty levels have decreased in line with the MDGs. But when you look closely at them with a disaggregated analysis, it becomes clear that 47 per cent of people in those countries are still living below the poverty line. The same is true of global targets for maternal mortality. These countries have come quite far, but they still have a long way to go.

UN News Centre: What is the reason for these huge disparities, particularly regarding poverty eradication?

Mr. Acharya: Well, it mainly has to do with the capacities of the countries to tackle challenges in key areas like health care, education, and water and sanitation. They also still have very large numbers of poor people. Poverty pervades the countries at every level. So while it is important for a strong national-level role, we are asking that [the international community] look at how to help them reduce poverty and increase economic activity at the national level.

My Office is trying to raise awareness – in the countries themselves and with development partners – about the need for, among other things, economic growth, investment in infrastructure, energy and modernization of agriculture sectors and markets. Only then can these countries generate enough resources to sustain their [national] efforts to, for example, improve health care and education.

At the same time, the international environment must be favourable to support them. Trade expansion are key– markets must be opened, buyers from the developed world must be linked with sellers in the least developed countries, and tariffs must be lowered for products originating in these countries.

As we look ahead to the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, these are the issues we are trying to raise. Part of the work of my Office is advocacy for the interests, concerns and ambitions of these countries. As I said, if one of the ambitious goals going forward is the eradication of poverty, this cannot be achieved without enhancing capacities and improving the livelihoods in these countries because right now, this is where the largest concentration of poverty is. These countries are home to the “ultra-poor” and the international community has to come forward with dedicated and focused programmes for the least developed countries.

UN News Centre: Would you like to see specific goals dedicated to helping the countries under the purview of your Office included in the post-2015 framework?

Mr. Acharya: I would say that the goals will have to be universal, but that the targets and monitoring mechanisms will have to be attuned to the requirements of these countries. For example, if there are targets set for water or energy, there will be a need to ensure that the concerns of these countries are integrated into those processes. Indicators must be tailored to take their challenges into account. The sustainable development agenda must be for all, with an overarching goal of eradicating poverty, but dedicated programmes and ideas must address their concerns.

We are preparing for the [Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States] and those countries are appealing for strong support mechanisms. Some of their immediate challenges are not of their own making. Indeed, the actions of others are affecting the livelihoods, of, for example, small fishing families, that are trying to cope with polluted ecosystems, and other problems like recurring natural disasters. These challenges are “investment heavy” and we should therefore make sure that these countries get the support they need.

UN News Centre: Since this is our first time talking with you, can you tell us how you came to be interested in the concerns of these countries?

USG Acharya visits a vegetable cultivation project in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Photo: OHRLLS

Mr. Acharya: I was a member of the diplomatic service in Nepal for a very long time, and Nepal happens to belong to both  the least developed and landlocked categories of countries. And when I was Nepal’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, I was chair of the Group of Least Developed Countries Group for three years, as well as a bureau member of the Group of Landlocked Developing Countries. I have also been a part of the MDG and Rio +20 process at the UN.

Moreover, Nepal is a country that has emerged from conflict, so I have even seen how this can affect development. I was also head of my country’s foreign office and negotiated Nepal’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) way back in 2003. So, development issues have long been a part of my background. And I find it fascinating now that we are looking at development issues in a more inclusive manner so that the concerns of [these categories of countries] can be addressed through the acceleration of MDG and post-2015 processes.

UN News Centre: What are some of the ways the international community can improve on the MDG process going forward?

Mr. Acharya: Well, with the mixed results being reported on achieving the Millennium Development Goals, there will be unfinished business in 2015 in these countries, even if they continue to make progress between now and 2015. So, looking beyond 2015, some of the core targets of the MDG agenda, such as poverty alleviation, maternal mortality, child mortality and others, must be taken forward.

Also, what we saw [over the past 15 years] is that the MDGs had a very strong focus on human and social development. This remains critical for all countries. But what we now see is that there needs to be an equally strong emphasis on things like economic growth, infrastructure, access to energy, job creation and environmental sustainability, in order to enhance development for all.

What we are really looking forward to in the post-2015 framework are three pillars: human and social development; economic development and growth; and environmental sustainability. These must be addressed in an integrated manner but with a view towards addressing the particular challenges of these countries. This will be one of the major priorities for my Office. While the Member States will agree on the way forward beyond 2015, it is our responsibility to make sure that they have all the options and analysis and hear all the voices, so they can take an informed decision about this matter which will impact us all in the years to come.

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