Interview with Universal Postal Union Director-General Bishar Hussein

Universal Postal Union Director-General Bishar Hussein. Photo: UPU

15 April 2013 – Established in 1874, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) is the second oldest agency of the United Nations. It became a specialised agency of the United Nations on 1 July 1948. As such, the UPU contributes to the development of UN policies and activities that have a direct link with its mandate and missions to promote social and economic development.

The UPU is one of the smallest organisations in the UN system with an annual budget of around 40 million US dollars. Its secretariat, the International Bureau, based in Berne, employs some 220 employees from all over the world to oversee the work of the Union in a wide range of areas. These include measures that range from helping member countries improve their quality of postal services to developing postal e-services and managing relationships with international customs, airlines and standardisation bodies to speed up the dispatch, processing and delivery of global postal services.

The current Director-General of the UPU, Bishar A. Hussein, was appointed at the 25th Universal Postal Congress in October 2012, and he took office in January 2013. In an interview with the UN News Centre, M. Hussein talks about the future of postal services.

UN News Centre: In light of the increasing use of electronic mail, what is the future of traditional postal services?

Bishar Hussein: First of all we have to define what we call “traditional postal services”. These include much more than the letter, parcels, packages and other postal items. When we talk of postal servicesThe future of postal services is bright, contrary to what some people may think. In 2011, the postal services in the world processed 368 billion letters, and close to 6.4 billion parcels. they are all inclusive.

The future of postal services is quite bright, contrary to what some people may think. In 2011, the postal services in the world processed 368 billion letters, and close to 6.4 billion parcels across a very wide network of 660.000 post offices with nearly five million employees. This is the extent of our network and our services. This is not a business that is going to go away anytime soon. However, we recognise that there has been some decline in the physical mail sector worldwide, which can be linked to some extent to the electronic substitution.

We have seen substantial growth in the parcel business which can be linked to the development of e-commerce. We had also had significant growth in the postal financial services and to sum it up, advances in telecommunication technology has always had an impact on the traditional postal business, however the post has always had the ability to adapt to any new changes in the sector and come up with new innovating products and services. I am confident that the World’s post will definitely be able to adapt to the current challenges and that traditional postal services will continue to grow and thrive in the future.

UN News Centre: What are your priorities as the new Director-General of the UPU?

Bishar Hussein at the Universal Postal Union Congress in Doha in October 2012. Photo: UPU

Bishar Hussein: My priorities are many, but to narrow down to a few, the first and most important responsibility I have here is to ensure the implementation or the fulfilment of the dispositions or the mandate defined by the Universal Postal Union Congress. The Congress is the supreme body of the Union that gathers Member countries and takes decisions every four years. The Congress defines clear mandate and comes up with a roadmap in the area of the improvement of the quality of postal services among the UPU member countries. This includes developing the international postal network and to expand the range of postal financial services and financial inclusion to the underserved populations throughout the world, among other things. That is one of my first priorities.

We also have relations with many other UN agencies and international organisations across the world with whom we have forged strong working relations particularly in the area of reducing customs barriers and improving efficient mail conveyance across international borders, assuring the security of mail transportation as well as improving the financial inclusion programmes for people who are not able to access other banking services. Last but not least my responsibility to ensure the efficient management and prudent use of the UPU resources and finances which are at our disposal.

UN News Centre: Could you name an example of the work the UPU does in collaboration with another international organisation?

Bishar Hussein: We work with the World Customs Organisation that plays a very important role in checking and examining all the packets and parcels that goes from one country to another. If we don’t work closely with them, it could become an impediment for the quality of the service we provide. We have a common Contact Committee to ensure that mail flows seamlessly from one country to the other.

Delegates congratulate Bishar Hussein after his election as Director-General of the UPU in October 2012. Photo: UPU

We also work with UNEP on environmental issues, UNAIDS on the dissemination HIV prevention awareness and many other UN Agencies.

UN News Centre: What is the added value of postal services to other money transfer services and what is the place of postal services in the international banking sector if any?

Bishar Hussein: The UPU and postal services in the Member States have a very long experience in the provision of international postal payment services since the end of the 19th century. We are not new in the business of financial services. Over the centuries, we have developed a vast network which brings our services close to the people in remote parts of the world. The postal organisations worldwide provide very fast, secure, reliable and affordable financial services. I must also say that postal organisations are modernising their networks, moving towards the provision of electronic money transfers, moving away from the paper-based transfers.

Many are realising substantial growth in their money transfer services and some are even moving towards establishing fully-fledged postal banking services in their networks.

The place of postal financial services in the international banking sector is growing in significance. The UPU is helping National Posts to strengthen their own electronic money order services because they are more affordable and accessible to customers, especially migrant workers, given the proximity of post offices everywhere. This has brought down the cost of money transfers in some African countries, which is an objective of the UPU as part of the greater goal to enable poor people to send money to their families without having to pay a hefty commission.

Postal worker sorting mail in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: UPU/Emre Oktay

UN News Centre: Does the UPU have one global objective or is it different from one region to another?

Bishar Hussein: The UPU is an intergovernmental organisation, and as such it has one global mission which is to stimulate the lasting development of efficient and accessible universal postal services. Every four years, the plenipotentiaries of governments meet and develop a “Global Postal Strategy”, generically called the world postal strategy. This is a roadmap which really defines the priorities. After looking at the environment and the challenges, they come up with clear programmes with objectives and budgets to be followed by member countries. This strategy takes into account the regional diversities and priorities.

The current world strategy is called “Doha Postal Strategy”; it was adopted by the UPU Congress in Doha (Qatar) in October 2012. This is a roadmap for the improvement of the international postal network to have common standards, regulations and rules, so that when you send a mail from one country, it goes seamlessly to another. The second aspect is the provision of technical expertise to the postal services of the world to make them able to provide the needed services. The third goal of the strategy is to promote the development of innovative products and services related to the sector. The final goal is to foster sustainable development within the postal sector in the member countries.

We do have a global strategy, but it is implemented in a way which is adapted to each region and at an individual country level. The Doha Strategy will be in effect until 2016, however, in the process, the groundwork will be laid for the next global strategy which will be adopted at the 2016 Congress in Istanbul in Turkey. 

UN News Centre: What is the UPU’s main role in achieving the objectives of the UN in the years to come in terms of sustainable development?

A Post Office in Russia. Photo: UPU

Bishar Hussein: UPU is not an isolated player and we work very closely with other UN bodies and International organisations and Member States to address common goals and objectives of the UN. In the field of sustainable development, which is a very wide topic, which covers a wide scope of issues, from humanitarian work to poverty reduction, financial inclusion, the fight against AIDS and climate change. Really, the list is very long. In all of these areas, the post office, because of its extent and reach, because it is close to the communities, plays a major role. For example, the UPU has always used to its advantage the vast network to advance financial inclusion, initiatives for the poor and the most excluded populations of the world. People, like migrant workers all over the world can now use very fast and efficient financial services provided by the post.

There are cases where small businesses cannot access the market, and the post office helps them market their products and also convey the money back to them. That is helping in reducing poverty.

We also have many initiatives in the fight against climate change. One example is the carbon footprint of the postal services. We are aware of it and we carry out an assessment and inventory and give recommendations on how we can reduce our impact on the environment and we share the best practices in our network.

Of course, we also have other initiatives such as encouraging governments to advance the development of national initiatives which will help provide essential government services in the member countries.

The UPU stand at the Post-Expo 2011, a major trade show held in a European city every year to promote new technologies and other postal products and services provided by the organization. Photo: UPU/Wolfram Scheible

We have numerous projects to promote social and economic welfare; we are at the forefront in the provision of essential government services through our network. The post disseminates many awareness campaigns, such as the fight against HIV, support for the International Labour Organisation’s “decent work programme”, which promotes gender equality, health security and trainings in the workplace. In all the fields, the postal office has always played a role.

Over the years postal services have always played an important role in health and social causes, such as helping promote health issues by issuing stamps to raise awareness of an issue, or hold HIV-prevention campaigns or promote HIV-workplace policies.

UN News Centre: Will the State of Palestine be able to join the UPU after it was granted status as “Non-member State” by the UN General Assembly?

Bishar Hussein: We have not received any official request from Palestine to date. Palestine has been an official observer at the UPU since 1999. The core principle of the UPU is the recognition of the fact that communication is considered as a fundamental human right, therefore we do not discriminate people, regardless of where they live. Many initiatives have been launched by the UPU to facilitate the exchange of mail from Palestine to the rest of the world, as we would for every country. However, the question of accession to membership is a different story. The fact that Palestine has been given a new status at the UN does not automatically give the status in the UPU. If they wish to join, they will have to formally apply and the UPU will go through its internal procedures to deal with new admissions and that will be done through a wide consultation of the member countries.

If Palestine were to make this formal request, the UPU International Bureau would launch a consultation process among all the member countries, not the bodies of the Union.