Volume 17, No.10 - October 2013

Feature articles

“I will draw upon my background in sustainable development”

Right before the opening of the 68th session of General Assembly, its President, John W. Ashe, gave a special interview to DESA News. He points out how his background may help him promote the building of Sustainable Development Goals among Member States. He also explains why he is the first PGA to extensively use social media and online communication.

On 18 September 2013, John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda took the gavel as the President of the 68th session of the General Assembly, the main deliberative, policy-making and representative organ of the United Nations. Comprising all 193 Member States of the Organization, it provides the only forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the UN Charter.

Setting the stage!

Following his election as Assembly President on 14 June, John W. Ashe and his team outlined their priorities for the session under a theme entitled, “The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!”. Under it, he is encouraging Member States and other stakeholders to promote dialogue, reflection and commitment to the formulation of an effective new agenda to overcome poverty and insecurity and ensure sustainable development, to be launched during the 69th session following the 2015 deadline of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Prior to his assumption of the Assembly Presidency, John W. Ashe served simultaneously as his country’s Permanent Representative to both the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, positions he held since 2004. He has served in a leadership capacity on many of the governing bodies of the major UN environmental agreements, including as the first Chairman of the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). He holds a Doctorate in Bioengineering.

3 High-Level events and 3 thematic debates

During his year at the head of the General Assembly, the President will convey three High-level events and three thematic debates. The first High-level Event will discuss the role of Women, Youth and Civil Society in the post-2015 development agenda. The aim is to heighten dialogue and strengthen approaches intended to improve conditions and development prospects for women and youth, who have been further marginalised by the global crises in food, fuel and finance.

“My vision is of a world without poverty, the creation of the first generation of children to be born into a world where none of them will know hunger.”

John W. Ashe, PGA

A second High-level Event will explore the contributions of Human Rights and the Rule of Law in the post-2015 development agenda, particularly looking at the appropriate framework to ensure that human rights, the rule of law, and good governance practices anchor the evolving policy platforms in a manner that empowers people to contribute to sustainable development.

The third High-level Event will look at the contributions of South-South, Triangular Cooperation and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for Development in the post-2015 development agenda. In the past two decades, dramatic global change and national and regional transformations have led to unprecedented and increasingly complex socio-economic and environmental threats, challenges and concerns. Responding to these new threats, as well as existing challenges, will require new forms of collaboration, innovation and partnership, which in turn can maximize the potential for ICT to contribute to reaching our development goals.

Increase spotlight on partnerships

In addition to the High-level Events, three thematic debates will provide an opportunity for in-depth exploration of key issues in the post-2015 development agenda. Partnerships are the eighth and much overlooked MDG, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has placed renewed emphasis on this area. John W. Ashe intends to increase that spotlight by exploring the role of partnership and its contribution to the post-2015 development agenda. Technology and knowledge transfer, financing and innovative means of implementation will be critical parts of the coming debate.

Another thematic debate will examine how to work towards and ensure Stable and Peaceful Societies in the post-2015 development framework, including by creating an enabling environment for development and progress, diminishing external stressors that contribute to conflicts, ensuring accessible institutions of justice, reducing violence, and enhancing the capacity and accountability of good governance mechanisms and practices that benefit peace and sustainable development.

The third thematic debate will focus on the roles of Water, Sanitation and Sustainable Energy in the post-2015 development agenda. With some 1.4 billion people without reliable electricity, 2.5 billion without decent cooking fuels, 900 million lacking access to clean water and 2.6 billion without adequate sanitation, action is urgently needed to address these persistent challenges. Many initiatives in these fields are now underway but there is a need to harness, share and scale up proven technologies and best practices in the areas of integrated water management, sustainable energy and sanitation services as part of any proposed post-2015 development agenda.

“I want to understand what is at stake”

Recently appointed by the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in UN DESA, Thomas Gass, from Switzerland, describes himself as an unconditional supporter of inclusive development and multilateralism. In his video interview, he explains how his experience in development cooperation and as a Member State representative will be an added value to the UN’s work on setting an inclusive sustainable development agenda in the coming years.

“I believe that 2015 is our next big opportunity to place sustainable development, poverty eradication and other important issues center-stage. And I hope that through my work as coordinator and facilitator within DESA, I will be able to play a catalytic role in this process”, said Thomas Gass, during our interview, a few days after his arrival at UN DESA. A week later, he jumped into the High-level segment of the General Assembly, and was impressed by the positive energy that emerged from this gathering.

A sense of global hope

After a G20 summit where the issues related to development were somewhat eclipsed by the Syrian crisis, Thomas Gass was encouraged to see how poverty alleviation and sustainable development were centrally placed in this high-level segment. He was heartened to hear how many Heads of State started their statement by saying how valuable the MDGs were, even representatives from states, which did not rally around the MDGs when they were first formulated. “It will motivate me to look towards those statements of ambition and of vision rather than to the challenges of negotiations that may come.  The GA debate had a sense of global urgency but also interestingly a sense of  hope. Most of the speakers said “we can do it”, underlining the UN’s relevance in the area of poverty alleviation and sustainable development.”

“We all need to sing from the same song-sheet.”

Thomas Gass, ASG of UN DESA

“We all need to sing from the same song-sheet, and the Secretary-General report “A life for dignity for all” is that song-sheet. With the resolution that was approved in terms of the process leading up to 2015, we also have instructions from the governments to move ahead.”

From Kathmandu to New York

Thomas Gass took office on 3 September as one of the two Assistant Secretary-Generals of UN DESA. He brings with him wide-ranging experience in bilateral and multilateral development cooperation. From 2009 to 2013, he served as Head of the Mission of Switzerland to Nepal (Ambassador and Country Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation), where he established the Embassy of Switzerland in Nepal, and ensured the delivery of a development cooperation programme of up to 33 million dollars a year. He also chaired the Donors of the Nepal Peace Trust Fund, the main instrument for international support to Nepal’s peace process.

Before his posting to Nepal from 2004 to 2009, Mr. Gass was Head of the Economic and Development Section at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in New York, where he represented Switzerland’s interests, in particular in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), its subsidiary Commissions, the General Assembly and the Executive Boards of the major UN Funds and Programmes. During this time, Mr Gass was the Chair of the Donor Group of the UN Global Compact.

In 2006, he was the Vice-President for Western European and Other Group (WEOG) of the Commission on Population and Development, and in 2008 he was the Vice-President (WEOG) of the Executive Board of UNDP/UNFPA. In 2007, he successfully facilitated the landmark TCPR/QCPR Resolution, the periodic review of the General Assembly operational system for development.

Mr Gass also served as Policy and Programme Officer for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, as Deputy Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Guyana, and as Regional Director for Europe with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome.

“I want to listen and understand”

When talking about his ideas for the Department, Thomas Gass is prudent:  “I am not a CEO who comes in with a ready-made restructuring proposal. I want to take time to hear all parties, to understand what is at stake, what are the challenges of all our teams before investing my energy to move in one direction or another.”

Inclusive development and multilateralism are key to Mr. Gass. Regarding the upcoming High-level events to be convened by the President of the General Assembly (see article), the new ASG sees them as an opportunity to bring a refreshing perspective on the process leading up to 2015 that will be very structured and systematic. “I hope we will take the opportunity of these events to also bring non-conventional stakeholders to the discussion.” For him, the recent tendency to include civil society in the consultation processes is crucial and reflects an evolution at the country level, both in the North and in the South. Governments know they do not wholly dominate the development of their country. All stakeholders have to share their expertise in order to  build adequate and sustainable infrastructure. The UN needs to remain open and keep listening to the voice of those who will promote this approach at the national level.

The goals, including the MDGs and those coming from the Rio+20 process, cannot be achieved without the support of all stakeholders, including the private sector. “To succeed, stakeholders have to find a seat at the table in order to develop an ownership of the objectives and the processes”, explains Mr. Gass.

Negotiator and passionate

As the Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, Mr. Gass would like to keep in touch with substantive issues: “I have a substantive background in management and utilisation of genetic resources for agriculture. I know a lot about the importance of agriculture research to secure food and income for humanity, but I also easily develop passion for many different subjects. I have worked here in the basement of the UN as a negotiator, for example on behalf of the Friends of Mountains, a group of about 45 countries supporting sustainable development in mountain regions. In 2006, as the Vice-President of the Commission on Population and Development, I chaired the negotiation of an extremely interesting resolution on ageing. By learning about the subject, I realized how important and vital it is  for humanity to deal with ageing issues in a very deliberate way.”

“I don’t want to lose touch with the field reality that I experienced in Cameroon, in Guyana, in Nepal, and in the Andean countries.”

“I don’t want to lose touch with the field reality that I experienced in Cameroon, in Guyana, in Nepal, and in the Andean countries, where I monitored and developed projects that made a difference for people who depend on the support of the international community to elevate their livelihood”, he added.

For Thomas Gass, this new position is a culmination of several sets of skills he developed during his career. “I see this position more as the result of investments in my different competencies than as a springboard to get somewhere else.” The new ASG brings a very concrete understanding of the challenges of development cooperation, has a sound knowledge of how states interact with each other and demonstrates flexibility in relation to interoperability of organizations, agencies and partners. “I am looking forward to combining efficiently and effectively these three sets of skills, which I developed during my career, and I hope they will allow me to play a useful and catalytic role in enabling the UN to rise to the challenge ahead.”

Born in 1963, Thomas Gass holds a PhD in natural sciences from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and an MSc and engineering diploma in agricultural sciences from the same Institute. He is married and father of three adult children.

A new era of discussions on migration and development


For the second time in history, the General Assembly will convene a high-level event on 3-4 October, devoted to international migration and development at the United Nations. This meeting provides an opportunity for the international community to review progress since the first High-level Dialogue in 2006 and promote and advance the debate and cooperation in the field of migration and development.

Governments are increasingly recognizing that partnership and cooperation are needed to leverage the benefits and address the challenges of migration. They also realize that migration is relevant to all three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. Thus, this year’s High-level Dialogue, taking place at UN Headquarters on 3-4 October, also provides an opportunity to discuss the inclusion of migration into the post-2015  development agenda.

International migration continues to increase in scope, complexity and impact. With 232 million international migrants worldwide, as new estimates from the Population Division reveal (see Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2013 Revision under publications), more people are living outside their country of birth than ever before. The demographic transition, economic growth coupled with a globalization of labour markets, the recent financial crisis and the plight of migrants stranded in dire environmental and humanitarian situations is reshaping the face of migration. At the heart of this phenomenon are people, some looking for decent work and a better and safer life for themselves and their families, others migrating to escape poverty, violence, conflict and the effects of environmental change.

With 232 million international migrants worldwide, more people are living outside their country of birth than ever before.

In 2006, the General Assembly convened the first High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development. The meeting placed migration firmly on the United Nations agenda bringing together about 160 high-level Member State representatives in addition to representatives of civil society, international organizations and the private sector. Earlier that year, the Secretary-General had appointed Mr. Peter Sutherland as his Special Representative for Migration. Also, the Global Migration Group (GMG) was formed consisting of 15 United Nations entities and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The group is the main interagency coordination mechanisms on migration. It meets regularly at the working-level, has organized technical meetings and issued joint publications and statements. The group was chaired by UNDESA in 2007 and is currently chaired by the IOM.

Following the 2006 High-level Dialogue, the State-led, voluntary Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) was formed providing a platform for informal, non-binding dialogue among governments and between governments and other partners, such as civil society, the private sector and international organizations. Since 2007, the Global Forum has taken place annually, alternating between developed and developing countries as its chair. Currently, the Government of Sweden is chairing the GFMD.

Enhancing the benefits of international migration for migrants

In response to this progress in dialogue, cooperation and trust-building, Member States decided to hold another dialogue in 2013 and opted on an action-oriented agenda for this meeting: “Identifying concrete measure to strengthen coherence and cooperation at all levels, with a view to enhancing the benefits of international migration for migrants and countries alike and its important links to development, while reducing its negative implications” (A/RES/67/219, OP3a).

Following this theme, the 2013 High-level Dialogue will consist of four plenary meetings and four interactive round tables, addressing:

  1. migration and the post-2015 United Nations development agenda;
  2. human rights of migrants;
  3. partnerships and cooperation in migration, and
  4. labour migration.

Member States will act as co-chairs of the round tables, with each consisting of a panel discussion featuring high-level representatives of Member States, international organizations and civil society.

The President of the General Assembly, the Secretary-General, the President of ECOSOC, (Professor Ian Goldin, Director, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford) and a migrant voice (Mr. Gibril Faal, Chairman, African Foundation for Development (AFFORD)) will make opening remarks in the plenary. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Migration will also address the plenary.

DESA’s Population Division is assisting the Office of the President of the General Assembly in its organizational and substantive preparations for this event. In addition, Mr. Hongbu Wu, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, will participate as a panellist in round table 3, focusing on partnerships and cooperation in migration.

“The High-level Dialogue is an opportunity to promote concrete actions to improve the lives of migrants.”

John Wilmoth, Dir. Population Division, DESA

A roadmap for the activities

The Secretary-General, in his report to Member States for the High-level Dialogue (see Report of the Secretary-General on International Migration and Development under related links hereunder), proposed an eight-point agenda for action:

  1. Protect the human rights of all migrants;
  2. Reduce the costs of labour migration;
  3. Eliminate migrant exploitation, including human trafficking;
  4. Address the plight of stranded migrants;
  5. Improve public perceptions of migrants;
  6. Integrate migration in the development agenda;
  7. Strengthen the migration evidence base; and
  8. Enhance migration partnerships and cooperation.

The 8-point agenda provides a “roadmap” for the activities of Member States, the United Nations system, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), civil society and other key stakeholders in the follow-up to the 2013 High-level Dialogue.

Mr. John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division, expressed his hopes for the High-level Dialogue on the occasion of the Population Division’s launch of new global migrant stock estimates last week by saying: “The High-level Dialogue presents an opportunity for Member States, civil society and the international community to advance the debate on international migration and development, and to promote concrete actions to improve the lives of migrants and to enhance the benefits of migration for countries of origin and destination.”

Overall, the Division is hopeful that the 2013 High-level Dialogue will mark the beginning of a new era of dialogue, cooperation and partnerships on migration and development coupled with concrete policy recommendations and follow-up actions.