Ms. Shamshad Akhtar, DESA’s new Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development

“We need to eradicate poverty at a faster pace”

Only a week into her new role, DESA’s Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Ms. Shamshad Akhtar, met with DESA News. “With fast changing global events, magnified by recurring crises, the UN has a unique role to play in nurturing stronger multilateral framework, based on cooperation, innovative solutions and solidarity to safeguard our planet,” she said.

Shamshad Akhtar was appointed by the UN Secretary-General as Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and she took office on 9 July. Ms. Akhtar has previously served as Governor of the Central Bank of Pakistan, Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa Region of the World Bank and she has also held prominent positions within the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

When meeting in her office, Ms. Akhtar shared her initial thoughts on this new assignment, highlighting what great opportunities lay within the UN framework and also underscoring the role of the UN Secretariat, which can cultivate, facilitate and nurture stronger ownership of the strategic development agenda at the inter-governmental platform. Being associated with the development business and looking at the growing empirical evidence, she is convinced that “upfront ownership and cross fertilization of good practices is critical for countries to achieve ground results.”

When asked how she viewed the UN job when approached, Ms. Akhtar said that “the emerging debates on global sustainability led by the UN and the Secretary-General’s vision in this context, along with the futuristic agenda to modernize the UN, offers a good opportunity for those engaged in the development business.”

Experiences gained from crisis mitigation and prevention

Ms. Akhtar brings vast experience to DESA. At the World Bank, she spearheaded its response to the Arab Spring and prior, she was engaged in the Asian financial crisis on behalf of the Multilateral Development Banks. Talking about some of the most important lessons learned, she highlighted the critical importance of “governance”, whose failure was at the heart of both the political and economic crises in these regions.

When faced with such unprecedented crisis, the first order of priority of the affected countries and international community is to focus on crisis mitigation. But as we learn from one crisis after the other, the preferred approach is to build defense mechanisms for crisis prevention. Ms. Akhtar elaborated that “economic history is full of recurring crisis, albeit of different dimensions and nature, and learning from these episodes is critical to develop better strategies for crisis mitigation and prevention, as economic losses and human aggravation is substantive.”

Underlying most crises, she pointed out, is the failure of governance, be it political, economic, social or legal/regulatory. Responding to a question, she also outlined the difference between recent events in the Arab world, where the underlying issue triggering a struggle for political change, was the lack of fundamental rights and respect for citizens. In this part of the world, based on public sector driven social contract, citizens were denied access to information, rights and basic services despite the hydrocarbon wealth in the region.

The Asian financial crisis on the other hand, occurred due to a failure of regulatory and supervisory governance which allowed special interests to overexpose the financial institutions. Ms. Akhtar explained that these events have brought about a new awakening among economists and development thinkers. “The significance of getting the governance frameworks right and strengthened would go a long way as the crises have a huge financial, economic and human cost.”

Opportunities and challenges ahead

When discussing opportunities and challenges ahead, Ms. Akhtar also stressed the need to see how the department is positioned to deliver the medium term strategy outlined by the Secretary-General. “The key thing for us is to take stock as to whether we are well positioned to deliver that mandate,” she said. “DESA’s leadership and team can be proud of playing a critical role for UN’s success in steering the Rio summit. It has been a complex process but more challenges will emerge as we delve into the nuts and bolts of the broad development agenda at hand. For DESA it is an opportunity to illustrate its capabilities and capacities further to support the post 2015 agenda.”

Ms. Akhtar highlighted the benefits of strategizing to become more results-oriented and creating synergies among UN agencies with staff of different backgrounds and expertise, coordinating and collaborating. “DESA has a very important role to play in this post 2015 agenda. Not only by contributing in the thinking process, intellectually, but also making sure we are nurturing partnership with various players or developing institutional arrangements to coordinate this work.”

Potentials for new financing and green growth

In light of DESA just releasing the World Economic and Social Survey, presenting innovative ideas to raise new funds for development, Ms. Akhtar shared some of her views on this topic. “There has been a range of innovation in financing for development, but it is important to recognize that a large proportion of people and businesses are outside the ambit of the financial system. In addition, the climate change agenda requires not only extensive financing but also that the costs of innovations are shared,” she said.

Ms. Akhtar also discussed the benefits seen globally of extending the coverage of microfinance. She mentioned that there are some interesting innovations under way such as public-private partnerships in raising debt and equity for financing micro-businesses, tapping guarantee mechanisms to leverage funding, as well as the use of technology and risk management frameworks to reach out to clients. Experiments are yielding good results as large proportions of clients are women. Ms. Akhtar also highlighted the instrumental role of SMEs in promoting employment. “We need to be more proactive in reaching out and deepening and broadening the access to small and medium enterprise financing,” she said, adding that “only very small formal credits go to these businesses.”

She also addressed another dimension of financing, connected with the climate change agenda. “I can not but underscore the significance of mobilizing sustainable financing for developing countries, or for that matter developed countries, and innovative approaches to financing a green growth agenda,” she said. “I say this, because some of these propositions are very expensive and its affordability out of range given the fiscal situation across a number of countries. If we were to promote solar technology, which is very important in promoting green growth, it is very critical for us to look at more innovative mechanism of financing in this area.”

Biggest award is seeing results

Ms. Akhtar has won two consecutive awards as Asia’s Best Central Bank Governor from Emerging Markets and the Banker’s Trust and she has been named one of the top ten professional women of Asia by the Asian Wall Street Journal. Although it brings satisfaction to be recognized professionally, Ms. Akhtar confessed that the most important thing is seeing the ground results of your efforts.

“To me, the biggest reward is when you see people getting micro finance. I am very fortunate that I travel to see the villages. I sat with communities and with practitioners and policymakers and I have seen the benefits of the work that we did and its advantages and benefits to the poor people and to the economic system.”

Concluding our interview, Ms. Akhtar shared her hopes for the uplift of the world community, “I think it is a very exciting period for all of us who are engaged in the development business. Our task is to focus on economic, social and environmental sustainability with the objective of reducing poverty, alleviating stress on the basic services and making sure people are fed properly. We cannot achieve these goals unless we equip countries to manage and implement development programs at high governance standards and ensuring programs that benefit people.”

For more information:
Bio of Ms. Shamshad Akhtar