‘Business as Usual’ Not Enough to Maintain Traction in Development Effort during Financial Crisis, Say UN Officials in Round Table Discussion

26 June 2009

‘Business as Usual’ Not Enough to Maintain Traction in Development Effort during Financial Crisis, Say UN Officials in Round Table Discussion

26 June 2009
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Conference on World Financial

and Economic Crisis

Round Table IV (AM)



Asking the donor community to keep funds flowing, top officials from United Nations agencies, speaking at a round table discussion this morning on the Organization’s development response to the crisis, warned that business as usual would not be enough to maintain traction on development.

Gathered at a round table on the final day of the Conference on the world financial crisis, they suggested that hard data would become increasingly important in coming years to better target United Nations programmes towards recipients, as social safety nets were in danger of disappearing in many nations as a result of the world financial and economic crisis.

Hilde F. Johnson, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), one of five panellists offering an overview of contributions of the United Nations development system in response to the crisis, told participants “we need to know more”, and that it was time to improve a policy response that, so far, had been based on past experience, anecdotal evidence or fragmented information.

Speaking alongside Ms. Johnson were Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund; Manuel Aranda da Silva, Deputy Executive Director a.i. of the World Food Programme (WFP); and Pedro Páez, former Minister for Economic Coordination of Ecuador, and member of the Commission of Experts of the President of the General Assembly.

Ralph E. Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, chaired the meeting jointly with Dipu Moni, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh.

Opening the discussion, Prime Minister Gonsalves said the development function of the United Nations fell mainly to its Economic and Social Council.  Over the years, a number of funds, programmes and agencies were established through intergovernmental agreements to enhance its capacity, thus fulfilling the United Nations mandate to solve “international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character” and to become “a centre for harmonizing action of nations”.

In time, many of those organs had expanded and began operating like independent principalities, he said, introducing complexities that required more coordination than before.  In response, world leaders at the 2005 World Summit had proposed that the United Nations, and its Economic and Social Council, be strengthened. 

Beginning in 2006, the General Assembly resolved to enhance system-wide coherence, an effort that Mr. Gonsalves said was still in the experimental stage and limited to the United Nations.  “There is need to speed up implementation and extend coverage,” he said.

Reporting on the response by the United Nations development family to the crisis, Miss Clark, head of the United Nations Development Programme, explained that the Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) –- which brought together the executive heads of United Nations funds, agencies and programmes ‑‑ had prepared a joint response to the crisis, under which UNDP and the World Bank would be tasked with developing a response mechanism to the crisis’s human dimension. 

Those organizations had decided also that the response in each country would be driven by local needs, she said.  The UNDP was already helping the Government of Mauritius prepare a stimulus package, among other things.  It was involved in developing an alert system to track the impact of shrinking funds on the most vulnerable people, with a report to be published in September.

She added that UNDP was bringing climate change into the core of its thinking on poverty and development, and was hoping for an outcome in Copenhagen that would place the world on a sustainable path out of poverty.  A new climate change financing mechanism could have a very significant impact on development, she said, suggesting that development could be viewed in new and innovative ways.

Ms. Obaid, head of UNFPA, said a large number of those at risk of being pushed into poverty would be women.  The World Bank had predicted that their impoverishment would lead to an increase in infant and maternal death, a rise in female drop-out rates and more violence against women.  The international community must do something to prevent a “collapse in human development”, and to protect its investments towards the advancement of women and girls’ well-being. Data showed that even a 10 per cent shortfall could result in 1.8 million unsafe abortions and 19,000 maternal deaths.

The UNFPA would continue to advocate for increased investment in health under the leadership of the World Health Organization, she said.  It would work with Governments to ensure that Millennium Development Goal 5 ‑‑ improving maternal health ‑‑ remained an essential component of Government plans and budgets.  The Agency’s total package for sex and reproductive health services amounted to $23 billion in 2009, and was likely to peak at $33.3 billion in 2014. 

She noted that there was a temptation to cut public services in times of crisis.  But, Governments should learn to see that investment in maternal health could advance other international goals, sometimes in unforeseen ways.  For instance, given that around 80 per cent of the crops in Africa were grown by women, and 90 per cent of rice farmers in Asia were women, $6 billion in health services could save women’s lives and increase national productivity.

She said the World Health Organization and UNFPA were also involved in national health planning and budgeting.  “People everywhere are looking to leaders to put people first,” she said, adding that ways must be found to include civil society in the conversation, and within that, the voices of women and girls.

Mr. da Silva, whose focus was hunger, said the cost of the staple food basket was 20 per cent more expensive in the first quarter of 2009 than the 5-year average in three quarters of the countries where those prices were monitored.  A vast majority of people had no food safety net, and in tough times people just don’t eat, he said. 

“Vulnerable households are taking children out of school, reducing expenditures on health and eating less and eating less well,” he explained.  Even a few months of inadequate food and nutrition could condemn a person and a full generation in a country, for life.

Speaking as ad interim deputy chief, he said WFP hoped to expand its programme to newly vulnerable households, through school feeding programmes, mother-and-child health and nutrition programmes, cash transfers and food vouchers, and local food purchases.  But, out of a budget of $6.4 billion for 2009, only $1.5 billion had been received, forcing WFP to prioritize amongst its goals.  “With increased need coming from conflicts, this prioritization is going to become extremely, extremely difficult,” he said, explaining that it would be a painful choice between whether children should die in Sudan, or in Somalia, or Ethiopia.

Ms. Johnson, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, said the poorest countries were already taking a hard hit from the crisis.  For instance, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Government had estimated a drop of 70 per cent in revenue, requiring a complete readjustment to their budget.  It would result in more hunger, more disease, and less education and more child labour ‑‑ and often girls left school first. 

She said acute malnutrition was on the rise in many countries, including Afghanistan and the Central African Republic.  In Bangladesh, children were increasingly being put to work, taken out of school to gather vegetables for resale.  The financial crisis came on top of the food crisis, and now “they should not take a triple hit, with development assistance being cut by rich countries”.

United Nations agencies had discussed a country crisis response mechanism, she said, where the United Nations country teams would occupy the same table as international financial institutions.  She said, now, the various entities would have to agree on who would do what and how.  For its part, UNICEF planned to study 44 pilot programmes that delivered social protection services, with the goal of scaling up 18 of those programmes in response to the crisis. 

So far, she said the Agency had based its policy responses on past experiences, anecdotal evidence or fragmented information.  It was now beginning to use satellite monitoring to bolster its projects.  “We need to know more.” 

A fifth panellist and a member of the Commission of Experts, Mr. Páez warned against those with a “vested interest in lowering the profile of [the Conference],” and harked back to the General Assembly President’s call for the United Nations to unite in the face of crisis.

“Some criticize the United Nations for lack of expertise,” he said, before pointing out that the President of the General Assembly had created a Commission of Experts, which was loosely modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change that brought government and academia together to create an informed response to a complex crisis. 

“We have to set up solutions in terms of strategic changes, not palliatives,” he said, adding that events like this could make a breakthrough possible.  But, he pointed out that without a proper mechanism to follow up on the outcome of the Conference, everything could be diluted and the opportunity to set up conditions for a bright future for humanity “could be lost for a long time”.

Following the comments by panellists, the representatives of Barbados, China, Bangladesh, India, Czech Republic (speaking on behalf of the European Union), Benin, Australia, Indonesia, United States, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Sweden and Japan also made comments.

Many voiced encouragement for the ideas being explored by United Nations entities and asked that they report periodically to Member States on progress.  They also asked those entities to advocate on behalf of Member States to ensure that disbursement mechanisms used by financial institutions were fair, transparent and devoid of strict conditionalities.  The representative of Benin went further, saying there was a “values crisis” and that there was a need to review the principles on which development was based.

The representatives of several developing countries said their countries wanted financing to support their budgets, and, in the words of the representative of Barbados, asked that budget support not be “clogged” with unnecessary conditionalities.  The representative of Bangladesh suggested that United Nations agencies exercise as much flexibility as possible when working with individual Governments, and they not dismiss national programmes outright because of a few details. 

Delegates also asked questions of each other, with representatives of developing countries asking developed nations whether they would be willing to provide aid, when many rich countries were running high budget deficits.  In some countries, the legislature was working to limit the budget deficit to no more than 3 per cent of gross domestic product.  In the course of that discussion, the representative of Sweden announced that her Government would contribute $10 million to UNICEF in support of the crisis.

Officials from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) also spoke.

The representatives of a few civil society organizations also participated, with one speaker saying there was outrage within civil society at attempts to block change and return as quickly as possible to business as usual.  “Even as you work indefatigably on an urgent task, you need support to resist attempts at reform of institutions of governance.”

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.