Understanding the UNDP
Silent, yet influential development partner
Louise Chamberlain is the departing resident representative for United Nation Development Program (UNDP) in Ethiopia, a position she has held since August 2018. Since July 2017, she served as UNDP Ethiopia Country Director. She has witnessed a lot going on in the country during her time in Addis Ababa and she believes the current reforms in Ethiopia are “mind boggling” and “impressive”. As her time in Addis comes to its end, Chamberlain sat down with Brook Abdu of The Reporter to discuss development and reform challenges of Ethiopia: achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to privatization of state-owned enterprises and many others. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Let us start by discussing the transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Ethiopia achieved some of the goals while missing few of the eight MDGs set in 2000. How did this affect the transition Ethiopia made from MDGs to SDGs?
Louise Chamberlain: So, maybe we will start by recognizing the fantastic progress that Ethiopia has made in achieving the MDGs. Mainly, the MDGs were about halving poverty, which Ethiopia has achieved as a result of strong economic and social progress. This was made possible due to a deliberate investment by the government by mainstreaming the MDG goals into the national planning framework and by dedicating resources. So, Ethiopia achieved six out of the eight MDGs. The two goals that weren’t achieved were gender equality and maternal mortality. And the thing to keep in mind is that the SDGs framework is quite different from that of the MDGs; mainly because in the case of the SDGs, countries of the world came together and decided, the tremendous progress notwithstanding, frankly, it is not enough. We should eradicate poverty; meaning that we are no longer halving poverty but we actually are going to completely end poverty for everyone everywhere. So, the universality of the SDG framework is very important as well as it’s extremely high ambition. To start with, the SDGs are perhaps harder to accomplish with a very firm timeframe which is 2030. But early indications actually show that for most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the poverty will not be eradicated by 2030. It is a little bit different across countries. Now, I think Ethiopia will also make headway in terms of accomplishing the SDGs, but we are now talking about 17 goals and it is an integrated framework. And there is much more recognition of how one goal affects another. For example, if you want to have sustainable production and consumption that impacts life on land; or if you want a stronger industrialization, the availability of energy which is goal 7 is quite critical. So, now there is much clearer recognition of how the different goals support one another and that means that governments can plan in a much more integrated way in terms of identifying the synergies; by investing in one goal, you can actually have progress on another; but also the tradeoffs – the choices. This allows for much more comprehensive policy discussions on how policies can be aligned towards achieving the SDGs. At the end of the day, although we don’t want to prioritize any one goal, eradicating poverty and eliminating hunger and of course achieving equality across the board, are huge priorities, requiring a lot of investment. So, we have been working from the UN side to help the government undertake a cost-benefit and needs assessment studies; what will it take to achieve SDGs? And the findings from that study we expect will be integrated within the 10-year perspective plan that the government is finalizing this year and that will also lead to the preparation of the growth and transformation plan for the shorter period, next year.
Let us expand on this and see the prospect of SDGs being achieved. How do you evaluate the progress within the past three years? And what will be Ethiopia’s chance of achieving the major goals of the SDGs?
I think, first of all, it is very important that there is a national effort to monitor this progress. We simply don’t know; we won’t have a clear understanding of this unless there is a proper measurement, monitoring and reporting and verification efforts. So, it is the data that will actually speak to the real truth. What I might see is a perception. But, that said, we are seeing a number of worthwhile initiatives. For example, the vigor with which the government is embarking up on the mainstreaming of the SDGs into planning frameworks is extremely important. That is the beginning and the end of it really. But, then also I think what will be very important is to follow through on a number of reform initiatives that the country has announced in all areas.
You said that two of the eight goals from MDGs were not met. Can we say that there is a lingering effect of these two unachieved goals on the progress towards SDGs?
I think so. And the reason why this is happening is because when we talk about gender equality and the role of women in society, it is keeping in mind that women make up half of the population. So, if we can improve the inclusiveness of the education system, the work sector and in social norms, then women can be active participants in economic and social lives and that will improve their standing and also nation’s development outcomes by and large. We know that when girls finish school, they get married after they have matured; they may have fewer children which also mean a more resilient management of the population growth and also over time an easier balance for the society. So, I think improving societal attitude toward women and helping them to have a strong social standing and perhaps changing some of the traditional practices will be a really important development agenda. So, that is a clear link between MDGs and SDGs.
SDGs are being challenged by financing issues; and there is a growing debate whether developing countries should look for financing options domestically. Do you think that this is feasible for developing countries like Ethiopia? And isn’t this an indication of the developing world trying to shed away its responsibility of investing its fair share in the global challenge?
First of all, we have to open up to the reality that Official Development Assistance (ODA) may be a globally diminishing feature; there simply is not enough aid to go around these days. It is not where it was a couple of decades ago. But, it is also like our household finances – yours or mine. It is about how wisely we spend our money that also determines our well-being. And there is a lot that countries can do by looking at how revenue is generated and from which sources domestically so as to improve their revenue generating schemes. This includes better implementation of taxation policies, for example. Another aspect is also in the expenditure. As I mentioned earlier, you can invest in actions that are more synergistic and therefore get more bang for the buck, if you will. Another possibility is simply to review one’s spending. Often, we can learn a lot from looking at how funds are spent today and seeing if this can be done with better efficiency, for example, so you can spend the same amount and get more results. So, it is not a zero-sum game. Firstly, the setting of targets is very important action because it is the target investment in a certain direction that means a lot in terms of achieving the SDGs; that has considerable impact. And, of course, by looking at how to expand the fiscal space.
Let us come to UNDP’s development interventions in Ethiopia and one of these interventions includes the creation of young women entrepreneurs. This engagement is sometimes criticized not to have created a real change on the ground. Trainees graduate as entrepreneurs after which they disappear. What is your reflection on this? Can you say that your engagements are bringing quantifiable changes on the ground?
Entrepreneurship is a risky endeavor. When you start your own business, it doesn’t always succeed. But, that said, the data actually speaks of a different story because of what we have found out with regard to those who have been trained through our entrepreneurship development centers that the government and UNDP are supporting jointly. Each of the graduates employs on average four and five other individuals and it is actually a very strong track record in terms of job creation. Now, as we see, some businesses over time succeed and others fail. But, to be able to employed people for any amount of time should count for something. We would like to do more tracking to find out better what actually happens to people who have ben trained. But, the stimulation of entrepreneurship is a very important investment since it nurtures companies for the future. If you run a business, maybe you end one business and you take up another. So, entrepreneurs actually had a lot of value in society and they generate the knowledge of how to actually create work. It is an important complement to, let’s say, industrial development and employment and so on.
This criticism actually has some basis in when we look at what is referred to as the missing middle. Small enterprises are seen getting stuck in the middle. Don’t you think that this indicates some of your interventions are not working?
So, you are pointing out an important issue that is, which/what are the conditions that need to be in place in order for businesses to succeed? And I think one important aspect especially for growing companies is the availability of finance. So, if you are running a midsize business and you want to grow, can you go to the bank and actually access borrowing? That is not a given in Ethiopia today. So, there are challenges in this area. And I think that is a policy issue that has to be looked at.
I think this is a critical time in the Ethiopian history one way or another. But, nothing has been smooth and there are around three million internally displaced persons in country. How does this affect the country’s efforts to grow and what can you say about it? How is this affecting UNDPs interventions?
In fact, you are pointing an issue that has tremendous impact on the country’s ability to achieve the SDGs. One of the things that we need to consider when working towards the SDGs is the ability to prevent fall back. Actually, that is an erosion of the development gains that have already been recorded. And so, we do see that many people in Ethiopia are vulnerable either as a result of conflict in their immediate neighborhood or in response to climate change, which has actually led to severe, more extreme and more frequent weather events with droughts and floods resulting and therefore impacting people; in the case of pastoralists, of course, [it affects] the availability of grazing land for their animals or for those who are farming predictability of crop yields and predictability of resources for farming. So, people are living under very challenging circumstances and that i’s why so many people are dependent on humanitarian assistance. That’s something, of course, the UN system is working very hard to change together with the government, which has a huge responsibility and is actually very importantly putting forward action plans and guidelines that are very relevant at this stage. But, the burden and the challenges are enormous and this is not an easy task. Of course, I would say that creating the conditions for stability in the country is very important and I think people at large have a very important responsibility for showing each other mutual respect and one is worried about the escalation of conflict that has ethnic signs of parameters. And it is very important, I think, everyone is contributing to a peaceful development for Ethiopia. After all, Ethiopians of different ethnicity and different religion, they have a lot in common. By finding ways to achieve peaceful coexistence, by respecting one another, showing each other love and consideration and living side by side, even though we are different, that can have a huge impact on the ability of the country to bring peace. So, it’s not just the government’s job. It’s also the job of everyone, young and old and so on. So, stronger mechanisms for reconciliation, which also means that justice is respected, that those who have broken the laws are actually held to account for that is a very important element of achieving reconciliation and forgiveness by those who have been hurt and affected.
It has been a year since the reform started in Ethiopia. How do you understand the reform?
First of all, the reform is mind boggling; it is very impressive actually to watch Ethiopia undergo these changes at this particular time. It has been a privilege actually to work in Ethiopia as a development partner during this time and to be part of the tremendous energy that is flowing through the system. Of course, the Prime Minister and many people working around him as well as the political competitors are engaging towards Ethiopia’s development. It is been very encouraging, I would say, to witness. There are two strands of the reform: one is on the economic side with the clear steer and push for regional economic integration, which I think has a lot of opportunity over time including some immediate economic reforms such as the drive for privatization and strengthening the quality and integrity of public enterprise and state-owned sector. And the second main strand is the political or democratic reforms, which are also progressing very well and which will be very important for Ethiopia’s future. Democratization is not an easy prospect. It takes time to build the proper institutions. There has to be a national discourse and dialogue on some of these issues. It has to be allowed to take time. And then again, there is a need for patience among the political competitors. And, of course, from our side, we hope that this will happen on a very peaceful terms; that there is a peaceful exchange of different views in terms of the development of the concept of ethnic federalism or the future of the constitution and the constitution-based institutions. We are working from the UNDP side to strengthen the capacity of democratic institutions and this is an extremely rewarding time to be doing that. I think many of these institutions have been given new life. There are also several voices in the society arguing that these institutions should also be reformed; on the one hand, implementing the constitutional mandate that these institutions have been given, and on the other hand to be part of the revolution.
But the international community is yet to fully capture what is really going on in the country. This is said to emanate from misinformation the people receive: at times overwhelming and polarized in nature which is difficult to decipher. Do you fully understand the reform process?
I don’t have an overview of how much people understand the state of the reforms. And I must say that I’m not an Amharic speaker, or speaker of any other Ethiopian language. So that of course makes it harder to follow the details of what goes on. But, from the UN system we work very closely with the government and civil society and other national organizations. So, I think we have a pretty good ear to the ground in terms of what is going on and what the national drive is. Moreover, the way we work is to promote national ownership and leadership. We don’t necessarily prejudge or have a particular opinion. We are neutral and impartial agent at country level. So, our job is to help create platforms where these discussions can take place. It’s not to judge or have a particular view. That’s not our role.
What do you think are the challenges of the reform process in the country?
Well, one is the sheer size, the complexity of it and to be able to sequence these issues. It is very clear for me that the government has developed an action agenda, there is a clear “The New Horizon of Hope” framework that has been developed by the Prime Minister’s office and very clear targets setting for the first two years of the government. Of course, there are also other development planning frameworks for the implementation of the reforms. And the next GTP III will be a very important one. Then, I think the other challenge is that you need a buy in from all stakeholders and society. Clearly, there are political opponents who are perhaps overtly or covertly opposing the reforms and it is important that there is an opportunity to build consensus. Ethiopia is facing tremendous challenges at this time and not just because of the reforms but because of the socio-economic situation that the country is in. As I mentioned earlier, it is very important for people to work together and support each other’s efforts and that therefore there is more consensus building; more inclusion and more collaboration.
As you mentioned, there are plans to privatize some of state-owned enterprises as part of economic reforms. Do you think it can be achieved smoothly? To what extend do you see it affecting the Ethiopian economy?
Experiences clearly show that the outcome of privatization depends on how you implement it. The privatization of an enterprise, if it is an enterprise providing public service, one key consideration is will that enterprise continue to provide strong, high quality services after the privatization? Another consideration is what happens to the employees; are they well looked after, are their needs and benefits appropriately covered? And the other consideration is what happens to the income that the country generates from the sale. How is that going to be governed and distributed in what is it going to be used for? So, there are some clear governance type issues that need to be carefully looked at I would say; and that is why it is quite encouraging that the government has gone about this by introducing several advisory layers because this is quite complex and it is going to take time. So, we need to be a little bit patient in terms of looking at the outcomes. But also, I think it would be worthwhile that this becomes an inclusive process, for example, to consult the laborers that may be involved in the enterprise. For example, if you are looking at power generation or at the sugar companies and so on. That decision is not just taken at the highest level but that is a reality check to make sure that the results are actually moving in the right direction.
One of UNDP’s strategic pillars is structural transformation and UN agencies are helping the Ethiopian government bring about it. There is a huge investment in the construction of industrial parks with the help of agencies like UNIDO. But, as many of these parks are not fully attracting the required number and quality of investors, questions are arising that the investments lack proper prioritization both from the side of the government and UN agencies. What is your reflection on this?
The industrial park is a massive investment. It is a clearly targeted investment and it is a very ambitious and positive plan to attract industrial enterprises. One reason why this is a good way of approaching the need for industrialization is that, companies are that come as prospective investors in Ethiopia are looking for certain elements in their infrastructure. They are looking for trained labor force, electricity, water supply and facilities that are suitable for their work. And if the government can offer these conditions, then I do expect that with a concerted effort to attract investment over time, these industrial parks will pay dividend. I think it should be seen from a longer-term perspective; the government has taken a strategic step. Let us also face it that Ethiopia has some challenges, not all of the conditions that I mentioned are necessarily in place also and for example, the skill labor force is an issue and so it takes a bit of work to attract investors. So, I don’t expect all this to happen overnight. We should rather look at the progress and what has already been accomplished in terms of attracting investment and how we can learn from that to make it even better on wards. I would say one has to be a little patient, but of course, in some areas there is some fine-tuning that can be done to further improve the outcomes.
Another area of support UNDP offers to the Ethiopian government is talent recruitment. This has been criticized for its lack of transparency. What is the process of recruiting a talent for the government and how much committed is UNDP to ensure transparency regarding this?
Actually, transparency is very much part of our rules and regulations and how we do our business. What typically happens is when our projects are managed and, in most cases, implemented by the government, the government will have the ultimate decision to make; we do agree on what the capacity building needs of the project are and we identify a certain set of skills and capacities that are required. There are a variety of needs and it depends on a particular project. But, once that skills set and qualifications has been identified, then we prepare job description and we advertise that job description in the media, our website and so on; and then people apply. It is a competitive process. So, skills are compared to the requirements of the job description and then there is typically a panel review or another form of competitive process. The transparency is there in terms of the commitment to source applications externally. It is really an objective evaluation against the criteria. I have heard reports of the kind that you mentioned, but I think sometimes there could be a tendency to make assumptions based on partial information that simply is not enough pass judgment. Once we have established the level of qualification that is required, then we don’t settle until we find that level of qualification. So, we basically have the higher standards of integrity, transparency and competitiveness in our procedures. Any exception due to market conditions or particular situation is always very carefully monitored.
Since 2017, that is SG Antonio Guterres’ coming to the helm of UNGA secretariat, the UN is going under a huge reform. To what extent will this affect UN’s interventions and what changes will there be in terms of support for countries like Ethiopia?
It is important to say that the motivation for what the secretary general in his proposal called the repositioning of the UN system goes to the core of UN’s relevance at country level; and also globally. Sometimes, we forget that the UN is an intergovernmental framework and also some of the international norms and standards that we operate by at country level have been agreed up on by member states at this intergovernmental global level. The SDGs are good examples of that. All member states have come and said these are the goals that we want to work towards. So, that is a commitment that the countries make jointly. And also, each country is bound by that. That goes to the importance of the multilateral system that can actually help countries to drive this agenda forward. When it comes to the UN’s role at country level and repositioning, I think there is recognition that the SDG agenda, with all its complexities, really requires a different caliber of the UN system. In particular, it requires that we can integrate our work more. We have health specialists and education specialists or structural transformation specialists, but unless they can combine their knowledge and give concerted advice to the government that is informed by evidence and data, we are not relevant. Not only that but also, we should also be able to help the government to implement the policy recommendations. Doing so, at a time when the pace of development goes faster than ever, the huge developments in terms of technology, there are enormous challenges that countries like Ethiopia are grappling with. So, basically, the UN system is saying to its member states, we have to do better; we have to be more relevant and we have to be more focused. We have to be able to integrate more. That is the core of this agenda. In practical terms, it means that the UNDP is no longer responsible for the coordination of the UN system, this is now implemented directly under the secretary general’s office. It also means that for UNDP, we can refocus on our core development agency role and therefore, for UNDP it’s an opportunity to go deeper and to focus more on accelerating innovation in development.
You have been in Ethiopia for more than two years serving at UNDP Ethiopia; and as you conclude your stay in Addis, What do you say are your successes so far and what would be your advice to your successor?
One thing I feel confident about is mobilizing support for democratic institutions in Ethiopia at large and the Electoral Board in particular, with regard to the anticipated elections next year. The international community feels very strongly about the democratization process in Ethiopia; it is so vital for this nation’s stability and future development and there is a tremendous goodwill to support this. UNDP has experience in providing technical electoral supports in many countries. I think we supported around 60 countriesevery year around the world to hold democratic elections. So, we have a wealth of experience on a technical level which will help us help Ethiopia to make headway in terms of the electoral process. It really means strengthening the technical capacities in the communications and outreach as well as the prevention of election related violence. But, I also want to take an opportunity to mention the work that we are doing with several institutions of the country including the House of the Federation and the Ministry of Peace, among others, on developing a roadmap for peace building and reconciliation – to help the government build those capacities. There are clear leadership vision. It is not easy but, we think that we can help. Last but not least, I want to also mention that, structural transformation and employment creation is one of the defining issues at this time in Ethiopia. So, all of us development partners and certainly the government, we have to be able to create employment for young people. I think this is going to be one of the most important issues to take forward for my successor; I imagine, the creation of jobs.