Opening Remarks by UNDP Administrator at the “Forum on Pathways of Democratic Transitions”

Jun 5, 2011

I begin by thanking the Prime Minister of Egypt, Dr. Essam Sharaf, for being with us at the opening of this UNDP-sponsored “Forum on Pathways of Democratic Transitions”.  The aim of our forum is to exchange ideas and share lessons on what has worked, why, and how, in other transitions; and on what some of the obstacles to smooth transitions are, and how they might be avoided.  

I am pleased to welcome Government ministers and officials from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, and all those who have taken time from their busy schedules to be here from within the region and beyond – distinguished speakers, members of the diplomatic corps, development partners, and participants from civil society organizations–  including those of women and youth, the private sector, and academia.

Last, I send warm greetings to students at universities watching this Forum over the internet.  We have all seen how motivated many students in the region are to support change. I encourage all those watching to participate actively in this Forum by emailing us your comments and queries.

Facilitating the exchange of experiences through this forum is part of UNDP’s ongoing efforts to support Arab States and their peoples in the process of transition. It also reflects our commitment to support South-South cooperation, by helping countries to draw from relevant experiences elsewhere and tackle the root causes of development challenges.

In recent months the world witnessed the courage of those in Egypt and Tunisia who took to the streets, expressing their longing for change and for human dignity, and whose actions led to the downfall of the regimes in their countries. Furthermore, they galvanized many others in the region.  Sadly, many lives have been lost as regimes have faced off against those demanding change.

The full outcome of events unfolding in the region is as yet unknown. Where regimes have fallen, hopes for change have been high, but inevitably –if other transitions are any guide– there will be bumps in the road. Not all aspirations may be realised in the short or even the medium term. Change is a process – it will develop in its own way in each country.  

There can be no doubt that what happens in Egypt and in Tunisia will continue to be observed closely by others.  The same holds true for reforms in other countries in the region.

In transitions in the region, as in transitions elsewhere, there will be debate over:

•    the most appropriate economic models to pursue in the quest to create decent work and reduce inequalities;
•    how best to open up political space and foster citizen participation and engagement;
•    how to foster peace, justice, and reconciliation; and
•    how to move forward on the basis of the rule of law, human rights, and equal opportunities for all.

There will be those who demand rapid change now, and there will be those who call for more gradual adjustments.  That is the nature of political debate.

Nor are there uniform prescriptions; each country’s reform process is unique. It needs to be driven for and by its own people, so that it responds to their needs, hopes, and desires.  

This Forum is about sharing experiences. Some of our participants from outside the region have played and continue to play direct roles in their own countries, in support of peaceful and democratic transitions and processes. They have lived, breathed, and grappled with some of the same kinds of challenges being faced now by those seeking change in the Arab States.

Among us also are leading voices for change from Egypt and elsewhere in this region. Some represent governments and political parties; others represent civil society, the media, or the private sector. Each of them has a unique role to play in their country, in helping to shape, rally support for, and implement reforms which help build a freer and more prosperous future for all.

Since 2002, UNDP has published a number of Arab Human Development Reports. They have pointed to  significant human development deficits in the region – across governance, living standards, women’s empowerment, justice and human rights, access to education and other services, and in human security overall.  They pointed to the need for change in all these areas.

Those who took to the streets and squares of the Arab States at great personal risk in recent months have called for that change to take place now. They have expressed their deep desire for dignity, decent work, a meaningful say in the decisions which shape their lives, and a willingness to stand up against corruption, injustice, and repression.

Now they aspire to have their voices heard throughout the transition and beyond, to ensure that the outcome respects, protects, and upholds their rights.   They aspire to come together as citizens to contribute to the political, social, and economic life of their societies. They aspire to shape national destinies through their talents, hard work, and values.

For transitions to respond to these legitimate aspirations, the new economic and political models must not concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a select few. That is why the agenda for this Forum tackles both economic and political inclusion. There will shortly be discussion on economic transformation and overcoming socio-economic disparities.

Too often in this region and elsewhere, impressive rates of economic growth have not led to significant reductions in poverty and inequality, nor to the creation of decent work.  Inequalities have persisted between and within cities and rural areas, and between men and women, different ethnicities, and followers of different faiths.  

Building more inclusive economies and societies means doing things very differently. It means investing more in the sectors and regions where poor people work and live, and providing women and men with the opportunities they need –including for decent work, better quality education, and healthcare– to build a better life for themselves and their families.

It also means further diversifying and opening up economies, and supporting those productive sectors which draw on the wealth of talent and entrepreneurial ideas in the region to flourish.

The young Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December dramatically and tragically expressed the frustration many young people have felt in the region, unable to get ahead in a system which they felt was relentlessly stacked against them and which did not give their views a fair hearing or response.  

Yet there can be no surprise that young people have been prominent among those demanding change in the Arab States. The under-25s make up over fifty per cent of the population in the region, and suffer rates of unemployment which are nearly twice the global average for youth.

The mismatch between the supply of university graduates and the type of jobs available in this region has also been deeply dispiriting for those who cannot find suitable work.  In Egypt, according to last year’s national Human Development Report, over twenty five per cent of young people with university degrees are unemployed. In Tunisia, that figure stands at around forty per cent.

Meeting expectations for jobs and opportunity must clearly be very high on the transition agenda. While longer term strategies are put in place, quick-win job creation is needed – an area in which UNDP has experience which can be drawn on by policymakers.

In Egypt, we have been working with partners to promote job creation through the development of small- and medium-sized enterprises and promoting micro-credit schemes.  We are also helping to design a public works programme to address short-term economic recovery challenges.

In Tunisia, we are designing coaching programmes for young people, and supporting labour intensive public works in a province whose economy has been badly affected by the Libyan crisis.

Jobs and better services are a necessary condition for a successful transition, but on their own they are not enough to secure it. For, from the transition, people also expect to realise their full potential and to participate meaningfully in the decision-making which shapes their lives.

Accordingly, this Forum will also discuss ways of promoting new avenues of participation and respect for justice, and human rights.

State institutions will need to be rebuilt so that they are more responsive and accountable to the people.  

Stronger systems of checks and balances will be needed to establish transparent decision-making and fair allocation of public resources.

Laws and their enforcement mechanisms will need to be redesigned, so that they can be fairly applied, promote equal opportunities and tolerance, and build confidence for investment in nations and their futures.   

Open space for political parties, civil society, the private sector, and the media needs to be guaranteed.

I believe it is essential to protect the rights of women and girls, and of minorities, and to ensure that their voices too are heard and that they are represented at decision-making tables.

Rapid transitions bring not only new opportunities for participation, but also new lines of division and tension. It is therefore important for countries to develop their own systems for negotiating agreements around emerging issues through dialogue and mediation, and on a basis of mutual respect rather than through force. It can help ensure that transitions are not only inclusive, but also ultimately are unifying too.

Operating within a set of values shaped by the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UNDP supports countries’ own efforts to promote democratic governance.

In supporting democratic transitions in the Arab States at their request, we are drawing on the very wide experience we have accumulated from our work around the world.

In Egypt, we are supporting the formal multi-party national dialogue process, and helping to identify ways to encourage young people to participate in the processes which will shape the future of this nation.

We are also mobilising support for the development of the human rights architecture, anti-corruption mechanisms, and the decentralisation and local governance agendas.  We are fielding experts to provide advice on asset recovery and security sector reform.

In Tunisia, as requested by the new authorities, UNDP is giving support to the new electoral commission and to the development of political parties.  Work is also being done to help develop policy options for a strategy against corruption; to support an inclusive national dialogue; and to help strengthen civil society, including by supporting work on the new NGO regulatory framework and networking between civil society organizations. UNDP has also been asked to assist with security sector reform.

Smooth and peaceful transitions which meet the legitimate aspirations of those who have brought about change require commitment from all actors, and patience to see the job through. Consultations with all parts of society must be ongoing. It is useful to look at how others have walked this road.  

I hope that this Forum will help to do just that, by stimulating informed debate and contributing ideas and insights. People in this region have laid down their lives and continue to do so in the cause of a better life.

We all gather here in solidarity with their aspirations, and to contribute in any way we can as the peoples of this region drive change in their own nations in their own ways.

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