INTERVIEW by BELTA news agency
Alexandra Solovieva, UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus
Transition to a green economy, small towns’ development, growth of entrepreneurial initiative in the regions, biodiversity preservation - all these areas are one way or another supported by the United Nations Development Programme in Belarus. The way our state works on improvement of conditions for all Belarusian residents and its achievements inspire Alexandra Solovieva, appointed as the first UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus upon the UN reform. It has been almost half a year already since she took up the post (Joanna Kazana-Wisniowiecki continued in her role as UN Resident Coordinator in Belarus). BELTA correspondent asked the head of the United Nations Development Programme in Belarus how her work is going in a new position.
- Unlike previous UNDP resident representatives in Belarus you are a citizen of Russia and of course knew more about our country when taking up the mission. How close was your perception to reality?
- I have been working for more than 23 years and this is the first time I am so close to Russia. As an Orientalist I used to serve in Asia and Pacific and also hold the positions at the global level. For the first time in my career my working language is Russian. It helps me study in depth the issues of development and reach understanding with the national partners. The history and culture of Belarus are familiar and understandable for me as well as people of this country who have been through wars and travails but managed to reach a high level of development (according to Human Development Index, Belarus ranks 53rd out of 189 countries and 23rd in the Global Sustainable Development Goals Index). These are the important achievements Belarus can be proud of, and we respect these results and are ready to share our experience.
If compare reality to perception, well, the reality is much more many-sided. In spite of proximity of our countries and cultures I make new discoveries daily and see a lot of differences that are specific characteristics of Belarus. From this perspective I am looking at my forthcoming work here with great interest and expectations. I set rather ambitious goals for the United Nations Development Programme in Belarus as I represent the interests and policies of the United Nations Organization.
- For the six month here have you managed to examine the situation in the regions or all the meetings have been organized in Minsk so far?
- I have visited all the regions of Belarus. I think it has been the most interesting part of my work so far. One of the top-priority trips was a trip to the regions resurrecting after the Chernobyl tragedy. I had meetings with local administrations, deputies, private sector, and local people who provided a real picture of how our projects work and what needs they have in the field.
- In what way will the UNDP country strategy in Belarus change after 2020? What activity areas will become the top priority?
- My arrival coincided with the important moment in both UNDP development and the life of Belarus. The new country programme (for 2021-2025) is completely synchronized with the national programmes and strategies for the five-year period to come. This allows us to correlate our work chronologically and technically and to use the national priorities as a basis. It is not by chance that my mission began with meeting our partners in the Government and the donors. For me visits to the regions were a source of inspiration, new ideas, understanding of needs and opportunities on the ground.
Our national partners helped identify the top priorities too: upon my arrival I had meetings with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus Andrei Dapkiunas, National Coordinator on Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals Marianna Shchetkina, Minister of Economy of the Republic of Belarus Dmitry Krutoy, Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of the Republic of Belarus Andrei Khudyk, heads of other ministries and agencies, research and academic institutions, non-governmental organizations. Development of human potential and, of course, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are at the top. Namely, the accelerators identified for Belarus (and shared by all the UN agencies active in Belarus): green economy, future generation orientation, digital technology and social innovation, and gender-balanced society. These are the strategies and initiatives, which influence the accelerated and simultaneous achievement of as many Sustainable Development Goals as possible. In our work we are going to seek to consolidate and develop the national potential and align with the principle of national responsibility for the results of projects and programmes. Our basic model is as follows: the projects are implemented by the national partners, i.e. the ministries, strengthening their potential and allowing to achieve sustainable results.
The fact that Belarus is a middle-income country speaks of its significant progress but does not mean that UNDP can pay less attention or work less. Quite the opposite. In situations like this more timely and innovative assistance is required of UNDP. Especially in such spheres as employment creation (including jobs in the regions and green jobs), diversification and transformation of economy with access to international markets, climate change mitigation, and achievement of gender equality. UNDP is ready to support Belarus upon its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). WTO membership will require a serious growth of country capacities, adaptation of the Government and business to work in the new contest, development of new logistic schemes for access of enterprises to the global markets.
We keep talking not only about international technical assistance but about cooperation too. I am sure Belarus itself can share its success and achievements at the international sites with the help of UNDP. Its best practices in the field of SDG development and achievement could be useful and demanded. The country has made significant progress in ensuring equality and social justice, rapid increase of information technology, services, innovative solutions, and environmental measures. It has ratified and is implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
I presented a proposal to the national partners about creation in Belarus of an experimental laboratory of innovative solutions to accelerate SDG implementation, where the solutions could be developed, tested, and evaluated in collaboration with the youth. Across the globe, 60 laboratories of this kind are working now and it is entirely natural for Belarus to become a part of this global network. While other laboratories function in the UNDP country offices, here we would like to make a step forward and create a lab at the facilities of a national partner, for example, the High Technologies Park.
In the new programme, Chernobyl areas will be addressed with a focus on support of their integration into modern economy, facilitation of new partnerships, search for investments, and bringing in new knowledge and technology. At our recent national consultations we already proposed a concept of such integrated consistent programme for cooperation and local investment platforms could become its important components.
In general, we count on further development of partnerships. At present, our major partners are European Union, Global Environment Facility, and partner countries such as Russia, Germany, and Poland. We try to get more countries involved in partnership with UNDP. In addition to these donors we want to engage private sector, partners in the field of investment activities and financing, and use not only international technical assistance, but market-based instruments, which will hopefully allow leverage a wider circle of resources for Belarus.
- From outside? Or you are talking about search for investors within the country?
From outside. But within the country too. I am talking about leveraging resources not only for UNDP programmes and projects, but also, say, for Chernobyl areas, the districts lagging behind, so that these resources contribute to the trade and export growth and go directly where they are most needed. UNDP’s role is to stimulate, to help increase the number of green socially responsible investments. These are the new activity areas for us, i.e. work with private sector, securing finance and credits in the field of development, creation of profitable projects. The instruments of cooperation allow UNDP to work with both public, budgetary, and fund resources via our programmes and offer services in the area of development.
- At what stage is the development of the country programme at the moment?
- It is under active development. National consultations turned out very open and resourceful. Together with our national partners we split into four groups in accordance with the basic priorities (sustainable green economy, climate and ecology issues, digitalization, international cooperation and SDG) and had discussions and defined together the ideas that summarize explicitly the demands of our national partners. Again, we want our work to be based on the ideas and needs of Belarus. Now we will rework and discuss these ideas with the donor partners. Approval of UNDP country programme will take place in New York next year along with the country programmes of other agencies.
- You have already mentioned that Belarus did a lot for institutional and practical implementation of the 2030 Agenda. As an expert in regional development what do you think of this work, what strengths and weaknesses would you note?
- I was impressed a lot seeing how Belarus from the very adoption of these Goals moved forward and proceeded to their concrete implementation. I also commend what is done with regard to SDG control structure of the national coordinator’s system and that these issues are under direct control of President. The platforms developed to bring together the parliament members, ministries, local authorities, and the wide public - all these important processes testify how serious Belarus’ approach is to 2030 Agenda and prove its readiness to work on implementation of the Goals. The youth outreach is also remarkable. The forum conducted in the National Resource Centre Zubrenok, where SDG youth ambassadors in Belarus were introduced and the contest of ideas conducted, is a good example. I also recall a visit to Mogilev, which was the first region, where the regional strategy for SDG implementation was developed. And a regional SDG forum was conducted along with the investment forum, which means that local authorities work to implement the Agenda too. The Goals localization is taking place. The statistical platform developed by Belstat allows to see the achievements of Belarus in accordance with any given indicators. I would refer all this to the strong practices.
- It was my very pleasant discovery that on the global stage Belarus has already managed to share its expertise on use of space technologies when evaluating SDG achievements...
- It’s not a surprise. Who else if not Belarus can take advantage of the capacities of new technology and systems! The First Regional Forum on Sustainable Development Goals as well as the National Forum (all of them were conducted before my coming to Belarus, but I have heard a lot about them) gave great impetus to understanding of what and how should be done. Next year the First Eurasian forum on SDG will be organized in Minsk and I am sure that all the expertise of member countries will be submitted to the global level.
Among the moments, where we are still to make even greater efforts, I would mark the necessity to mobilize internal resources and investments for implementation of SDG (for example, innovation in the tax system) and more active engagement of private businesses. A good entry point for this work area was the First SDG Impact Investment (social impact investments) Forum conducted in Belarus in March 2019. It is obvious that Belarus counts strongly on the private sector in search for solutions to address social issues while simultaneously providing more opportunities for it. This demonstrates the good perspectives of impact investment tools for financing SDG implementation in the country. It is necessary to raise the awareness of the public about Sustainable Development Goals so that people understand what SDG are for, what the state does, and in what way everyone can contribute. In order to make awareness-building efforts more specific and well-structured we conduct a research in cooperation with other UN agencies and in partnership with the National coordinator’s system.
- Following your meeting in the Ministry of Economy Dmitry Krutoy expressed his hope for reset of relationship between Belarus and UNDP within the context of the UN development system reform. In what way do the changes in the organization influence UNDP activities in Belarus? What mechanisms will be introduced for work with the public and private sectors and the society?
- The reset is being actively carried out. My first meetings in the country - this is the time when I listen, absorb information, learn how the national partners rate UNDP work in recent years, what expectations they have for the future, what joint projects they are ready to embrace. In our new country programme all this will translate into practice.
As for the UN reform, I would like to explain that since the beginning of this year, the coordination function was separated from UNDP, and now there is a separate office of the UN Resident Coordinator represented by Joanna Kazana-Wisniowiecki. UNDP resumed its initial traditional role of a professional agency for development. The agency that plays an important integration role. What does that mean? We are simultaneously combining economic, social, and ecological spheres in our activities. I think there will be less sectorial work and more activities combined, for instance, by inclusive green economy. After all, everything in the world is interrelated. Look, for example, at SDG. All Goals are interrelated. Those traditional linear growth models when we first grow up, then distribute products, and then clean up the environment, do not work anymore.
- You introduce what is called a complex approach?
Exactly, UNDP’ mission is to secure this complex system approach. Recently, the World Circular Economy Forum, which exemplifies use of resources for economic activities with minimal losses and damage for the environment, has taken place. In the economic model, the “raw material-product-wastes” chain transforms from a linear one into a complete cycle. We have an expertise in this sphere to be further developed.
- UNDP is one of the key partners of Belarus in the implementation of international technical assistance projects. How many projects are there now in the UNDP country portfolio in Belarus? What are the goals and a total budget of these projects?
- The key national partner of UNDP in Belarus who coordinates our activities is the Ministry of Economy. This is the Ministry we cooperate most intensively with to elaborate our new country programme. In cooperation with the Ministry of Economy the most important and biggest projects are implemented. In the field of local economic development (with financial support of European Union) the project aimed at support of small and medium-sized businesses, business incubators, local initiatives, and development of public-private partnership is implemented in 12 districts. A similar project aimed at development of small and medium-sized towns implemented with financial support of the Government of Russia helps to scale up entrepreneurial initiatives. The models of these two projects are different but here we can compare the efficiency of different approaches.
- Have you already compared them?
- It is still too early to assess the results: the first project has only launched this year and is still gaining momentum. But I had a chance to talk to the prosperous entrepreneurs who had managed to upgrade their businesses with the help of grants and they believe in the model of small and medium-sized towns’ development, where we work with the involvement of bank financial products. I think that when we bring the climate for the entrepreneurs most closely to the market environment, it allows them to stand on their own feet sooner and work on a sustainable basis. Besides, the practice showed the value of spatially targeted approach.
As part of the project entitled, “Support to Economic Development at the Local Level” we received 1,9 thousand project proposals offering specific economic, social, and ecological contribution to local development. We are interested in integration and approbation of the best foreign practices of local development.
In general, we have a wide portfolio of nine projects in the field of ecology, energy saving, and green cities financed by the European Union and GEF. Six more projects pursue social and economic directions and four projects relate to public administration and SDG. The total budget of these projects exceeds USD 42 million.
- Over the last decade UNDP supported by the international partners implemented more than ten projects with a budget exceeding USD 20 million, which helped the country prepare itself for the climate change challenges. A great weight of projects not only in Belarus seems to be assigned to address this issue. Not coincidentally the Head of the United Nations Organization has made a statement recently about an emergency situation on the planet. Is there any global programme of measures, which would interlink projects implemented in the countries into a network?
- The climate changes much faster than anticipated, which is first of all caused by human activities. The entire world community is alarmed. The commitments taken by the states, so-called nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement of 2016 are unfortunately insufficient to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade per year (to say nothing of 1.5 degrees). The climate change issue will play the growing role in our new country programme.
In September 2019, UN Secretary-General conducted the Climate Action Summit, where the critical climate change situation was discussed. The states were urged to review their national contributions to the global climate action, be more ambitious, active, and ready to invest more resources to address the problem. I am glad that many countries responded to that challenge, including Belarus, who announced its intention to pledge unconditionally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 at least by 35% comparing to 1990 (28%), and what is more, do it using its own resources. It is still much to do in Belarus to adapt economy sectors, agriculture in the first place, to the new climate conditions. In the new development national programmes at both regional and local levels climate peculiarities should be considered most certainly and commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and review business practices of enterprises should be included.
So far, only 14 countries have stated they do not plan to upgrade their commitments on the nationally determined contributions, but hopefully they will change their decision. During next 12-15 months, UNDP undertakes to provide support to 100 countries to accelerate the enhancement of their national climate pledges by 2020 and align them with 2030 Agenda. UNDP is also responsible for its carbon footprint and has set a target to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2030 as well as greening our business practices.
- Green economy directions in Belarus are the object of close attention of the European partners. Have you managed to attain the main effect here, i.e. sustainable development?
- This is the relevant question: it is necessary to move from a pilot project to systemic changes. We have a very successful green economy project, which has been working for the last several years with support of the European Union. Today we present a lot of interesting pilot models implemented at the enterprises in different districts where they apply renewable energy sources, energy efficiency in industrial production and residential sector, organic agriculture, waste management, and modernization of dairy and paper industry operating enterprises. What is to be done to have more such areas of success? I believe up-ward movement is needed: work with legislation, norms, and economic instruments. It is networking with the Ministry of Nature and the Ministry of Economy. What investments are possible to leverage for green projects, what banks are ready to finance them, in what way to stimulate industries and enterprises to measure their own successes not only by profits, but also by natural resources saved and negative influence on the nature reduced. These are the issues, which we will work on together.
Strategically the country is well prepared to adoption of the green economy model: there is a developed system of programmes and plans on introduction of its principles in various sectors of the national economy (the National Sustainable Development Strategy, the National Action Plan for the Development of the Green Economy). Belarus is strongly committed to transition to low carbon sustainable economy by 2050. A complex program on transition to electric public transport in big cities is underway. We are preparing a project to support this work.
The fact that Belarus plans to adopt a complex of documents on adapting various branches of national economy to climate changes by 2022 is also illustrative. The solutions will be based upon the green economy principles. For our part we would like to see that on this way the principle of leaving no one behind is observed, i.e. such social aspects as provision of jobs for the disabled people, equal opportunities for women. We encourage and support green solutions in local development in every way.
- I believe that the most powerful resource of impact is green education. It is hard to influence the adults, but if promoting ecological approach in schools, children will absorb it and then continue awareness-raising work at home teaching their parents. Has UNDP ever studied this issue? Are there any examples of effective projects?
- My thoughts exactly. As a mother of two I am in green training due to them daily as they teach me energy efficiency lessons. These issues do not only concern the youth but children too. Ecological education is as necessary as economic. To knit them together is even more important. Creativity of adolescence and fresh thinking together with new technology can do a lot. The other day I had a chance to take part in the event related to SDG conducted in the Maxim Tank Belarusian State Pedagogical University (BSPU): students showcased their ideas and projects. Later a dean of one of BSPU departments shared experience of projecting methodological innovations aimed at introducing SDG in education. To me that was a discovery: there are projects built upon green sustainable concepts in Belarusian education already. UNDP is also working on this issue in its green schools project entitled, “Ecomonitoring.” Now it is discussed how to imbed analogous work in a standard curriculum. It should also be taken into account that present Goals were designed for the period until the year 2030 and now it is necessary to have a long-term vision.
- Indicator-based scientific assessment of progress of the country is implemented by Belstat. What about support, which UNDP probably provides or will provide to the national statistical system?
- Working with Belstat and national statistics is very important. UNDP supported development of an online platform for reporting on the implementation of SDG I spoke about before, and participation of Belstat representatives in the activities of international commissions and working groups on statistics. I had a remarkable meeting with Belstat head Inna Medvedeva and her team - and we shared desire to cooperate. I think we will strengthen the SDG platform together and upgrade the indicators with the assistance of researchers, experts, and civil society, to improve the monitoring. There are great opportunities to forward it to the local level. For example, to show on a map how this or that goal is being implemented in a certain district in real time. It would be interesting and could enable competitiveness among local administrations striving for those goals. Census survey results will help specify the data and provide new ideas and opportunities for statistical analysis.
- What operating results of UNDP activities in Belarus do you expect to achieve by the end of 2019?
- To me the most important is to strengthen and develop relations with the national and international partners, to understand common objectives. It is the reset of the action programme and its focus on the future involving all the best we have at the UNDP global level. This is the foundation for the development of a new country programme and a detailed analysis of the closing programme (2016-2020) results. In 2019, one of our most extensive projects of local economic development with a focus on small and medium-sized business development in 12 districts of the country gained momentum. The businesses, which create jobs and take social effect, ecology, and gender equality into account. The project provides fair opportunities to support and develop women’s entrepreneurship. It is also about educational support for newcomers in business and financial support for innovation start-ups. Two competitions of business projects were conducted in the towns of Chausy and Mstislavl and six entrepreneurs received grants for development of their businesses as a result.
Remarkable results have been achieved in healthy life style promotion. Supported by the European Union and in partnership with the Ministry of Health of Belarus we helped over 200 thousand people in the districts to join in healthy life style. This result will undoubtedly help decrease the non-communicable diseases statistics. I would also emphasize our contribution to preservation of populations and restoration of habitat of such globally endangered species as aquatic warbler and European bison.
The city administrations of Polotsk, Novopolotsk, and Novogrudok approved the plans of green urban development with project support. New energy saving street lights in Novogrudok help reduce energy consumption by 30-40% and carbon emissions by 13,3 thousand tons and make streets well-lit and safe for the residents.
With support of UNDP and Russian Federation 30 national experts took part in negotiations with WTO, 10 educators have been retrained in the field of WTO issues in Russia, 400 people enhanced their skills in this area.
In September 2019 we announced a new investment project amounting to USD 40 million for construction of the biggest Belarusian windmills park in Vitebsk region. A company from Turkey came forward as an investor.
The year has not finished yet and I am sure that there are even more interesting results to come, which I will be glad to share with you in December.
In conclusion I would say that consolidation of understanding with the national partners means that they see UNDP not just as a source of financing and international technical assistance. We are becoming a trusted partner of Belarus in its ambitions and work on the challenges demanding system approaches and innovative solutions.