RCRR, Dr. Mubashar Riaz Sheikh's interview with Arab Times

04 Aug 2013

By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff

Kuwait City, Aug 3: The newly appointed United Nations Resident Coordinator and Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme Mubashar Riaz Sheikh, in his first interview with the Kuwaiti press, elaborated on the UN and UNDP’s agenda and key projects and addressed pertinent issues of health and food inflation.

A specialist in policy and planning, he has professional experience of over two decades at national, regional and global levels. Dr Sheikh is a medical doctor with a Masters of Public Health from Yale University, USA who worked extensively with the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Dr. Sheikh commended Kuwait for its role in addressing the major problems and challenges in the global community. He cited the International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, hosted by the Amir of Kuwait, His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah as an example where Representatives from Member States, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations gathered in Kuwait City to gather humanitarian assistance for the people affected by the crisis in Syria. “His highness, the Amir was directly engaged and it was held under his auspices and our secretary general was here as well. The good news is that the global community responded very positively. By the end of the conference, almost USD 1.5 billion had been pledged with almost USD 300 million coming from Kuwait.”

He drew attention to the fact that Kuwait had fulfilled its commitment and dispersed the funds some directly through bilateral support and some through UN agencies including UNDP. “We are hoping these kind of opportunities and the role which Kuwait can play beyond its borders in the region and beyond the region will continue. We really hope to encourage, nurture and strengthen these efforts further in the coming period”, he added.

He asserted that since the UN’s presence here was somewhat limited, it was imperative to match its capacities with the national needs and requirements and focus on highly productive and result oriented areas which are agreed through engagement and agreement with the government.

“We have been working with Kuwait for almost five decades now, since 1964 in different phases and the range of our collaboration varied during that period.” he shared. Kuwait has been generous and supported the presence of the UN as a net contributing country which means that the government of Kuwait itself has funded and provided resources for the UN to carry forward its agendas and mandates. UN agencies in the country include UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UNHABITAT), International Organisation of Migration (IOM), International Labour Organisation (ILO), The World Bank, IMF and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

He stated that Kuwait despite being reasonably developed in terms of its infrastructure, economy, per capita income and GDP faced peculiar problems and challenges. The UNDP is dedicated to capacity building, providing technological assistance, bringing new knowledge to the country while developing joint programmes with the government over a period of time.

He referred to the UNDP’s ongoing project with the Ministry of Interior on road traffic safety and traffic management. The project was started a year ago and will continue over the next three to four years. “We are hoping that this will provide the right kind of tools, capacities, training, and the issue of management from a scientific perspective that will help the country and the population work on this problem in a sustainable manner”, he stated.

He shared that they were actively working with religious leaders in Kuwait and mainstreaming them in terms of their understanding of the development issues, the challenges and the problems that the country is facing and the role they can play. “When we talk to religious leaders we are not talking only of male Imams and scholars but also female religious leaders. It is very important that we mainstream them and keep hem and give them tools of information that they can use in their interaction with the society at large.”

He highlighted the issue of women’s empowerment and stated, “It is an extremely important area and we are working on a number of projects with a number of partners to carry forward their better access to income generation and employment, legal empowerment and accessibility among other things.”

The major focus of the UN and the UNDP specifically, Dr Sheikh informed is to develop a charter or framework which is in harmony and supportive of the nation’s development with participation and contribution from the society at large. For this, it was important to work with all segments of Kuwaiti society and not just with the government.

Partnering with civil society organisations, the youth and women, the academia and research organisation as well as the private sector are extremely important from their perspective. “We want to have a very inclusive and participatory approach to engage them, give them the capacities, opportunities and platforms so that they can play a much bigger and constructive role with the national development arena”, he affirmed.

Primarily, this includes support for His Highness the Amir’s Vision for 2035 which aimed at transforming Kuwait into a world class financial and commercial centre, with the private sector leading economic activities, supported by viable public institutions, while maintaining the deep rooted values and national identity, for the purpose of achieving balanced economic and human development, through adequate infrastructure, legal framework, and enabling business environment. As such, the focus is being directed onto key areas for high productivity and results. “We want to make sure that our input and support is owned, understood and recognised by the nationals and the State.”
He alluded to the United Nations Junior Professional Officer Programme, a joint initiative of the State of Kuwait and the UNDP that provides young Kuwaiti professionals with the opportunity to gain valuable experience in international development.
The Kuwaiti Government funded 10 Junior Professional Officers in the fields of governance; sustainable human development; environment and energy; small and medium enterprises and private sector development and information and communications within the UN system. He expressed his gratitude to the supportive Kuwaiti leadership and in particular the Minister of Planning and Development, Rola Dashti who championed this particular cause.
“We believe that these professionals can bring those capacities and knowledge back to the country. This is absolutely important for a country like Kuwait where there is a great desire, need and priority to have indigenous capacities. From that perspective, we hope that this programme will bring that particular additional strength and support to that national priority. We are initiating a second phase now with the Minister of Planning and Development and we are very excited about this”, he informed.

He also mentioned that World Humanitarian Day, held on Aug 19 the world over, would be marked here in Kuwait as well.

Prior to this appointment, Dr. Sheikh was Executive Director of the Global Health Workforce Alliance, World Health Organization, in Switzerland (2008-2013). From 2004-2008 he was WHO’s Country Representative in the Islamic Republic of Iran. He also served as U.N. Resident Coordinator a.i., and as Country Representative a.i. for the Food and Agriculture Organization on several occasions during this period.

The biggest health challenge the global community is now facing is in the lifestyle related conditions. He pointed out that when 60% of the burden of disease globally is related to four conditions of diabetes, hypertension, cancer and obesity along with mental health; it can be likened to an epidemic. The fundamental causes of physical inactivity, poor dietary choices and cigarette smoking are common across the world which is extremely relevant to both Kuwait and the Gulf.

“It is so alarming to see studies that mention 70% of the population in Kuwait being overweight.” Dr. Sheikh stresses that this is a huge social problem which cuts across because the issue is not really the obesity but the conditions it leads to which in turn affect economic productivity that shapes the overall development process. “It is really a series or continuum, rather than one little thing which is why it is very important that we address that issue”, he stated.

Diabetes, a cause of great worry in Kuwait that affects not only the adult population but seen in children as well needs to be given national priority. “Globally, as well as locally to look at the national perspective, it is a huge public health challenge that we really need to work on by recognizing and reacting in a very concrete manner to make sure that the current generation becomes healthier and that the future generation is prevented.”

Commenting on the food inflation, Dr. Sheikh noted that it is a huge problem in terms of nutrition, availability, safety and security of food globally. The Consumer Price Index numbers for Kuwait in May 2013 as released by the Central Statistics Bureau, show a further 0.14% rise in food prices.

Dr. Sheikh points out that as a country which is import oriented, it is very difficult to control inflation as immediate impact is felt when things change elsewhere. “It is very difficult to control food inflation that unless Kuwait starts producing and become self-sufficient.”

There are however, measures that can be taken to encourage positive behaviours and attitude, especially in reference to junk food and smoking in public. “We need to have certain regulatory mechanisms in place to control inflation and have better capacities to produce a sustainable market, balancing demand and supply. From our side too, food inflation and nutrition in particular challenges which we need to address”, he said.