UNDP Associate Administrator statement in Brussels Conference: Regional Response and Recovery in the face of COVID-19

June 23, 2020

I  want to start by seconding Commissioner Oliver Várhelyi’s message, of strong gratitude and appreciation to all the countries represented here which for nearly ten years now have been generously hosting  large numbers of refugees  while contending with their own long-standing challenges, not least Lebanon, which is currently grappling with an unprecedented fiscal and economic crisis.  While this has become an annual event to express our thanks and reiterate our support to the countries hosting refugees from Syria, we need to seize this particular meeting to review our engagement and perhaps, like the Commissioner has highlighted, hopefully “reboot” our support.

I want to highlight five key messages, namely:

First: 2020 cannot be business as usual.

Despite the continued support of international donors and organisations, poverty, vulnerability and inequality have increased against the background of a continued and protracted Syria crisis, which is now compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we have seen, the situation in Lebanon has deteriorated significantly. It is estimated that 45 percent of the Lebanese population now live in poverty, and as the Prime Minister articulated in a speech recently, there is a high probability that half the population could experience food insecurity by the end of the year.  In Jordan, despite reform efforts and before the impact of COVID-19, unemployment stood at 19.3 percent, and  the debt service ratio at 99 percent.

In  Iraq, as the Commissioner also stated, the fall in oil prices has wiped out around one third of the national budget, compelling the new Government to assess significant cuts while coping with 1.4 million IDPs and the continued security threat of Daesh. Once again, the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit. In Egypt the Government has successfully terminated the IMF adjustment programme but still places a focus on poverty reduction as a major priority.

Second: and possibly of utmost concern is that vulnerability is no longer a phenomenon facing only parts of society. As the case of Lebanon highlights, the deteriorating socio-economic situation is not only increasing risks of impoverishment among the millions of vulnerable people that we have referred to every year, including host communities, but also in the population at large. This is concerning. I am concerned.

In particular, this means that while we should continue to assist countries to manage the most pressing challenges, we still must, must support the conditions for sustained development, growth and job creation.

Third, as the cases of Iraq and Lebanon show, it is important to acknowledge that addressing socio-economic crisis and successful recovery will not be possible without addressing many of the structural political issues that have been highlighted by the citizen protests in each since last October,  with regard to accountability, transparency, rule of law, and fighting corruption. The agenda in each country is broad.

 Fourth, economic reforms require strong leadership from national Governments. However, the impact of these on the most vulnerable, especially in already tense, challenging context, warrants reviewing priorities in both a more realistic and holistic manner and with clear safeguards for the most affected vulnerable groups. Ensuring inclusive recovery processes whilst advancing much-needed economic reforms will not be simple nor linear.
Fifth , we live in a myth of classifications that does not help our ultimate aims for stability and human development in the region. Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq are all classified as middle income countries, which means donor funding is significantly restricted. Mobilising funding for important processes, such as fighting corruption, reconciliation or accountability is always a challenge. Stabilization in Iraq continues to attract large funding but mobilising resources to support anti-corruption efforts is almost an equal effort to fighting Daesh. This requires reviewing our collective partnership and how we can improve the management of international efforts to support transition and recovery, particularly in middle-income countries.

And this brings me to the COVID-19 pandemic which is posing a  threat to lives as well as a serious challenge to the health sector across the region. Ultimately however the socio-economic impact of the pandemic could be its most lethal legacy as it exacerbates existing vulnerabilities and is likely to reproduce and intensify pre-existing inequalities. Recent research by UNDP in Jordan which is being published indicates that about 50 per cent of households have lost their livelihoods, and this percentage rises to 68 percent amongst the most vulnerable. You may have seen in Reuters last week an article about a study done by UNDP with the Government in Jordan, highlighting that three quarters of Jordanians expect the crisis to have a long-lasting socio-economic impact.  According to a recent assessment by UN Women in Jordan, 99 percent of informal sector workers, which provides the majority of livelihood opportunities for vulnerable populations, reported having lost their job. ..       In Turkey, the economy is expected to contract by 5 percent in 2020 (IMF estimates) and unemployment to rise to 17.2 percent.

As I said above, in the current context, ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option and socio-economic difficulties should be addressed in a comprehensive manner in order to build back better and together.

UNDP and the Response

As the UN Secretary-General reminded us all during his address to the 74th Session of  UNGA in September 2019: ‘The first words of the Charter -- “we the peoples” – are a summons to place people at the center of our work. Every day. Everywhere.”

That is why UNDP’s core mission is precisely to support people-centered development. In the region we do this in three main ways, namely:

- First, by Co-leading, with UNHCR,  the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan which remains the main collective mechanism to support the host countries address both the pressing humanitarian and resilience challenges, and which remains the only such mechanism of its kind globally. Our joint heads of Agencies will speak more of this year’s appeal at the Ministerial meeting on the 30th; and,

- Second, through bilateral programmes designed to support national capacities to manage the fallout of the Syria crisis, including in governance reform, community resilience and social stability, women and youth empowerment  as well as addressing climate change.

And third, as you may know, the UN Secretary General has asked UNDP to work closely with our UN colleagues and take the technical lead in assessing the socio-economic impact of COVID-19and spearhead the design of UN support strategies.  We are currently engaged in the exercises in Iraq and Jordan while discussion are underway in Egypt and Lebanon on identifying the best form for responses. We will share and discuss the results of these exercises as they become available, and look forward to robust support.

We are also leading such an exercise in Syria. I specifically end on Syria to remind us that it is the duty of all the stakeholders to ‘leave no one behind,’ including especially the most vulnerable in our midst.