Opening remarks of UNDP Resident Representative at the international conference "Achieving SDGs in Central Asia in the wake of COVID-19”

May 24, 2021

Image: UNDP Uzbekistan

Assalomu alaykum, hurmatli khonimlar va janoblar!

Muhtaram Sodyq Safoev, Muhtaram Komiljon Karimov, aziz dostlar!

Bugungi tadbirda ishtirok etish men uchun katta sharaf. 

I am thankful for inviting UNDP to co-host such an important and timely event, which to my mind helps to reflect on the great work we all have been involved in during these challenging years.

Impact of COVID on human development and SDGs

I would like to start by focusing on the challenges and threats brought by the ongoing pandemic for the cause of sustainable development both globally and in our region. 

As we have been observing, the COVID-19 has transformed from a health crisis to a development, or even more, a human crisis. In 2020, the Human Development Index was estimated to suffer a “steep and unprecedented decline” for the first time in the 30 years since the measure has been computed.

Recent studies conducted by UNDP on the impact of COVID on sustainable development have found that:

the pandemic could drive the total number of people living in extreme poverty in the world to over 1 billion by 2030;

and approximately 8 out of 10 people that could become poor by the end of this decade will live in countries with low or medium human development (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia).

With extraordinary scientific breakthroughs, vaccines are starting to roll out in some countries, but there remain significant inequalities in medium- to long-term recovery prospects, and new variants of the novel coronavirus threaten recovery.

Some countries may suffer from the medium- to long-term socioeconomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that are not yet fully understood.

The Central Asian region is not an exception, with the most adverse impact felt on small businesses and self-employed. Employment has fallen dramatically, so have migration opportunities and remittances due to closure of borders and suspension of flights.

For example, in Uzbekistan the economic hardships were triggered by job losses, with the unemployment rate reaching 14.7% among women in the third quarter of 2020. The share of people living in poverty has increased during the pandemic to 9% of the population, which is well above the pre-crisis projection of 7.4% in 2020. The pandemic has caused not only income and job losses for most of the families, but also triggered increased rate of domestic violence against women and girls.

In sum, the COVID-19 is unforgiving and its long-term impact will be far-reaching.

Government’s response

Early on we realised – the response needs to focus on people – on low-wage workers, small and medium enterprises, informally engaged, migrants and their families. And that multisectoral whole-of-society approach is needed to face this crisis beyond the health sector, to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to mitigate the potentially devastating impact it may have on vulnerable populations, economy and human development. 

We saw such an approach in the response of the Central Asian governments to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The countries of the region have availed comprehensive anti-crisis packages – featuring social assistance, health, infrastructure and entrepreneurial support – to safeguard the well-being, incomes, livelihoods, as well as the long-term potential of the regional economies and to help sustain the reform agenda.

For example, Uzbekistan, despite the crisis, has managed to continue its reform agenda in critical areas such as further liberalization of the economy, generation of employment, while pursuing the public administration reform.

Many achievements were made in terms of attainment of SDGs in Uzbekistan as elaborated into its first Voluntary National Review presented in the midst of the crisis in July 2020.

A Parliamentary Commission to monitor the implementation of the National Sustainable Development Goals and Targets was created and launched its first meeting last year. Its extensive work and constant monitoring at the national and local levels with the special attention paid to raising the awareness in the field of achieving the SDGs reflects the genuine and long-term commitment.

We see that the dialogue on Agenda 2030 has only intensified during this challenging period with the previous conference held at this same university right after the quarantine measures were relieved half a year ago (Lessons from the pandemic and imperatives for the future, September 16, 2020) 

I also hope to see you all this summer at a large International Forum on Global Interparliamentary Cooperation on SDGs in Bukhara (23-23 June 2021), which will be preceded by the SDG Week on “Leaving no one behind” in Tashkent (10-24 June 2021). 

UNDP’s vision on building forward better

Dear colleagues, as we know from history, every crisis brings not only losses and challenges, but new opportunities. And the key question is – will our responses and actions lead towards sustainable development in our countries, our region and globally?

An important lesson to learn from the current pandemic is that we need to go beyond recovery and work together to prepare, respond, and build forward better; and design a future that looks towards 2030.

With this approach, UNDP focuses on SDG integration, linking immediate response efforts to medium and longer-term sustainable development needs and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.

Even though full SDG achievement was already elusive for many countries before the pandemic, countries with low and medium levels of human development stand to achieve accelerated progress towards the 2030 Agenda and reap significant benefits for their citizens from an ‘SDG Push’ through and beyond 2030.

The ‘SDG Push’ scenario proposes targeted interventions in inclusive green growth, including integrated policy choices in governance, social protection, green economy, and digitalisation. It represents an ambitious but realistic effort that can mitigate the setback due to the pandemic and put countries back on a faster track towards achieving the 2030 Agenda.

All these are becoming a necessity, not an option, especially in the context of Central Asia.

(1) For example, trust between citizens and the institutions has emerged as an important factor for governments in Central Asia to navigate crisis and uncertainty. Good governance is critical to deliver public services, enable free access to information and inclusive social protection. 

Close cooperation with civil society is needed to advance social cohesion, gender equality and uphold the rule of law and protection of human rights. 

With a greater share of youth in the demographic landscape of Central Asia, pro-active and constructive youth inclusion, involvement, leadership and voice will be central to both recovery and response measures of Governments during and post-pandemic period. 

(2) All countries of the region have suffered from a disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations, such as migrants, unemployed, people with disabilities, the elderly, children and adults in closed facilities and women living in difficult situations. Therefore, social protection, including cash transfers, universal health coverage and access to basic social services will be key to tackle the root causes of inequalities that existed before the pandemic. In turn, this requires a flexible fiscal space for social inclusion programmes, strategies for informal sector workers and design of sustainable green jobs to support the youth-led entrepreneurship. 

(3) The third policy choice is advancing the green economy during the recovery phase. The crisis is a stark reminder that humanity is unlikely to stay healthy on a sickening planet. This is the moment to restore balance between people and the planet. It is about designing nature-based solutions as a part of a new social safety net and encouraging public-private partnerships on ecotourism, green transfer, carbon sink agriculture and carbon-neutral production and value chains. 

(4) The fourth point is about digitalization. ICT and digital tools were the most demanded items during this pandemic. It helped not only to restore access to information and education during the stay-at-home orders, but also transformed the way the government communicates with people about prevention and quarantine measures. Further, it contributed to acceleration of new services such as telemedicine, digital payments, telework and tele-schooling, mobilizing local communities, volunteers and CSOs to make charities for people in need.

However, further efforts and resources will be needed to advance and sustain the ICT infrastructure, cover the remote areas, ensure delivery of digital public services to all, as well as ecosystem for open data, big data integration, e-commerce, digital finance options and online small businesses led by women and youth.

The impact of the SDG Push will not be equal across groups – low human development countries are estimated to benefit significantly more than countries in the medium human development group in terms of reducing poverty rate.

For example, the share of population living under $1.90 per day in Uzbekistan by 2030 could be as high as 12% under the most damaging scenario, and as low as 7% under the SDG Push Scenario.

Even though many countries may not reach several of the SDG targets by 2030, a renewed focus on the 2030 Agenda in COVID-19 recovery efforts, through targeted integrated policies as simulated by the ‘SDG Push’ scenario, would bring them even closer to achievement than they would have been in their development trajectory prior to COVID-19, and in doing so would significantly improve human development outcomes for a large number of their populations.


Let me therefore summarize - as we plan our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in line with SDGs, we have a profound opportunity to steer our countries’ development on a more sustainable and inclusive path – a path that reverses inequalities, tackles climate change, protects the environment, and ensures the long-term health and security of people.

Much progress has been made in terms of returning Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries to an accelerated development path with a strong commitment. But there are still many challenges that need to be addressed collectively.

I hope we will manage to find some solutions to these challenges today, whilst UNDP will further accompany and support Uzbekistan in this endeavor.

Thank you very much for your attention.