interview with Mr Stefan Priesner

May 16, 2017

– Mr Priesner, how would you evaluate the Uzbekistan-UN cooperation during the past 25 years? What results or achievements would you like to highlight specifically?

 – Just recently, on 2 March, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s joining the United Nations as a full member, and I think in general it has been very good relationships. I would like to split it perhaps into three big subject areas that the UN is dealing with. Namely, peace and stability, human rights and development.

 Uzbekistan has been active in the global institution of the UN, it has joined a lot of treaties and conventions that make up what we call the normative standards of the UN. These are human rights treaties, environment treaties and so on. It has been active in regional forums, it has contributed through initiatives such as the Nuclear-Free Zone in Central Asia. It demonstrated through its foreign policy concept its intention to solve all kinds of conflicts and misunderstandings with other member states in a peaceful manner. Generally, during last 25 years we’ve had a good, gradually strengthening relationship. I’ve had the honor of being responsible in the last four years for the contribution of the UN to the development of Uzbekistan. And I could describe these years as very fruitful, well-coordinated between the UN agencies and Uzbekistan.

 In 25 years the monetary contributions of the UN system to Uzbekistan was in the range of USD 471 million. But what needs to be stressed is that the real cooperation in fact is very often in the technical systems and policy advice. If one were to calculate this, it would come to much higher value than monetary allotments. So it’s not financial assistance alone, it’s transfer of experiences and good practices and knowledge from other countries that are built into the development priorities of Uzbekistan and enable Uzbekistan to achieve certain development targets in a quicker, in a more effective, in a better informed way.

 We have a sophisticated planning and reporting system. The planning system is functioning at the UN level through five-year business plans, which are called the UN Development Assistance Frameworks – UNDAFs. These UNDAFs, before they are agreed, go through a major consultation process. We have had 25 consultations with different government agencies. More than 30 government ministries and agencies were involved in providing inputs into the UNDAF. From the UN side there were 10 so-called resident UN agencies working in the country, and also 5 non-resident agencies which work outside the country but also provide assistance. So the outcome is the framework plan for five years and an indicative financial figure: how much the UN system will contribute in five years, that is then translated into projects by different agencies. Sometimes the agencies have their own projects, but what we are also trying to do is collaborate among the agencies on projects that are relevant to the mandates of severalUN agencies. A good example is the Aral Sea Project where a lot of agencies collaborate. The principle of this is that each UN agency has its own division of labor and relationship activities with the government, but these activities are very closely related to each other. And if an activity relates to the capacity, the knowledge and the experience of several agencies, we always do it together.

 – What is your opinion of the five-year Strategy of Actions for Development of Uzbekistan?

 – We are all very impressed about the Strategy of Actions for Development of Uzbekistan, 2017-2021. From the point of view of human development, internationally acknowledged perspective of development, it is a quite strong strategy, because it covers different aspects of development in a very comprehensive and integrated way. Especially, what i find commendable is the importance of good governance as reflected in priority 1 and priority 2. I think it is very important and impressive how the strategy articulates that the people should be in the center of development and how priority 1 on administrative reforms tries to make the state more client-oriented, more citizen-oriented in the delivery of services. I think this is an extremely important priority.

Priority 2 is on rights and justice reform. It is something extremely important in development of any country. I want to highlight the focus on the independence of judiciary, which is a very important step forward, because it will guarantee that people will have effective remedies when it comes to grievances, complaints. Regarding priority 3, economic development, the strategy tackles a number of sticky issues, far-reaching reform issues, such as strengthening the private sector, gradually liberalizing the economy, which is very commendable. In the 4th priority, is a traditionally strong point of the country - the social sector, the strategy to strengthen, enhance health and education of the population, as well as social protection. Finally, priority 5 on good neighborhood policy, improving the relationship with neighboring states. This is a very commendable direction, which will contribute to economic development, but also to trust between the peoples of Central Asia that have been traditionally always very closely related. From the UN side, the strategy is a very impressive document, and it enables us, the UN, but also the international community, to very clearly link our support programs towards the priorities and goals of the country that are quite well articulated.

 – Speaking about the good governance, how do you assess the development of electronic government in Uzbekistan?

 – Electronic government has been extremely important means around the world towards enhancing the service orientation of the governments. It is also an important tool to enhance transparency and accountability of government, including combatting corruption through e-governance. We were privileged to have a close cooperation with the government on development of e-governance in the country. Some of the collaborative areas were, for example, re-doing certain service processes to the people through the lens of e-governance. We have put the electronic solutions behind, making these services much more effective and much more efficient. We’ve worked with the E-government Center in the ICT Ministry. In an age where basically every other week new electronic solutions for different development challenges are invented and found, I think, e-governance need to be always at the pulse of time to be able to really make use of all these technologies and new tools of the 21st century, in order to make governance people-oriented. Good governance means contributing, or ensuring the well-being of people in multiple dimensions – health, education, economic development and participation in state decisions. All of these can be facilitated by e-government.

 -– How are the Global Sustainable Development Goals being adapted in Uzbekistan?

 – The Global Sustainable Development Goals are something very significant, because it is for the first time in the history of the UN that such a comprehensive consultation process has taken place globally, and a common vision for development until 2030 has been generated. It is a vision that has been endorsed by all 193 UN member states, so it is a universal vision how the world should look like in terms of development in 2030. In fact, it is more than a vision because it specifies 17 quite clear goals and 169 even more clear targets that need to be achieved by 2030. The philosophy of the SDGs is that we recognize that economic development is very important, but that economic development has to happen with social protection in mind and bring vulnerable groups into the mainstream of development. We are talking about “leaving no one behind”.

And it also has to happen with environment protection in mind.

It is relatively easy to have growth at the expense of future generations. The SDGs want to make sure that growth and economic development happen without compromising the situation for future generations. I think this has never been more important than in the year 2017, in the 21st century, where we know that human endeavor has an influence on the globe in every corner. Most dramatically, this is of course manifested by the challenges of climate change. So the sustainable development says: economic development - yes, but leaving nobody behind and making sure that the environment is protected.

In general, the Action Strategy in Uzbekistan is in line with the vision of SDGs, especially bringing together good governance, economic development, social concerns and some environmental concerns. I think future annual action plans will have further scope for strengthening the environmental component, and maybe also the social protection component. We commend the government for very much aligning the Action Strategy with the SDGs. We have been privileged at the UN system to go through extensive process in 2016 to help the government translate the global goals into the actual situation of Uzbekistan, so-called nationalization of the SDGs. This has very much helped to align the Action Strategy with the SDGs.

The Action Strategy will be implemented by the yearly plans of the government. This year is the Year of Dialogue and Human Interest. The challenge and the opportunity is to design the annual action plans very closely in line with the SDGs, which means focusing on economic development, environment and social protection in addition to governance.

 – Could you please tell us more about the UNDAF for 2016-2020? How is it being implemented?

 – The UNDAF 2016-2020 has four big areas of cooperation with the government. And it is very much in line with the Action Strategy for 2017-2021. Number one is inclusive economic development with the focus on job creation and employment. The second area is quality healthcare and education to bring out the full potential of the human resources. The third area, very important, is environmental protection. And finally, there is good governance. There are many projects that translate these four cooperation areas into specific activities and specific results. We are working on day-to-day basis through projects with the government, and these projects are usually very much linked to government agencies. We are working with ministries and committees and are achieving concrete results that we have agreed together with the government.

  – One of the UN’s latest big programs is a program in Karakalpakstan, “Building the resilience of communities affected by the Aral Sea disaster”. What is it about? What is understood by human security? How will the multi-partner fund work?

 – Our concerns for the Aral Sea come from visit of the UN Secretary General in 2010 to the former sea and very strong sentiments that he felt when he saw a disappeared sea. We have throughout my tenure in Uzbekistan implemented the first phase of the Aral Sea Program. Just recently we have approved the second phase of the Aral Sea Program, which introduces the idea of multi-partner trust funding. I have spoken before regarding the concern of the UN about leaving nobody behind. If you look at Uzbekistan and certainly the Aral Sea area, it is a vulnerable area, an area where it has become complex to maintain and generate livelihoods because of the major natural resource - the disappeared Aral Sea.

We are looking in our intervention through the lens of human security. And the idea of human security is that there are multiple aspects of security that affect human wellbeing. Such as environmental security, livelihood security, of course, health security. Because we looked at the Aral Sea region through these lens, several UN programs came together and decided to support the region with their different capacities. So we have the UNFPA working on health and population issues, the UNDP focusing on livelihoods, arid agriculture support and non-agriculture business support to ensure that people could increase their income, and we have agencies like the UNV (UN Volunteers) coming in with their concept to support other agencies. I think we have done a lot of good work and achieved good results in the first phrase of the Aral Sea Program.

Among others, we had more than 200 business projects that supported different initiatives of entrepreneurs, as to increase their income and to generate jobs for vulnerable people, and we had some 40 community projects that enabled community infrastructure to be upgraded in order to enable them to deliver better services to the local population.

But the issues of the Aral Sea area are very significant in terms of the scale, and that is why , following the request from the government, we are establishing what is called the multi-partner trust fund. It is intending to attract international donors to pool funding.This means that activities can take place at bigger scale to support the population in the Aral Sea area. What we expect is that the assistance to the country and specifically the affected area will be upscaled in the very near future through additional contributions by the international donors.

 - What are the new projects being implemented or being considered between the UN / UNDP and  Uzbekistan? What are  potential areas for cooperation?

 - At the moment, we UNDP is implementing around 20 projects with the government, and only in the last two months we approved 6 new projects, which already take into account the new priorities of the Action Strategy. Just to give you an idea, the first project looks at legislative drafting and tis quality. This is a very important priority of the Action Strategy, namely priority 1.2. Another project supports the government in improving investment climate in Uzbekistan, another important priority in the Action Strategy. We have immediately responded with bringing in the international expertise together with the World Bank to improve the investment climate in the most effective way.

We have approved two important environmental projects. One is on climate change mitigation through energy efficiency. This is a very strong area that we have always collaborated with the government, but so far we have focused on public buildings, schools and hospitals. Now we are supporting the government to enhance the energy efficiency in rural houses. There is so much happening in rural housing today, so it is very important to make these houses energy efficient. Another environmental project, also quite large, is on mountain biodiversity. Biodiversity is a very important part of our environmental support to the country, because in an arid country like Uzbekistan biodiversity is usually very sensitive. We have supported in the past issues such as protection of the Saygachiy reserve in Ustyurt, the biosphere reserve in the lower Amudarya. But our next big endeavor is to focus on the protection of biodiversity in mountain landscapes. We are targeting two  areas: Gissarskiy zapovednik and Chatkal mountains in the Western Tien-Shan. These are examples how a new generation of projects is being agreed upon between the government and the UN system to be fully in line with the Action Strategy. These programs will run for the next 3 to 5 years, so they will carry the collaboration through until the end of the Action Strategy.

 - The efficiency of these projects depends on cooperation with government agencies at all levels. Are there any factors restraining the development of cooperation? What could be done to make this cooperation more productive?

- In general, our collaboration is functioning quite well. I believe for every project to succeed it is critical to have government ownership, and the UN and UNDP projects in general have a very strong government ownership because they are usually negotiated at the very start very carefully. There is also a very clear division of labor. Of course, the UNDP and other UN agencies have the role to bring in international standards and expertise on good practice from elsewhere, which are then adapted to Uzbekistan situation and usually piloted. What I found during my tenure very positive is that if a piloted example works, then Uzbekistan integrates it into their own policies and upscales it nationally or at least at the regional level. I could give several examples of those, but one prominent one is E-SUD, which was piloted at one district court in Zangiata four years ago, then upscaled to several other courts, and now it is going to be replicated in Ferghana and then will slowly be applied nationwide. Similarly we are working in many projects.

 Projects provide direct support to specific problem on the ground, then we are taking the learning from our work and inform the government, which in its resolutions replicates this experience nationwide. I think every country has its bureaucracy, but by and large we have had quite positive experience in terms of development cooperation. I also want to stress that the UN, because of impartiality and neutrality that we bring to our projects, is a very trusted partner of the government in whatever we are doing.

It is important to mention that if we look at five priority areas of Uzbekistan’s Actions Strategy, the UN provides strong support to all five areas.

 - How does the UN and you personally view the future of Uzbekistan?

- I think the biggest wealth and asset of Uzbekistan is its people. You have well educated people I had the pleasure and privilege to work with here. You also have strong work ethics, which is a good precondition for the development of the country, if the conditions are provided. I see Uzbekistan in 10 years with a strong private sector, that is the driver of the growth and development. I see that the government supports the private sector to flourish, and it supports people that for some reason cannot take part in the mainstream development, vulnerable groups. I see Uzbekistan as a country that maintains and continues to focus on health and education. And I see Uzbekistan as a country that develops, keeping in mind the environmental protection.

I see a very positive prospect of Uzbekistan, because the direction is clear and because you have the blessing of a lot of young and motivated people that can carry the country into the next stages of development. I think it is very important to promote the youth of the country, after all this is the future for every state. And what makes this 21st century a little bit different from earlier times is the speed of change. That’s why it is important to be an active member of the international community, because many of the problems in the 21st century cannot be solved any more only at national level. and that’s why the collaboration between the UN and its members is so important. Because of the issues like climate change, bringing together technological acceleration to the benefit of people are issues which are well tackled in the context of cooperation and collaboration.

 - Having worked in Uzbekistan for four years, you have visited many regions, learning the lifestyle and traditions of the people. What precious impressions will you take with you?

 - I feel very privileged to have been working at ae very decisive stage in Uzbekistan’s historic development. Indeed, I have seen quite a few places in Uzbekistan. Some of the memories that I will never forget is the hospitality of the people, I have enjoyed an incredible warmth of people from all strata, especially of the rural people. Sometimes even when people do not have much, they still offer you a full table. The second thing that I will remember is the best climate I’ve ever experienced, with lots of sunshine and four seasons that are wonderful. For you, this is something very natural, but for anyone coming to Uzbekistan, this is something really special.

The landscapes that you have, I am very much interested in the outdoors, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing different spectacular landscapes in Uzbekistan, such as my favorite Tien-Shan mountains only 1.5 hours outside Tashkent, but also the Gissar mountains. The changes between the intensely green irrigated lands and semi deserts and steppes that are not irrigated are especially beautiful in autumn when the leaves change. The beautiful fruit trees in spring. These are things that I will never forget.

The beauty of your cultural heritage. So many tourists have recognized Uzbekistan as a wonderful center of the Silk Road and come here to see this. I had the privilege to see it multiple times in different seasons. The beauty of Bukhara, spectacular integrity of the old town of Khiva, and the grandness of Samarkand. I will also never forget my visits to the Aral Sea, an environmental disaster that in its scale cannot be imagined unless you are there to see it. This will always for me be a reminder how closely human development, the human wellbeing is connected to the environment. And I think it should be a reminder for the whole world how powerful the new development vision of the Sustainable Development Goals is: that development must go hand in handwith care about the environment because otherwise similar and much larger catastrophes may happen worldwide. I am thinking of the melting ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic, Greenland, about the rise of the sea level and the catastrophic implications this may have unless the world in cooperation with each other takes quick action to tackle this.

I believe in human endeavor, there have been many challenges in the past that human intellect has been able to tackle, and I have no doubt that humanity - through cooperation and our immense ability to act - will find good solutions.

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