Speech by the UNDP Regional Director for Asia and Pacific, Haoliang Xu, at the Pacific SDG 16 Conference on Political Stability

Jun 27, 2016

Honourable Speaker Luveni , Honourable Ministers, Honourable Speakers of Parliament, Honourable Members of Parliament, representatives of diplomatic missions, officials from electoral bodies and other independent institutions, representatives of civil society, academia, ladies and gentlemen. A warm welcome to you all.

It is a pleasure to be back in the Pacific and to be back here in Fiji. I have been to the Pacific many times and every time I have come I feel the flight is too long and the visit is too short!

I would like to recognise the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Pacific Office Resident Representative, Ms Osnat Lubrani as well as other UNDP staff and colleagues who have travelled here today from Suva and also from Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. 

I am delighted to be here today to make the opening address for this very important conference.  This is an important topic for the region and for development in Melanesia and the Pacific more broadly. It is great to see so many national leaders and key decision-makers here today. You are facilitators of change, and without your wisdom and courage, change will not come.

On September 25th last year when the countries of the world agreed to the new sustainable development goals 2030 Agenda there was optimism in the air. I was there in New York myself and you could not help but feel that it was a historic moment.  193 countries all signing up to a vision of the world that we want to achieve by 2030. These were not empty words but clear commitments by leaders from across the world.  

Agenda 2030 is an ambitious agenda. It is more wide-ranging than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is an agenda for transformational change.  It is an agenda that has goals and targets aimed at achieving inclusive growth, calling for action to ‘leave no one behind’.  And it has comprehensive goals and targets linked to social policy and environmental sustainability. A core principle is reducing inequities of all kinds. The new SDGs, and the broader sustainable agenda, go much further then the MDGs, addressing the root causes of poverty and the universal need for development that works for all people.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals requires action at all levels from the local to the national, regional and global levels. The UNDP stands ready to support country partners to effectively implement the new development agenda, and to make long-term economic prosperity, and human and environmental well-being, a reality.  

In this context, strong national ownership will be central to the achievement of the SDGs.  If the SDGs are incorporated into national and local plans, policies, and budgets, then there is a good chance that action will follow. In other words, the global agenda will work if it is localized. This is why democratic governance has an essential part in the framing of the post-2015 development agenda.

Sustainable Development Goal 16 is to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies.  While this is a goal in itself, there is a strong argument that all of the SDGs hinge on the successful attainments of this goal.  It is fair to argue that just, peaceful and inclusive societies are needed to achieve all other SDGs.  

The inclusion of this Goal 16 in the SDGs was ground breaking. The SDGs confirmed what we who have worked in development have known for a long time - that the new post 2015 development framework must advance not only sustainability and poverty reduction, but also, crucially, peaceful societies, justice and good governance.

Peace, stability, human rights and effective governance based on the rule of law are important conduits for sustainable development. We are living in a world that is increasingly divided. Some regions enjoy sustained levels of peace, security and prosperity while others fall into seemingly endless cycles of conflict and violence. This is by no means inevitable and must be addressed.

One of the specific targets of Goal 16 is to develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.  We do not call for good governance for the sake of good governance. We call for good governance as it is through good and effective governance, where citizens feel that national institutions are working for them and for the country at large, that progress is made in achieving inclusive development for people and in achieving the SDGs. Citizens need effective avenues to hold elected officials accountable. And individuals, especially the most vulnerable, need advocates and self-efficacy in order to genuinely realize their rights and access justice.

In this context, the primary focus should be placed on enabling core government functions, to ensure that public finance, civil service management, capacities to coordinate public policy, and the extension of state authority to the local level can help stabilize a still fragile government apparatus.

The strengthening of transparent parliament institutions needs to go beyond improving the effectiveness and efficiency of institutions, and into making them more open and responsive to stakeholders and the public in policy design, implementation, and monitoring. If inclusion of all stakeholders, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized groups and individuals in our society, is made a central part of institutional strengthening, we believe that the implementation of the 2030 agenda will be more successful. We also encourage the empowerment of women and youth in shaping policies and monitoring their implementation. 

Parliaments are the democratically elected national forums for countries. They are institutions where different views, traditions, cultures, ethnicities and opinions from the country come together and are represented.  

Parliaments as national institutions that represent citizens must work effectively in order to achieve the SDGs.  UNDP is supporting parliaments throughout the Pacific to improve their key roles and functions.  In order to achieve the SDGs, an enabling legal and conducive policy environment needs to be facilitated. It is through effective parliamentary processes that scrutinize legislation and allow time for consideration of different views and opinions -- that good laws are made. It is through robust but constructive debate that divergent views are being debated. 

This brings me on to the topic of this conference. Achieving SDGs 16, will be a catalyst to achieving the other SDGs. Political instability and bad governance is a hindrance to achieving SDG 16 and has an adverse effect on development.

In order to gain the faith and trust of people, we need to have governance institutions that work effectively. We need to have governance institutions that work for the people.

Parliaments cannot only be arenas for attaining power and arguing a zero sum game, but need to be strengthened to ensure that they are institutions that can effectively and transparently scrutinize generate and oversee government policy, produce common grounds and create a win-win situations. They need to have committees that meet regularly and play a part in the legislative process by considering bills, and very importantly, by consulting the public to seek their views on the proposed new laws.

Parliaments need to meet regularly and, in between full parliamentary sittings, the Government backbench members and the Oppositions MPs must work hard through Committees to ensure that the Parliament does provide that effective oversight of the Government.

The topics under discussion at the conference over the next two days address some of the key factors linked to political instability. 

What impact do electoral systems have on political stability in a country? How can electoral systems ensure that voices of different groups and opinions in a country are represented without leading to fragmentation that in turn leads to political instability? Can each country produce a long term visions that is not subject to change just because a government changes?

Equally, we have seen increasing moves in the Pacific region towards increased regulations on the formation and registration of political parties.  It is an interesting discussion as to whether political parties are organisations that can be strengthened through top down legislation and regulations, or are they inherently movements of like-minded people that grow and strengthen organically?

Melanesia in particular has been affected by regular threat of no-confidence votes or the continuing specter on the vote of no confidence hanging over the country. However, is the solution to the underlying issue merely restricting the windows in which votes of confidence can be introduced or is this merely addressing a symptom rather than a cause of political instability?

One of the recurring and cross cutting issues intrinsic to many conference sessions is the issue of gender and representation. Melanesia has some of the lowest numbers of women in parliament and leadership positions in the whole world. In discussing issues of parliamentary effectiveness, representation is one of the key roles of Parliament.  Political or constitutional reforms will need to consider the issue of whether there is any intrinsic link between low levels of women’s political participation and political instability in any given country.

In many countries in the region, the parliamentary democracy system is relatively new. The traditional governance systems still remain strong in parallel with modern political systems. What are the effective decision making processes which can potentially benefit from traditional systems? How can we take advantage of the best elements of both modern and traditional systems to facilitate the best outcomes for the country’s development? Is the “traditional way” a stepping stone or a bottleneck from a political inclusion to a gender specific perspective? 

I have raised many questions but unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers! As UNDP, we do not come to this conference with answers and in each country there will be different questions and different answers.

What we have seen in our work throughout the region is that there is an appetite for reform and change.  

In Melanesia at this moment in time, there are national discussions on political and constitutional reform ongoing in most countries. There is a recognition that ‘business as usual’ is not an option if there are to be systems and institutions in place that provide arenas for national leadership that will see poverty eradicated  and if we are to see the hard decisions that will need to be taken to make real progress in helping the poorest in society.

Of course, there will be differences between countries as to what are the specific key issues or drivers of political instability, but there is also recognition that no one country has all the answers.  It is for this reason that we have convened this conference. Knowledge and understanding of ongoing political reforms and initiatives in neighbouring countries can only help inform national discussions and focus on key areas where there is common grounds.

For UNDP, it is crucial that we continue to play a facilitating role in providing a space for regional dialogue and discussion on important national issues.  As a multi-lateral organisation, we have the benefit of being able to provide a regional and indeed global perspective that can provide relevant experience to national discussions and debates. 

The issue of political stability is of course often a controversial one. It would be easy for any organisation to shy away from engaging with this topic and saying that these issues are not issues that organisations such as UNDP should be involved with. However, without political stability and without transparent, accountable and effective governance institution, achieving the SDGs will be but a dream. Therefore, shying away from difficult and at times controversial governance issues is not an option. But we recognise that we cannot impose these discussions. It is your initiative that we can support.

I am looking forward to today’s discussions.  Unfortunately, I will not be with you tomorrow as I am travelling to Tuvalu to see first-hand development challenges and opportunities, and to discuss UNDP’s partnership to address them. 

The fact that we have all come together for this conference is in itself a testament to the recognition, that if we are to achieve the SDGs; if we are to achieve the world where poverty is eradicated; a world where all the children receive good quality education; a world where mother’s do not die when giving birth; it will require courage and leadership and difficult decisions by nations and you as national leaders.

I would also like to thank our donor partners, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NZ MFAT), the European Union (EU), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) and the Government of Japan for their generous support for this conference.

Thank you.

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