Women have a crucial role to play in overcoming economic crisis – UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Women have a crucial role to play in overcoming economic crisis – UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka

13 November, 2022

The 77th anniversary of the United Nations was celebrated on October 24. Sri Lanka has been a UN member state since 1955 and the UN’s work has been expansive over these years. “For more than 60 years, the UN, in partnership with the Government and people of Sri Lanka, has continuously worked to ensure that all Sri Lankan people enjoy better living conditions,” the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

Despite very impressive growth and social development, South Asia contains 36 percent of the world’s poor and nearly half of the world’s undernourished children. That means urgent action in this region is crucial to us achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a global level by 2030, she added.

Excerpts from the interview

Q: What is the theme for this year’s UN day? Tell us about its significance.

A: UN Day, which falls every year on October 24, commemorates the anniversary of the ratification of the UN Charter, which brought the United Nations into being 77 years ago. The Charter was developed to give a new foundation of hope to humanity after the tragedy of the Second World War. Its signatories resolved that the world would never again face the devastation they had just endured. Of course, today, we are facing an array of complex challenges, including some that our founders could never have envisaged.

Looking at the challenging global situation with which we are now confronted, I believe it is more critical than ever for nations to commemorate the UN’s anniversary and the values detailed in the UN Charter. It is important we reaffirm our commitment to maintaining international peace and security, promoting social progress, improving living standards around the world, and supporting human rights.

Q: What are the global challenges for 2022/2023? How will the UN address these issues?

A: This year, at the UN General Assembly in New York Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the gravity of the challenges the international community faces. “We are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction,” he said, adding that “our world is in peril—and paralysed.”

We are imperiled by geopolitical tension and conflict, and the multiplication of conflicts around the world; by rising inequality and the divergence of developed and developing countries; and by crises like the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. As we approach COP27, I would like to highlight the incredible scale of the climate emergency. In recent days, three UN agencies have published damning reports on the global response to this emergency.

The world’s progress on cutting carbon emissions has been “woefully inadequate,” the UN Environment Programme’s latest report stated, with “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place. Meanwhile, a new report by UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) warned that the current combined National Determined Contributions—which are countries’ national efforts to tackle emissions and mitigate climate change—are leading our planet to at least 2.5 degrees warming, a level deemed catastrophic by scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Another global challenge is the issue of debt defaults and economic crises: specifically, how debt and inflation–due to myriad factors–can destabilize vulnerable low and middle-income countries. While Sri Lanka’s challenges in this regard are very serious, they are not unique.

Despite these incredible challenges, the commitment of the UN to resolving them will never waver. Over the years, the UN has led the way in setting up the multilateral platforms that are our best way to come together and rise to these challenges through international cooperation. Central to these agreements are the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda – the most ambitious global development platform in history. Meanwhile, COP27, which convenes today in Egypt, presents another essential opportunity for the world to come together and make good on its climate promises. Indeed, in his UN Day address, the Secretary-General noted that our organisation—built on the hope and resolve of its founders—was made for moments like these.

Q: What are the major challenges faced by South Asia as identified by the United Nations?

A: South Asia is home to about a quarter of the world’s population. However, despite very impressive growth and social development, it contains 36 percent of the world’s poor and nearly half of the world’s undernourished children. That means urgent action in this region is crucial to us achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a global level by 2030.

The UN’s World Economic Situation and Prospects report for 2022 released this January highlighted how South Asian countries share some common challenges in achieving the SDGs. These include weak stakeholder engagement in sustainable development, especially among the private sector, a lack of sufficient data to set baselines and track progress, a shortage of employment opportunities for young people, and technology and financing constraints.

Most importantly, however, the report highlights the risk of “significant financial distress” in South Asia as financial conditions tighten around the world. It appears it took very little time for these risks to materialise. Three major South Asian countries including Sri Lanka had entered or re-entered negotiations with the IMF by July 2022.

What this means is that, while the needs remain the same for recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, the prevailing fiscal and financial conditions facing some countries makes restarting progress towards the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda considerably more challenging. Combine these challenges with a global cost-of-living crisis, and you can begin to appreciate the scale of the task before us.

To confront these challenges in our region, the UN and the IMF have called for further multilateral support–particularly for countries with elevated sovereign risk. Our January World Economic Situation and Prospects report called for further multilateral assistance in this area, and the IMF followed suit in its most recent World Economic Outlook Report on 11 October. There, the IMF highlighted the critical role of multilateral actions to support countries managing acute debt distress, and for multilateral institutions to stand ready to provide emergency support to safeguard essential spending–especially given the pressures of surging inflation on the most vulnerable.

In the run-up to COP27, which begins on November 6, it would be remiss not to mention the climate challenges the South Asian region faces. The United Nations this month launched a new appeal for more than $800 million in response to the devastating floods in Pakistan. Like Pakistan, Sri Lanka is highly vulnerable to climate change. Should we face a climate-induced disaster here like the one we see now in Pakistan, the resultant damage would be of equally devastating proportions. Sri Lanka ranked 4th, 2nd, and 6th in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 editions of GermanWatch’s Global Climate Risk Index, while the World Bank estimates disaster losses in Sri Lanka to be Rs, 50billion ($313 million) per year on average.

Q: Could you comment on the UN’s role in Sri Lanka”

A: Sri Lanka has been a UN member state since 1955 and our work has been expansive over these years.

For more than 60 years, the UN, in partnership with the Government and people of Sri Lanka, has continuously worked to ensure that all Sri Lankan people enjoy better living conditions collectively and through its 23 specialised agencies, funds, programs, and offices across the country. Moving forward, the UN strives to support the Government of Sri Lanka to achieve sustainable and inclusive economic growth, with equitable access to quality social services, strengthened human capabilities, and reconciliation for long-lasting peace.

Q: Could you elaborate on the UN’s role in the country during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of the M/V X-Press Pearl incident?

A: Sri Lankans faced the situation with impressive resilience and energy and so did the United Nations System in the country. At the immediate onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, the UN in Sri Lanka quickly developed a One UN response and mobilized resources towards key priorities such as supporting the government and civil society, building capacity in the health system, supporting the government’s risk communication and messaging on key public health measures, supporting a highly successful nationwide vaccination campaign, and providing immediate support to major socioeconomic challenges posed by the pandemic in the areas of education, child protection and gender-based violence programs.

An important part of the UN’s support was to help develop the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 Strategic Response and Preparedness Plan (SRPP). The UN mobilised funds towards procuring medical machinery, test kits, PPEs, and ICU beds distributed in hospitals around the country.

During 2020, UN agencies supported Sri Lanka’s health response with technology to monitor and track the virus. We provided support for virus genomic sequencing and upgraded several hospitals with isolation facilities and advanced biosafety labs. We also assisted thousands of health workers with remote conferencing capacity, helped establish a centrally managed, digital home-based care system for Covid patients, and provided hygiene kits to women and girls in lockdown.

Work was begun in 2020 to help Sri Lanka prepare its vaccination efforts, including under the COVAX facility led by the UN and other partners globally. The UN assisted in developing the National Pandemic Vaccine Deployment Plan, expanding regulatory capacity, enhancing cold storage distribution, and updating health protocols and government vaccine distribution plans, together with advocacy and communication efforts.

UN agencies also stepped up their support to address the pandemic’s socioeconomic impacts. This included providing health screening services and testing at the point of entry into the country to ensure the safe and healthy passage of an estimated 60,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers that returned in 2020. It also included take-home rations for 79,828 primary school-aged children providing short-term relief amid the food security shock.

We provided support to over 150,000 vulnerable households through the distribution of seed packages as part of the Government of Sri Lanka’s National Home Gardening Program as a means of improving food security and reducing micronutrient deficiencies. And we helped maintain and expand specialised helplines, shelters, and transport as safeguards against sexual and gender-based violence.

The UN’s role in the aftermath of the M/V X-Press Pearl incident: A: The UN in Sri Lanka worked closely with the Government in supporting Sri Lanka’s response to the M/V X-Press Pearl incident in May/June 2021.

Thanks to technical support from the European Union (DG ECHO), facilitated via the Office of the Resident Coordinator, the UN deployed an environmental mission to Sri Lanka, to provide technical advisory support to the Government of Sri Lanka and to assess the environmental impacts of the incident.

Q: Can you outline the UN’s role during the recent economic crisis?

A: The onset of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis in 2022 has given rise to many more competing needs. For the UN, our initial engagements with the Government yielded a package of immediate support that was organised into four key themes: Health, Food Security, Social Protection, and Macroeconomic Analysis.

On food security, expediting government approval for a Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission was a crucial first response to the crisis. The Assessment provided the government with estimates of food availability, support to identify and profile food-insecure households as potential beneficiaries, and analysis on food import requirements and strategies to facilitate food imports. This assessment forms part of our broader approach of supporting the continued functioning of food systems and capacities, rather than substituting for them.

In addition, in June UN agencies commenced their emergency response by distributing food vouchers to pregnant women in underserved districts of Colombo, with the vouchers delivered alongside antenatal care provided by the Public Health Division of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). UN agencies have also supported the livelihoods of key food producers in Sri Lanka, including cash transfers to small-scale fishers, and smallholder green gram farmers to limit the extent of negative short-term coping mechanisms.

On health, the UN is supporting continued access to essential health inputs, and coordinating in-kind contributions of essential medical supplies for other bilateral and multilateral development partners. Since the onset of the crisis, UN agencies have worked to facilitate donations of priority medicines and medical supplies from bilateral donors, coordinate foreign currency and pay foreign suppliers directly to complete orders already placed through local suppliers and monitor the availability of essential medicines and supplies to highlight shortfalls in particular medicines that can be met by donors. Agencies are also working together to directly procure medical supplies for Sri Lanka through their regional and country offices.

On social protection, our key focus has been on temporarily meeting ‘gaps’ and shortfalls in service coverage as a result of the crisis and promoting a shared position on the need for social protection reform with other development partners. UN agencies have quickly mobilised to extend the government’s nutrition voucher for pregnant and lactating mothers to cover the first 1,000 days for each child.

On macroeconomic analysis, our immediate work has focused on offers of technical support and policy options to the government. In late May our agencies developed several policy memoranda with key measures to support macroeconomic stabilisation and debt sustainability, with discussions taking place with multilateral development partners and elected officials. Our agencies are also supporting the establishment of a dedicated policy and research unit within the Ministry of Finance focusing on medium-term policy measures and planning to support macroeconomic stabilisation.

Since June, the Humanitarian Needs and Priorities (HNP) plan has been responding to the Government’s request for UN-backed multi-sector support for Sri Lanka’s food and medicine shortages. Governments and donor agencies have helped the humanitarian community reach over 1 million of the country’s most vulnerable people with cash, food, school meals, medicine, protection, and livelihood support. The HNP—aligned with appeals from other UN agencies—has raised US$71.1million, with US$8 million confirmed in the immediate pipeline, i.e a total of US$79.1 thanks to the landmark support from donor governments and partners.

The UN will extend the HNP plan through 2022, targeting assistance for 3.4 million people. Among its targets are immediate food assistance for 2.4 million vulnerable and food-insecure people, as well as the provision of 1.5 million farmers with fertilizers and support for fishers to revive food systems that have been severely disrupted. At this point, safeguarding livelihoods is safeguarding lives in Sri Lanka.

Q: What more needs to be done to improve the living condition of Sri Lankans in terms of access to nutrition and basic facilities, gender equality, and female labour force participation?

A: To an extent, we can measure the economic cost of Sri Lanka’s crisis to date, which is considerable, but what also fills me with concern is measuring the human cost of the crisis, and the extent to which it threatens to reverse the country’s considerable progress across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We are beginning to see the effects of the economic crisis in terms of particular pressures on basic service provision. Recent fiscal consolidation measures could involve difficult trade-offs that may continue to occur as a result of the economic crisis. We need to find ways to support the continuity of basic services and continued access to these services - especially among at-risk households.

Nutrition – especially among children – supports cognitive development, improves educational attainment and lifetime income, and reduces the risk of non-communicable diseases later in life. In this sense, inadequate nutrition has a high human cost. Inflation has also eroded the purchasing power of households, and made nutritious diets less affordable, with food inflation at 85.6 percent over the year to October 2022 as measured by the Colombo Consumer Price Index. Providing immediate food assistance to vulnerable and food-insecure Sri Lankans is a priority, and in doing so we are focused on supporting and augmenting local food production capacity and delivery systems as much as possible.

This crisis also poses particular risks for Sri Lanka’s progress towards gender equality. Recent surveys indicate a rise in domestic violence, and an increase of stress and mental health impacts, especially among women and girls. We also know that the collective position of women in Sri Lanka’s labour market is far more vulnerable than that of men.

There are less than half the number of women employed in Sri Lanka as there are men, that the unemployment rate for women is more than double that of men, and that women are overrepresented in elementary occupations and as unpaid, contributing family workers. However, women have a crucial role to play in overcoming Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. The IMF’s most recent Article IV Report on Sri Lanka points to increasing female labour force participation through access to finance, realigning vocational training needs, and providing job search support to women as key measures to “unlock Sri Lanka’s growth potential”.