Development should be a dialogue

“DEVELOPMENT is not so much about talking – it’s more about doing,” said Jens Wandel, the director of the UNDP Bratislava Regional Centre on the way up to the roof of his office building to illustrate one of the most recent achievements of his centre – its solar energy station, one of only three in all of Bratislava. Indeed, dealing effectively with climate change is one of the most pressing developmental issues he said the UNDP is involved with in his interview with The Slovak Spectator, along with migration, minority issues and the social consequences of the financial crisis.

Jens WandelJens Wandel (Source: Courtesy of UNDP Regional Centre in Bratislava)

“DEVELOPMENT is not so much about talking – it’s more about doing,” said Jens Wandel, the director of the UNDP Bratislava Regional Centre on the way up to the roof of his office building to illustrate one of the most recent achievements of his centre – its solar energy station, one of only three in all of Bratislava. Indeed, dealing effectively with climate change is one of the most pressing developmental issues he said the UNDP is involved with in his interview with The Slovak Spectator, along with migration, minority issues and the social consequences of the financial crisis.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the main development issues in the region your office covers, and particularly in Slovakia?

Jens Wandel (JW): The main development issues in our region (ranging from Slovakia to Kazakhstan) centre on the nexus between the social consequences of the financial crisis and the challenges coming from climate change. Our role as the UNDP Regional Centre for Europe and CIS is to support the 22 UNDP offices in the region, the 800 staff that we have and the $330 million in development assistance that we allocate from here.

Climate change creates new conditions, not always negative. But action is required, although none of the problems are devastating if we think about the resources and the knowledge in the region and the region’s ability to change – just look at Slovakia’s ability to go through a fantastic transition.

The financial crisis increasingly appears to be the crisis of 2007 – 2009. But that’s the financial part of it. The social part of it will be the crisis of 2008 – 2015 because unemployment and its consequences come with delayed effect and that will create some very negative social losses. First someone loses their job, then perhaps their health, and then they get more difficult to employ. And unemployment and its consequences are not new to the region – even in Slovakia you had structural long-term unemployment, so the damages are known. But it has increased significantly. We will have a bottom segment of the population in many countries that are struggling. The social agenda may not be so strong in Europe because the financial crisis is over, but it’s very strong east of Schengen.

TSS: So your work has changed due to the financial crisis a lot…

JW: Unfortunately, yes. You see, we had hopes, and we could see that a lot of people got lifted out of poverty – defined as $2.50 a day. And we were seeing getting down to 4 or 5 percent of the entire population at that level, but now maybe we’re back to 10-12 percent, and that is a lot of people. Plus, we are still worried about the consequences. This region, for example, is the only region in the world that still has growth in the HIV epidemic. Now, will the social impact of the financial crisis increase the number of drug users? Maybe yes. But then that secondary social problem will accelerate.

TSS: Do you see enough willingness on the part of governments to address issues of climate change, migration, minority issues?

JW: Copenhagen has shown there is political willingness to deal with climate change issues. Big countries that matter like China, India, the US and Europe have all signed off on the Copenhagen Accord that actually has some non-binding, but nevertheless significant goals, that the countries are communicating and expressing a willingness to be held accountable to. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that those goals, even if we are successful, will not keep us below two degrees [in global temperature increase]. Unfortunately, climate change is going to happen and it will hurt the poor. The richer people are, the better they can adapt. And you see it again and again. If there is flooding in Europe it hurts us, but we can throw a lot of resources at it; but if you have major problems in the poorer places in this region, people are hurt more. So our goal is to try to channel advice and also funds to that level.

A big part of our work in the region in the next five years is to bring climate change consequences to the sub-national level. Because one thing is that you can convince people in a capital to sign off on Copenhagen and change the laws, but it doesn’t really trigger actual change. You have to go down to the sub-national level where governments handle housing issues, manage waste, and plan local transport. This is where a difference is going to be made.

TSS: How about minority issues?

JW: In the region we have a number of these issues, but I would like to talk about one, the issue of Roma. UNDP, together with the World Bank and the EU, are working very closely to try within the Roma Decade to see whether we can contribute to invigorating the effort. Also, we are working concretely with the Slovak government and some other governments in this area.

We need to confront some very sensitive subjects around minorities and in countries in this region, including Slovakia, there are some very sensitive issues about special schools, or Roma as a group suddenly getting filtered in such a way, and sometimes unintentionally, that the outcome is that they don’t achieve the education that allows them to interact with the world around them. And this is devastating.

I think one has to bring the problem to the surface and confront it and then insist on change and measure the changes. There is nothing that suggests that any population group in Europe cannot attend normal schools, be it Roma or any other.

We also need to interact with the minority groups in a more sophisticated way, and that means we need to work with minority groups from the point of view of empowerment. That means going to that population group and working with them at their pace, in some kind of development trajectory. Maybe getting them to insulate their houses, maybe installing a solar panel. In our view this kind of methodology would help address some of the poverty issues in the Roma population.

TSS: So what would be a concrete example of good practices in dealing with Roma issues?

JW: A concrete example of empowerment in Slovakia and in Hungary was when we sent out organisers into the communities with no mandate as to what to organise. That means they didn’t arrive knowing what to do. But they are development people, so they go out, they meet the community and they engage the community and it can take four weeks and no one seems to engage; you drink a lot of coffee and so on, but eventually you engage. And then you look at what you can do there and start building small projects from below. And you show that there’s a return to this kind of organisational work. The community itself comes up with small proposals for €2,000 - €3,000. And it’s not the proposal itself; it’s the fact that they do it and they set priorities. That is what you aim for.

TSS: Another issue you are dealing with is migration. What exactly is the role of your office in this area and what are the main challenges for this region at the moment?

JW: UNDP published a report, the Human Development Report 2009 , on migration because migration is a very important part of the development discussion. And our recommendation in the report is ‘think migration into donorship’, so that donorship is not only about giving someone money, but including migration in the thinking.

You have people who will move from outside the region into Europe and they come from countries that are poorer than Europe and that brings positive impact. You see, the human development index goes up – they have longer lives, better education, and very importantly we can see that, for example, women change behaviour, they are empowered. And when they return home they will bring those new values back. So that means that they help induce development in the country of origin.

Also countries benefit from inwards migration. And although in a short-term perspective it might seem unlikely in the time of the economic crisis, in a longer-term perspective Slovakia, like many other European countries, is going to face serious demographic challenges because its population is getting older. We also have migration within Europe and that means people will move within EU and create value where they settle. Good migration policies can be very beneficial for the receiving country.

Good practices can be seen in countries that make their migration laws very public and make sure that in countries of origin people there really know the target country’s migration law. This is a good way to suppress illegal migration.

And finally, there’s another argument: migration will occur. A country can choose not to regulate it or to use suppression. We believe that neither of these will be effective. Illegal migration creates much better conditions for smuggling other things; it creates a basis for illegal behaviour and the receiving country doesn’t benefit.

Most migration creates a win-win situation, but I will admit openly that stories in the press could create an opposite impression. And it’s also true that in time of high-level unemployment, maybe high-level migration is not a very good idea. But there’s nothing wrong with that and UNDP is not advocating that a country should take more migrants. We say it should be done deliberately, as part of a country’s policy. And we predict that no country in Europe can survive without a certain level of migration because there are certain sources you cannot move. You can move production of furniture, you can even move production of cars out of Slovakia; but health care you cannot move and a lot of services you cannot move. And as we’re moving to a lot more collaborative service economies, we need people.

TSS: When you say that migration will occur, does that mean it will soon occur in Slovakia to the same extent as it now does in the UK or Italy in terms of numbers of migrants and their countries of origin? Will it pose similar challenges to Slovakia – such as religious and ethnic diversity?

JW: There already is migration into Slovakia and all countries of Europe because you have free movement of labour within the EU. And that migration is very important for any country’s development.

We tend to focus on migration that occurs from developing countries into the developed world. That migration is very small and in my view it will occur in all the European countries because it already happens in Italy, in Denmark, in Germany. And some of the migrants have German passports. And they will come here. In other words, not all Europeans are white anymore. And that is going to pose a challenge for any country.

The migration that happens from the developing countries into the developed world will occur and it may accelerate because of climate change, or because some of the countries may fail from the development point of view, or because the Europeans need such migration. The migration we see today, of people coming from developing countries, is not necessarily the poorest people of these countries; it could be the best prepared people. That is the case for example of Indian doctors in the UK, but it happens in many countries and this is driven by demographics and the needs of the economy.

So yes, migration will occur also in Slovakia and it is already happening thanks to the EU. And you need to think it into your country’s development policy. You may need people with certain skills or dynamics and they can create huge value.

TSS: But are countries of CEE ready for these changes concerning inter-religious, inter-ethnic relations? Are Slovaks ready to accept the diversity like what we see today in Denmark for instance?

JW: From the UN perspective you would of course advocate peace between people, but that alone is not satisfactory. Most nations face significant change and that also means change of their understanding of who they are, the concept of being a nation. And there are different, better and worse ways of doing it. It’s very difficult to point to a country that is uniquely successful or uniquely unsuccessful in this area, but you can point to how to do certain things.

And the worst practice is to simply react – that is, suddenly you have thousands of migrants in the country for some reason, and then you act.

I don’t think that any population in the world can hide and isolate itself. I don’t think that we only can talk about minorities and majorities in a way that the majority is always wrong, the minority is always right. Minorities can also be very aggressive, they can also stereotype others.

There is also another issue implied in your question, that there seems to be particular tension where religion is involved. And from where I stand I think it’s very important to understand that populations do not normally confront each other only about religion. It’s a complex area with an aspect of political ambition, or it can be linked to a fight for resources or even to a long-term conflict where both parties have forgotten what they are fighting about.

So religion is an issue that can be used for conflict but it can also be used for peace. And in itself it’s not enough. By far, the majority of people irrespective of their religious belief interact with each other, trade with each other, and travel to each other’s countries. I think one should keep that perspective as we go forward and not let ourselves get captured by extremist views.

TSS: What is your experience with the governments of the countries of this region? Do they see migration as a benefit, or do they see it as a threat?

JW: It depends on who you talk to inside the governments. The longer-term planners have a better feeling for how this can become very positive. If you talk to the internationalised part of your private sector, they will speak more favourably about migration.

And then you have specific segments of society who want to isolate or who feel reasonably threatened by migration. That’s where you have labour competition, for example.

And then there is the overhang derived from the conflicts that are ongoing in Iraq or Afghanistan. But that’s what takes the front page. But if you look at the statistics, migration happens everywhere and most of it is legal. And I am advocating that regardless of the political turmoil of the day it’s good to look at what it is and what it means for development. And then to see how one can harness this and make it beneficial, also for those who receive, not only for those who send.

TSS: Why is decentralisation important from the viewpoint of development? Are the countries of this region sufficiently developed in this respect? Have they ‘decentralised enough’?

JW: If one should take a broad brushstroke, the more you go to the east in this region, the less the countries are decentralised. So Slovakia is actually highly decentralised and Kyrgyzstan not so.

If you have an ambition for human development – that is enlargement of human choices is what you are arguing for – in order for that to be realised for an entire population of a given country, then what you need is a certain amount of decentralisation. The other reason is that societies are getting far more complex, so local circumstances matter. It makes a huge difference whether you live on the coast, in an urban area or in the mountains, whether you are close to water or far away from it. So a lot of things, such as energy issues, are best understood locally and that means the national unit is too broad, so we have to break it down.

The other reason we can see empirically from the region is that decentralisation determines success. We have to go out and find out how the individual units can be successful within a common framework, under common standards. And after we try in the EU to commonly reduce our CO2, there might be some very strong actions coming down, either as rules or as increased energy prices or taxes. And how will individual units react and benefit from those opportunities? That can be determined to a large extent on a decentralised basis. And this is why UNDP is going to put a lot of emphasis on understanding these dynamics and then invest in methodologies that will allow, typically, municipalities or regions to create a development strategy and then find out ‘what do I do with my region to lead to a low-carbon economy’.

So that’s why the decentralisation agenda is important. There’s also a technical reason, since a number of decisions are already taken locally. I agree that the rules can be national, but the actual applications cannot be made nationally in areas such as waste management, certain types of housing, transportation organisation, and investments.

We need to find a way of equality through empowerment of local units. Does that mean more decentralisation, less decentralisation? Here I want to be much more ambiguous. Throughout the EU, the discussion is going back and forth within countries. I’m Danish. Denmark is much more decentralised than some other countries in the EU, but even that statement is sometimes difficult to fully support.

TSS: How is it in Slovakia?

JW: Slovakia, historically speaking, has been very successful with transition and in addressing a number of complex areas linked to decentralisation. I’m not saying that everything in Slovakia is perfect, because Slovakia like any other country is still developing; we haven’t seen the end of it yet. But there has been high level of success in the transition.

Today we are working with the Slovak Finance Ministry to extend advice from Slovakia to Serbia, Moldova and Montenegro, in which we will be discussing concrete experiences with decentralisation. Slovakia has the knowledge about how to do that within the context of EU integration. That knowledge is really important and it might not exist in textbooks but it does exist in people’s heads. We are trying to transmit that knowledge to benefit countries outside Slovakia. And this is financed by the Slovak government. UNDP is just playing a facilitating role.

TSS: It is interesting to hear that Slovakia can act as a donor in this respect although the authors of Slovakia’s decentralisation reform are not very satisfied with the way it has been put into practice.

JW: Yes, and the point I want to make is exactly that just the discussion in itself is hugely interesting for a country that is going in the same direction. Because at the end of the day Moldova will decide what Moldova will do. But it’s nice to see somebody come and say ‘this is what we have achieved, you can even see it from outside Slovakia and this is the debate’. That debate is very fresh, that makes it relevant for the neighbouring countries.

Slovakia doesn’t come and say ‘I have the recipe, just do like me and you’re fine’. Rather it is ‘I know the dilemmas, I know the problems, this is how we chose to do things and this is what we have achieved’.

TSS: Are there any other examples of experiences that Slovakia shares with other countries?

JW: Yes, Slovakia’s transition experience. How Slovakia got into the eurozone; what happened when Slovakia rapidly made certain economic changes; and also its responses to some of the issues surrounding the financial crisis.

The type of development assistance in which ‘Denmark knows’ and ‘Tanzania doesn’t know anything’ – that world doesn’t exist. Development assistance is more like a dialogue. And what may happen, I predict, is that some of the ministers of finance may even see some of their own dilemmas a little bit differently after discussing them with Moldova. I see some universities thinking differently after having received students and professors from other countries. And these are the kind of conversations UNDP and I am seeking.

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