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UN faces uphill battle for Arab hearts and minds

Sentiments threaten to hamper development projects progress CAIRO: The United Nations has faced much regional criticism of late. The recent war on Lebanon and the delay in a United Nations Security Council move to end the conflict resulted in widespread resentment directed toward the international body. Such sentiments have also created yet another obstacle to …


Sentiments threaten to hamper development projects progress

CAIRO: The United Nations has faced much regional criticism of late. The recent war on Lebanon and the delay in a United Nations Security Council move to end the conflict resulted in widespread resentment directed toward the international body.

Such sentiments have also created yet another obstacle to the organization s development plans for the country.

The international community has put the UN in a very difficult position and the UN s reputation has undoubtedly been damaged as a result of political events in the region, James Rawely, the new UN country resident coordinator, told The Daily Star Egypt.

At the end of the day the UN is an instrument of the member states, so at some times the UN will be associated with very unpopular policies in certain parts of the world. So this is an inherit problem.

Rawely doesn t brush off the possibility that this sentiment could stall the organization’s programs in the region.

It is quite understandable that the Arab street, [including] the Egyptian street, is not satisfied with what it sees as the performance of the UN vis-à-vis Lebanon in particular [and] the Palestinian issue in general, says Rawely.

Several factors have played a part in this view, he explains. There is the general perception that the UN is some monolithic organization. He also cites the failure to distinguish between the UN per se, which is composed of international civil servants, and the member states. In addition, there is a kind of reductionism of UN activities to that of the Security Council.

Rawely says he and other UN personnel, including Secretary General Kofi Annan, understand and share the frustrations felt in Arab streets. But he calls on others to see the other half of the cup, the full one.

He hopes Arabs, including Egyptians, will recognize that without the UN, the cease-fire might never have been reached and the humanitarian aid might not have been delivered.

I m not saying we should be applauded, but at the same time, I think it is important to differentiate the role of the UN per se . and the member states, he says, we can only go so far.

At the moment, the UN needs all the positive exposure it can get, not only to brush-off these negative sentiments, but to promote its list of local development programs and ambitious goals. Some are a bit too ambitious in terms of the proximity of the deadlines.

According to the UN Development Assistance Framework that outlines the organization s work in Egypt from 2007-2011, there are five main priorities. These include increasing state performance and accountability in various areas, increasing women s participation in the political sphere and workforce, creating a culture of human rights, and eliminating child labor and regional and gender disparities. Initial estimates say the plan will need $340 million.

These priorities fall under the umbrella of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). With its 2015 deadline, the Egypt representatives of the organization are launching several campaigns to push and promote the eight goals of the international list.

It might be a late start, but Rawely says the past few years have seen progress in areas related to the goals, especially in maternal and child health. Bringing the discussion of poverty and the plans for government decentralization to the forefront is credited to the UN Development Program s Arab Human Development Reports, he adds.

One of the major obstacles, although I see signs of progress, is to make the MDGs and more broadly the millennium declaration really the center piece of the government s development programs, not just an add-on, he notes.

The implementation of these plans and projects doesn t only require heavy promotion of their importance, but also close partnership with the state, civil society and the public. Not an easy task, especially with the growing negative perceptions of the organization.

I guess there are always going to be difficulties, says Rawely. There is a tremendous possibility to further expand the already existing quite impressive partnerships that exist between the UN, the government, civil society and indeed the private sector.

Close partnership with the state and civil societies has already proven fruitful in certain programs like the eradication of polio and the establishment of national councils for women and human rights, according to Noman El-Sayyad, head of the UNDP Information, Communication and Reporting Unit.

But influencing the state to play a better role requires more active citizenry. The citizens, Rawely explains, have every right to monitor the services of the state, report back when the services are not adequate. But not only demand, [they need to] participate in the development process.

There are various projects that aim at that, with a specific interest in reducing disparities between the north and south and closing the gender gap. But working with citizens in UN-sponsored programs requires gaining their trust and eliminating the negative sentiments harbored against the organization.

Not an easy task.

Rawely admits that the progress in achieving the MDGs is slow in some areas, like women empowerment. But, I m cautiously optimistic that things will move forward, he says.

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