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'Only at the local level can people push for local needs,' Country Director, UNDP Pakistan

Marc-André Franche is an international development professional who has been leading the UNDP team in Pakistan since early 2013. Between 2008 and 2012, Franche was the Deputy Director of UNDP in Haiti. He has also worked for UNDP in New York as Program Adviser for conflict prevention initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean between 2004 and 2008. He holds MSc in Development Policies from the London School of Economics, and MSc in European Studies from Lund University and BSc in Political Science from Université de Montréal.

BR Research recently sat down with the energetic country director to discuss the development challenges facing Pakistan and the UNDP's perspective on addressing them. Here are some excerpts:

BR Research: Please tell us about the idea behind UNDP's continued engagement in Pakistan!

Marc-André Franche: UNDP has been in Pakistan for many years and will surely be here for many more. We are an international organisation but 96 percent of the people who work with us are Pakistanis. Our priorities are determined through strong engagement and consultation with Pakistanis. Decisions are taken with the government of Pakistan and other national development partners.

We operate with a significant amount of respect for the environment we are in and the people who are responsible for this country. We are not here to sell anything. We are here to promote universal values to which Pakistan has pledged to as part of its UN membership. We are here to help make Pakistan's goals a reality.

This approach is crucial for development co-operation to succeed. We listen to government's challenges and their priorities. We connect them with the best expertise we have available. This approach brings about a different type of relationship, which is based on mutual trust and equality and respect. We provide some seed funding but the majority of our project's funds are from the government of Pakistan or from other donor countries. This is the approach UNDP ascribes to for building successfully, together.

But, we also need to make sure that we are humble and clear-eyed about what can be achieved with international co-operation. No country or society has developed because of international co-operation. It is the leaders and people of a country that make the difference. Progress and human development happens when the elite decide to put the interests of the collective before their own --that's when they become real drivers of positive change.

However, many countries can say "thanks to this support, we have accelerated our results or created new knowledge". But, the role of the international community, the UN, and UNDP is to support, to guide, to nudge, to promote ideas and transformational change, and to bring people together to be the actors of change. This is the best way we know to express solidarity and build a coalition of change.

These are the two aspects that are at the heart of what UNDP does in Pakistan and the reasons why I am proud to work for and lead the UNDP team in Pakistan.

BRR: That collective approach is commendable. How do you see the governance structure in Pakistan that remains elitist and service delivery institutions that continue to get weakened?

MAF: We need to put things into perspective here. Pakistan is a young country. We need to realise that it needs to build its institutions organically. This country has just made a remarkable change, its first ever democratic transition from one civilian government to the other. We need to recognise that.

Three years ago, Pakistani political forces decided to amend the constitution in such a drastic way that it deserves applause. In a country as diverse as Pakistan, it is extraordinary that political forces came together to institute the 18th Amendment. My home country Canada, which is more than 200 years old, hasn't yet been able to reach consensus to amend its constitution. It's very difficult, but Pakistan has achieved that.

We need to look now towards the future. There are crucial reforms that need to happen including civil service reforms, implementation of the 18th Amendment, the reorganisation of responsibilities between the center and the provinces, and strengthening the provincial civil services. Parts of the country are still not under the complete command of the state, especially the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Other areas have different judicial codes, like in Malakand. So, Pakistan is a state that is still in transformation, struggling between its traditions and developing into a modern state. We are living through, and trying to support, this transformation.

I witnessed the May 11 elections this year, and I was deeply encouraged by the participation of all these young people in the political process. Some areas, governed by feudal lords for generations voted for independents which is an interesting change. I saw a record number of women voting in these elections. So, despite the challenges, I think there are positive aspects of transformation that are emerging and that will help bring about even more positive shifts.

BRR: Indeed. The population of Pakistan is growing but the resource pie is not expanding as it should. That is a very basic explanation of the development challenges facing Pakistan. How do you see this connection?

MAF: Population growth is a very serious challenge. But, we need to look at both the total population and the structure of the population. By 2050, Pakistan's population will grow older at a pace faster than any other industrialised country. The population over 65 years of age will double in 20 years when it took over 100 years in the West to do the same. We have an opportunity now to take advantage of the enormous youth bulge which will last until 2050.

But, we are not alarmists about population growth--of course, the country needs to continue and considerably step up family planning, especially in rural areas, particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), FATA and Balochistan. But, more than population's growth, its management is a key challenge, particularly in the cities. More youth are going to need jobs, for which opportunities have to be created. That essentially means enlarging the pie so that everyone can benefit. Some of the government youth initiatives are encouraging, but they need to be scaled up and incorporated as public policies rather than special initiatives. The provinces also need to be brought forward to do the same.

BRR: How do you view the current poverty situation in Pakistan?

MAF: It's a very complex question, since no poverty figures have been published since 2006. This said, extreme poverty in Pakistan (people earning below $1.25 a day on PPP-basis) has diminished, thanks to social protection programmes like the BISP. Now, if we calculate poverty using the multidimensional poverty index, which we have essentially done for Punjab, we estimate poverty in Pakistan at close to 60 percent. You have places like Lahore with very low poverty. But then you have places south of Punjab that is poorer than sub-Saharan Africa. Those disparities have to be addressed.

The reasons for poverty are clear. It's about lack of access to the basic services: health, food, education, nutrition, clean water. Then there are infectious diseases. There is unemployment. There is very low access to productive assets like land and livestock from which income can be generated. Pakistan is among the countries that spend the least on their people's health and education. The new government has been raising the bar on standards and expectations for their people's right to education and health, among other important priorities. That is very welcome.

I believe that Local Government Acts will be important in poverty reduction. More urban centers need to be developed outside of the provincial capitals of Lahore and Karachi. That's why we have applauded the KP government's decision that 40 percent of the development budget will be spent by local governments and not by the province. We have encouraged other provinces to do the same. That is important to achieve results on social indicators right down to the household level. Only at the local level can people push for local needs and priorities.

BRR: Please tell us about the nature of interaction and engagement UNDP has with government institutions at the federal and provincial tiers!

MAF: UNDP is very good at partnering and working within and for public institutions! We are supporting the Election Commission, the National Assembly, and the provincial governments, among others. While we are invested on the governance side, we also spend considerable energy at the community level, where we are focusing in Balochistan and KP in particular. These two provinces have been the most enthusiastic in asking for our support. We also work in Punjab and Sindh, but more on a policy level, for instance in facilitating data collection, analysis on poverty, inequality and the MDGs.

Most of our programmes are implemented in KP and Balochistan, where our work is to increase productivity in the poorest areas. That means access to sustainable energy, clean water, modern irrigation techniques, and improvement of agricultural techniques. Our approach recognises that while institutions can take 5, 10 or 20 years to achieve their reform agendas, we can't wait that long to begin reducing poverty, violence and being better prepared to prevent the effects of natural disasters. We also work with the Union Councils in the poorest areas.

BRR: It has been more than 3 years since the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which laid the foundation for federalism to take root in Pakistan. How do you see the progress thus far? Please also tell us about the idea behind UNDP's support for participatory federalism!

MAF: We believe that the implementation of the 18th Amendment will determine the future success of poverty reduction, democratic governance, productive and growth policy in Pakistan. We have looked at what we can do and where to support this process.

Our focus is first on the efficiency and capacity of the institutions that govern the relations between the Federal Government and the provincial governments. Secondly, we prioritise helping with implementation of specific parts of the 18th Amendment within the provinces that impact delivery of social services. To that end, we have worked on reviewing the rules of business in Balochistan. In KP, we have and continue to help develop the Local Government Act. Additionally, we are working on access to information laws in almost every province.

The third area of focus is local governance. When new local governments come on board, we are going to support them with skills, with ideas on fiscal space, project planning, results-based management, and often more. Finally, the public's understanding of the 18th Amendment is something we are going to promote. We are encouraging the spread of awareness in many different public fora alongside trainings, study and research to increase understanding of the implications and importance of the 18th Amendment.

BRR: Please share your thoughts on addressing the provinces' capacity building issues!

MAF: The biggest challenge the provinces face is how to spend more and better. A lot of work has begun in that direction, but much more needs to be done. In Balochistan, we have established a policy unit for the Chief Minister in the civil secretariat. The role of this unit is to act as the research wing of the CM, to put their analyses in a format that helps him make decisions or advocate to the Federal Government. This is one important example of the kind of capacity building we are doing. We support the provincial governments with renowned experts who work side by side with public servants. We also connect them with our network of expertise and experiences in Pakistan and abroad.

BRR: Lastly, please share the institutional learning from the projects that have been recently set in motion!?

MAF: We have many new initiatives in motion, federalism being one of them. We have a new parliamentary support programme, particularly for the National Assembly. We are developing new programmes to support the Planning Commission and to support local development in Balochistan. We also have a new programme, countrywide, on sustainable land management.

Our biggest lesson is that we need to invest more time, money and energy in the design of such initiatives. It is important to create the momentum and the buy-in in the beginning, to make sure that there is proper research, consulting and communication. In the past, often to respond to emergencies or urgent needs, we did not invest as much in this process as we could have been --we are now. A second lesson is that monitoring can and should be strengthened. We need to build in our monitoring systems right from the start and not once things are in motion.

Lastly, it is not always easy to advance quickly when government officials change so often. Part of the struggle for Pakistan is to create some bureaucratic stability for government officials because as soon as one official begins to really learn about his or her role, they're moved to another, which makes all of our work--theirs and ours--that much more of a challenge.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2013