Françoise Jacob, UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia: Mutual Accountability and Shared Responsibility

The global and local responses to the pandemic have shown that cooperation today is about mutual accountability and  shared responsibility , between countries, between citizens and their state, between generations

I like to share a message of hope and optimism, and a vision that call for action together. We are going through a difficult and tiring period, and it is easy to indulge in catastrophism, cynicism and blame others. We need to remember our fundamental principles and values that define the Charter of the United Nations. Peace and human rights is our most precious value. Well, Being of the people is our most precious asset. A healthy planet is our most precious resource. It does not matter that we have different ways of looking at life, different ambitions, different understandings. We must still work better together and achieve this beautiful Agenda 2030.

Françoise Jacob, UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the consultations conducted by the UN worldwide express a great appeal to act concerning inequality and climate change, as well as for more solidarity. Was this particularly evident during the COVID-19-induced crisis?

At the beginning of 2020, the UN launched the global UN75 dialogues, which turned into the largest research to date on priorities for recovery from the COVID 19 pandemic. Initially, people polled in Serbia listed climate change, armed conflict, and inequalities as the top threats/priorities to address in the years to come.

The pandemic has not greatly changed this outlook neither globally nor in Serbia. Naturally, access to better health services (and to other basic social services) became the #1 issue, as people realised that the pandemic would have long term impacts on our lives. Yet the same focus remained on threats caused by climate change and armed violence, while a new priority shaped up as the need for better international cooperation and solidarity between nations and people. Other topics include ensuring greater respect for human rights and reducing corruption.

On the climate change front, the combined impacts of pollution and extreme weather events, in Serbia and elsewhere are happening at an increasing pace, closer to home. Humans, on average, tend to act and change their habits and behaviours only when they are directly affected. In economic terms, it is called discounting the future. The pandemic is forcing us to learn the hard way how much the health of our planet affects the health of humans, as well as our social well being and economic wealth. When we destroy ecosystems and biodiversity, eventually we destroy life sustaining infrastructure and systems we all depend on.

Françoise Jacob, UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia

Fear and anger are emotions that also run wild around the world today, fueled by the prevailing state of uncertainty and fragility. How to find quick durable solutions to the new problems created by the pandemic?

This is where the role of the political leadership, of scientists, of economists, of the civil society and of the UN, is critical: to unpack fear by providing real data, solutions, knowledge and alternatives that give people easier ways to make informed choices.

States should use the crisis caused by COVID as an opportunity to build a better foundation for the future, faster transformation of the economy according to environmental principles and continuous building of trust between institutions and citizens, based on shared responsibility.

When it comes to Serbia, our team of development agencies recently published the Assessment of the socio-economic impacts of the crisis in the country. As this unprecedented crisis continues, the state will need to further strengthen the health care system, target ​​social protection, re-value the whole care economy – which is often informal and the responsibility of women, continue to capacitate local self-governments,  provide support to small and medium-sized enterprises to improve their flexibility and resilience to crises in the future, and really take a strong lead on transitioning towards a greener economy, over the next 25 years.

Does the global pandemic require and encourage a better and more extensive multilateralism?

Multilateralism, or the rule based international order, is often considered as a matter related to high-level politics and diplomacy, and to the UN Security Council. Yet, multilateralism is also about people and how they see the challenges of globalization, security and sustainable development should be dealt with. We heard a lot in the past few years that multilateralism was on its last breath, but it is very much alive!

Take for example the nexus between Climate Change, International Security, and Multilateralism. It is now clearly established and accepted, including by military institutions, that Climate Change, abusive exploitation and destruction of natural resources, pollution, have become root causes of extreme and extended tensions between communities, people and countries. It is not a coincidence that many conflict-affected countries are also those badly hit by climate change and competition for natural resources, particularly around water and energy. We know very well that a large share of the migrants and refugees stuck in Greece and elsewhere on the European shores are climate migrants. It is therefore imperative to dedicate much larger resources, in money, time, efforts, capacities to fighting the complex issue of climate change together, both locally and regionally.

Of course, there are persistent challenges. The whole world is engulfed in a vicious pandemic, humans everywhere are suffering, along with the planet, and we continue to have dangerous, racist or nationalist rhetoric in too many places! As the UN Secretary General say, we should stick to a global and permanent ceasefire, and focus ALL our energies in building a good world, rather than destroying it!  To conclude, we need a more inclusive multilateralism, drawing on the contributions of civil society, businesses, cities, and with greater weight given to the voices of youth.

“The UN priorities remain the same: a peaceful world, with prosperity, well-being and justice for all”

After seventy-five years since its establishment, how much have the UN’s priorities and global goals have changed in the meantime?

The world in 2020 is quite different than in 1945! But often I am tempted to say that the UN priorities remain the same: a peaceful world, with prosperity, well-being and justice for all. The exponential population growth and related growth in wealth, the exponential speed of technological progress, have created new challenges that we could not fully envisaged right after the second World War: climate change, massive levels of multiple types of pollution, widening inequalities despite drops in poverty rates, new types of violence and conflicts, absolute abuse of human rights, violence against women, and ignorance fuelled by misinformation despite amazing increase of and access to knowledge. Global growth has also increased competition for resources, including the most basic ones needed for survival: water, land, various fuels, etc, which shape new tensions.

With the pandemic, we realise more than ever that all countries are connected, the well-being of citizens in all continents are closely interlinked, and the solutions to each of the global issues will come from joint efforts: this is what the UN is now doing by pulling together expertise around the creation of a COVID vaccine. This is what international platforms and collectives working on climate change are trying to achieve. And this is of course, at the core of Agenda 2030: 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which are closely related, universal and relevant for all countries. The world did well in reaching the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. We have to work even harder to achieve these goals.

What kind of attitude do people in Serbia have when it comes to topics such as climate change and sustainable development? Are we aware enough of the challenges related to climate change?

The Government of Serbia has started to integrate the ambitions of Agenda 2030 in its planning mechanisms and reported on initial progress in the summer of 2019. The UN has worked extensively with both central and local authority to shape Serbia’s priorities along these goals, and we will continue to do so over the years to come. A small share of the private sector is also embracing the sustainable goals in redefining their mission and ways of operating.

However, the UN75 research that we run this year shows that 60% of the citizens of Serbia are not aware of the Sustainable Development Goals, a similar ratio to last year’s Demostat question on Sustainable Development. So we have a lot of work to do to raise awareness and understanding about the goals, as all of them relate very closely to our daily lives, they are not aspirational wishes.

The role and responsibilities of citizens are as important as that of governments. But they also need to do their share in making this happen: through their own individual action on reconsidering their lifestyle. It is a matter of shared responsibilities and mutual accountability, of transparency from the state, commitment and creativity from the citizens.

Technology and solutions exist, financial resources exist, so it is now primarily a question of political vision, political will, allocation of efforts, close and intelligent coordination between partners, and willingness to change, to make this urgent fight a successful one. I can only urge for greater, tighter cooperation between the UN, the EU, the international financial institutions, the private sector, and the Government of Serbia, now, on this topic. The Green Deal is a good start to do that. Let’s make every infrastructure investment a step towards a greener economy. Let’s solve the air pollution problem this winter and next winter, not in 5 or 10 years. Let’s decide and act on the milestones required for the energy transition, from now until 2050. This country should be bold about it, particularly now.

Businesses face a choice. They can either be part of the problem or they can be part of the solution, and add value to their own future. In Serbia, there are opportunities to shift models and promote the green economy in the energy sector, transport and agriculture. There are initiatives to upscale the circular economy. And the UN already explores and supports many such initiatives in Serbia.

Have we progressed on the path to achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda and how are they connected to the opening of the chapters in the accession negotiations?

The EU accession agenda and Agenda 2030, are complementary, synergetic, and mutually reinforcing. The UN fully supports the accession process and works in close relationship with the EU partner in Serbia and in the Balkans.  Both the UN and the EU are keen to accelerate progress on these agendas, now. So it is really important that we all work closely together. The UN focuses more particularly on the vulnerable segments of the population, on human rights, and on planting the stakes for a green path.

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