New Delhi-based United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) Director Derk Segaar was in Odisha capital. In a tete-a-tete with Odisha Sun Times, Derk emphasized that participation of women in workforce would contribute significantly to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of India. Excerpts:
OST: What are the goals and objectives of United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in Indian context?
Derk: The UN Information Centres were established at the beginning when United Nations was established in 1945. It was one of the first arms of the UN to come to India in January, 1947 at a time when United Nations as an organisation was very new. The role of UN Information Centres was basically to explain in the local context and local languages about UN for people to understand what UN does. Decades later, the role is still there. It lets people know about the global issues that the UN together with the member states and actors all around the world explain to the general population in India and Bhutan. The specific agenda which we are stressing is the Sustainable Development Goals – the vision for a prosperous and sustainable planet for the next 15 years. We are doing a lot of work with universities, civil society groups, academia, youth groups, women’s groups etc to explain what they are and what role they can play in implementing them.
OST: What are Sustainable Development Goals and the role of youths?
Derk: It’s a very wide ranging agenda. It is a successor of Millennium Development Goals which were very narrow and very much on fighting/ending poverty. It was seen as too narrow an agenda. Safety, security, justice, clean environment – are very important for people to live a fulfilling life. It was thought to work towards a future that people want globally. It had to be wider and of course the whole issue of sustainability is very key because we see a lot of large scale international environmental problems, climate change ahead of all others playing such an important factor in what can be achieved in terms of development. All these issues had to be incorporated if you really want to think about development and prosperity in a holistic way. Another key element was to broaden the participation in it because the Millennium Development Goals were very much focussed on poverty in developing countries only. All countries have a large role to play including western countries. So we need an agenda which will be universal and applicable to all. If you just think about climate change for example, this is a problem largely caused by highly developed countries because of the emissions.They should be fully engaged and responsible for the solutions. Gender inequality and so many other issues affect all countries, not just developing countries. I think its good that we transitioned from a more narrow agenda to a wider scoped agenda that applies to all.
OST: The Millennium Development Goals was replaced by Sustainable Development Goals. What was the rationale behind it? Do you think India failed to achieve desired objectives?
Derk: No. I think the objectives and the rationale behind the moving from the Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals is to widen the scope of the goals because of the human aspirations and concerns which are so much wider than just fighting poverty. The agenda was widened in Sustainable Development Goals in terms of participation too. It is a responsibility of all citizens around the world. In terms of whether India failed to achieve the desired objectives, I don’t think so. A lot of countries made a huge contribution to the Millennium Development Goals. That doesn’t mean that they met all necessary targets. But very substantial progress was made. India for example: poverty rate dropped from 600 million people below the poverty line to 270 million. Poverty was cut by more than half in just ten years. That was a tremendous achievement as part of MDGs rather than the SDGs. Definitely a lot of progress was made. Still a lot needs to be done on the issues of the MDGs and other issues as well.
OST: During your stay in Bhubaneswar, you interacted with civil society groups, students at educational institutions and other groups. What was that issue that came up quite frequently?
Derk: Gender equality and the importance of gender equality. It is one of the sustainable development goals. It is key to address all SDGs. The role of women in workforce is around 26 percent which is relatively low. Like education, gender equality is one of the motos. If they are fully involved in workforce and economic activity, it will really boost GDP – not only in India but also in the world in a tremendous way.
OST: As per 2011 census, the female literacy rate in India was 65% as compared to 80% in men. What are the intervention strategies to minimize gender inequality?
Derk: This is a big issue in India and many countries around the world. Each country has their national development strategy to address this issue. Gender inequality needs to be addressed at all levels. It’s not just about literacy but it is for equal opportunities for men and women at all levels of society. Education is very important. Excess to education should be there for boys and girls and the cost of education should be lowered.
OST: Odisha has often drawn national and international media attention for wrong reasons like starvation deaths, malnutrition deaths, underdevelopment and inadequate health infrastructure. What are the development programs initiated by UN that are underway in Odisha to address these issues?
Derk: UN’s role in India is to support the national development strategies of the government as well as state governments. We have expertise and certain knowledge from other countries which we can offer as suggestion to the governments. We have some priority states and Odisha is among them where we provide targeted support. More than eight UN agencies are directly working in Odisha on a wide range of issues. Disaster preparedness is one of the areas where we are working with governments to strengthen their capacities. We also work on nutrition to tackle undernutrition and malnutrition rate. World Food Programme is one example.
OST: Odisha government has set up a Skill Development Authority which aims at producing 8 lakh skilled youths in three years. What’s your take on this?
Derk: The UN development programme on skilling and vocational training helps to get people to a higher level of skills. As per an estimate, over the coming decade India needs to vocationally skill about 400 million people. That is an incredible challenge for any country. We are helping the Odisha government as well.
OST: In the Dhoklam issue, does UN see a role for itself in the current standoff between Indian and China?
Derk: This is a very political issue between the two countries. These countries can ask the UN to play a role in terms of mediation.
OST: Is this your first visit to Odisha? How was your experience?
Derk: It is my first visit to Odisha and I really enjoyed it. I would like to explore more on my next visit.