Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Robert Watkins: - UNDP has an “image problem” with some groups in Lebanon who see UNDP as a subcontracting "spy agency"

Robert Watkins: ‘Hybrid’ U.N. representative
Watkins: UNRWA“unjustly criticized.” Photo courtesy of UNDP. 8-2-2011
Watkins: UNRWA“unjustly criticized.” Photo courtesy of UNDP. 8-2-2011

BEIRUT: Only 10 countries in the world require a “hybrid” United Nations representative, due to their unique mix of humanitarian, socioeconomic and political requirements.

Lebanon is one such country, and Robert Watkins, fills that role. As U.N. Resident Coordinator for Lebanon he must oversee the work of the 27 agencies that work in the country. He is also U.N. Development Program Resident Representative in Lebanon and Deputy Special Coordinator for Lebanon.

Arriving to Lebanon in February, the then-biggest obstacle was political stagnation, after the collapse of the former administration. Now that this hurdle has passed, the real work must begin.

After introductory meetings, the response from the current administration has been excellent, Watkins says.

“I met [Prime Minister Najib] Mikati Saturday and all of the issues that I wanted to bring to his attention, he had already raised in the ministerial statement and he reiterated in our meeting his commitment to follow up on those issues.”

Those main issues, for Watkins, are issues relating to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon: the importance of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, the completion of the reconstruction of the Nahr al-Bared camp, the full implementation of legislation allowing Palestinians to have access to the labor market and own property, and finding additional funds to support UNRWA, the U.N. agency which works with Palestinian refugees.

“Moral support to UNRWA,” is also vital, Watkins says, as it “has been unjustly criticized over the last few months by various sectors.”

A summer camp to have been led by UNRWA at Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh camp was canceled in early July after the Popular Committees of the camp said the program was funded by the U.S. and was designed to presenting a disingenuous version of Palestinian history.

Watkins also admits that the UNDP has an “image problem” with some groups. One major issue, since Watkins’ arrival, has been controversy surrounding the UNDP expert assistance program. Requested by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri after the end of the 1975-90 Civil War in the absence of a functioning civil service, the program allows the UNDP to find and contract experts with specific technical fields to various government ministries.

Staff are paid not by the U.N. but by the ministries themselves and the idea was always supposed to be temporary, allowing the government to build their own civil service.

Recently it has come under criticism from some in the March 8 camp, who, in Watkins’ words, “had this completely bizarre idea that this was some kind of tentacles that the U.N. had that was controlling the Lebanese government and dictating how it would work and that money was coming from the United States … and it was the furthest thing from the truth.”

Upon his arrival in Lebanon, Watkins saw that this is an unsustainable program, the continued existence of which provides no incentive to the government to reform the civil service. At Watkins’ meeting with Mikati over the weekend, the prime minister agreed, in principle, to phase out the program.

This does not mean, Watkins says, that technical support from the UNDP will cease completely, and the agency will continue to recommend and contract experts in certain fields, for short-term periods, to the Lebanese government as requested.

Watkins says that March 8 actors were also claiming the expert program was only working with March 14 staff. On this issue Watkins is adamant that, “We are willing to work with whatever government is in place, regardless of its political affiliations. This is completely non-politicized assistance which has been politicized by some actors.”

With Mikati, Watkins also discussed the issue of electoral reform, which, he says, the prime minister “was very reassuring that it is something which is extremely high on their agenda.”

Electoral reform and a wider change in governance are vital for Lebanon to develop, Watkins says, and the biggest challenge facing the country is the “very unequal distribution of wealth.”

Citing the environment as a major concern, Watkins says, “Solutions are known to everyone, but because of the governance issues, it is difficult for the country to solve those problems.”

“The sectarian system provides lots of challenges to governance issues … Too much of the politics of the country is rooted in sectarian affiliations rather than issues that impact the country.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 02, 2011, on page 3.

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