UNDP Resident Representative to Azerbaijan, Mr. Alessandro Fracassetti, in an exclusive interview tells Azeri Observer about the UN’s 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, the measures which will help to reach its goals, and UNDP’s activities to tackle the main global threats. He also discusses many UNDP projects in Azerbaijan aimed at environmental protection, women and youth empowerment, as well as effective governance.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: What are UNDP’s main aims and goals at the global level?
Answer: UNDP is the United Nations Development Programme, a global network connecting countries with expertise, knowledge and best practices. It was created in 1965 as the UN agency tasked with administering funding for global development programmes. Since then it has evolved and UNDP now not only administers funding but also provides policy advice and implements projects. We work in 170 countries on a wide range of issues; we assist with eradicating poverty, reducing inequalities, supporting women’s empowerment, building resilience and promoting clean and affordable energy. UNDP currently has 17,000 staff and manages 2,800 projects, worth $5 billion dollars. Our strength comes from working very closely with national governments, and we are trusted on account of our impartial character. We focus on supporting national development priorities, while also contributing to the achievement of global development goals. We work to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable groups of people to ensure they are not left behind. Since 2014, the Aid Transparency Index has recognized UNDP as one of the most transparent development agencies in the world. We are also ranked as the leading development agency in terms of efficiency and value for money.
Q: How does UNDP support the achievement of the UN’s 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development?
A.: The 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by 192 UN member states – including Azerbaijan – in New York in 2015, and is a global blueprint to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure a high quality of life for people with lasting peace, prosperity and stronger partnerships. We are working closely together with our government partners, international donors, civil society, as well as the business sector to solve complex development problems. All of this work is done in the framework of national strategies and national development priorities, such as Azerbaijan’s Vision 2020: Look into the Future and the Strategic Roadmaps on National Economy.
We are creating new solutions, building collaboration platforms, and initiating new partnerships and instruments for development. Today’s development challenges, from climate crisis to rising inequalities and protracted conflicts, cannot be dealt with in isolation. It is estimated that the world will need $3-4 trillion dollars per year until 2030 to achieve the SDGs. We will need to work with the private sector, financial markets, insurance companies and many others to unlock the required financing. We need coordinated and innovative approaches, and that is what UNDP is focusing on worldwide – to work in a more integrated way across the SDGs. It means connecting issues across sectors and thematic areas, and leveraging the creativity and the know-how of the governments, communities, civil society, academia, innovators and the private sector in order to build solutions that respond to people’s daily realities. In short, it is about effective development – the kind of work UNDP has always done at its best.
Q: UNDP was the first UN agency to open a country office in Azerbaijan in 1992. What are the key achievements in this period?
A.: Over the past three decades we have been working very closely with the government, supporting the country through its independence years, the transition period and the oil boom, and now through an important period of economic diversification. UNDP has invested around $200m in development programmes in Azerbaijan since 1992. We are the largest UN agency in Azerbaijan, with over 60 staff members who are helping the country and its people to advance the 2030 Agenda and fulfil the promise to leave no one behind. We are implementing some 30 projects in many different areas, working both at national level with the Government and at local level with local authorities, communities and people of Azerbaijan. UNDP has activities in several regions of Azerbaijan, in big cities such as Baku, Ganja and Shaki, as well as in many rural areas in such regions as Zakatala, Balakan, Gakh, Gabala, Masalli, Jalilabad, Goranboy, Qusar, Khazar and Goychay.
Historically, UNDP concentrated its greatest efforts on supporting the government’s commitment to reforming public services and promoting e-governance. For example, we worked on automatizing the Pension Fund, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies and the State Customs Committee. UNDP was also among the first to support the development of the country’s successful network of public service delivery centres ASAN, and later supported it in its successful bid to win a UN Public Service Award for excellency in 2015. Now we are working closely with ASAN’s management to find ways to export its successful model to other countries where UNDP has offices.
Since the creation of the National Coordination Council for Sustainable Development in 2016, we have been supporting it with capacity building and expertise. The focus has been on helping Azerbaijan to prioritize its own sustainable development goals, targets and indicators. We worked closely with the Ministry of Economy, supporting the organization of the first SDG Regional Forum and conducting public SDG consultations with the private sector, academia, civil society, women’s groups and other stakeholders.
Last year, Azerbaijan presented its second Voluntary National Review on the 2030 Agenda achievements at the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development held at the UN’s headquarters in New York. We were honoured to assist with the preparation of the Review.
Over the past several years we have worked on several connectivity and capacity building projects with the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies. We are now working together on the development of a new national ICT strategy and smart city concepts, aiming to ensure that new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud technologies and modern data centres are used in the best interests and in the service of the country’s citizens. I believe Azerbaijan has true potential to become a leader in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This can be achieved by placing innovation at the forefront of economic, social and environmental development.
UNDP has also supported the modernization of the border and customs services, contributing to their notable improvement over the past few years. This support was provided in partnership with the European Union, which generously financed the strengthening of the integrated border management at the Azerbaijan-Georgian border.
We are particularly proud to have helped establish the Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action back in 1999 to ensure effective mine clearance nationwide. Since then, ANAMA has cleared over 805,000 mines and other explosive weapons in Azerbaijan. This ensured a safe return home for over 160,500 displaced children, women and men. ANAMA now has excellent capacities and also provides its services to other countries affected by mines – our partnership continues to this day.
Together with the Ministry of Health, we are helping to strengthen Azerbaijan’s healthcare procurement system. As a result of our partnership, in 2019, around 14,000 patients with Hepatitis C, drug-sensitive tuberculosis and HIV were treated through the procurement of reagents and medicines. We have also been cooperating with the newly established Agency on Mandatory Health Insurance and its management union, TABIB. We will continue to support the Government in securing the cost-efficient, transparent and timely procurement of medicines that save lives.
Q: Can you tell us about UNDP’s projects to empower vulnerable groups of people in Azerbaijan?
A.: We have developed an increasingly large portfolio aiming at improving the lives of people with disabilities and promoting inclusivity. For example, last year, together with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Population, we launched a self-employment programme for people with disabilities. This is one of the first programmes in the country helping people with disabilities to start their own business. As a result, we have helped over 500 people with disabilities from 12 regions of Azerbaijan to receive business training in order to develop viable business plans with the support of mentors and trainers. In the next few months these people will be provided with the necessary equipment to open their own businesses.
Another highlight of 2019 was the establishment of an Inclusive Vocational Art and Craft Training Centre, financed by the EU, in Baku’s Old Town. In a very short time, the Centre has already provided opportunities for some 70 students with disabilities to develop their art skills and make new friends. If these young people feel included now, they will grow up feeling involved, and this is important for the integration of society when they become adults. Another really positive outcome of this project is that parents are also participating and building friendships beyond the classroom. I would like to see the activities of this Centre expand, so that more young people can have an opportunity to further improve their skills. It would be particularly beneficial if the Centre’s educational activities could be extended across the regions of Azerbaijan so that they are available for children and young adults with disabilities and their friends all over the country.
With the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Population and UNFPA we are working on creating self-employment opportunities for women with disabilities and veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We are also developing a virtual lab that will help them to gain better access to skills, knowledge and job opportunities through innovation and technology.
A longstanding priority of UNDP in Azerbaijan is supporting women’s empowerment. For almost a decade we have enjoyed outstanding cooperation with the State Committee for Families, Women and Children. Together, we have established nine Women’s Resource Centres across the country, helping over 6,000 women undertake professional training, gain confidence, capital and connections to start their own business. These centres have attracted funding by the largest international donors active in Azerbaijan, including the EU, USAID, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
We have also been partnering with the EU on a project on the gender-sensitive implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Our support has gone to a number of civil society organizations who provide services to vulnerable groups through a gender lens. This included courses for women on financial literacy, help in the reconstruction of water and sanitation facilities for local communities and the establishment of a gender-based municipal academy in support of women leaders.
Q.: Could you tell us a story of an individual person, who changed his or her life thanks to UNDP’s project?
A.: Last year, two women who benefited from the Women’s Resource Centres were invited to attend the Beijing+25 Review Conference in Geneva. One of them was Elnara Iskandarova, a woman from Khazar municipality who had always dreamt of opening her own gallery and giving art classes to children. She successfully participated in all of our courses and her art studio proposal won the approval of the reviewers, entitling her to a grant to set up a studio and a classroom. Today, Elnara is living her dream, running a bustling studio in Bina, and her art lessons are so popular that she has had to buy extra chairs! It was gratifying to hear such first-hand accounts of how the centres have changed women’s lives for the better.
Q: Youth is also a top priority for UNDP. What are you doing to empower Azerbaijan’s youth?
A.: One of the key issues we have been focusing on is finding ways to bridge the gap between education and the future workforce that will be needed by the changing economy. With our partners from USAID we helped to establish youth employment and training centres (Syslab), offering free training courses in different job skills. We have had 300 young graduates going through these courses and 75% of them managed to find jobs immediately after graduation. We are planning to expand our work in this area and offer a greater variety of courses to prepare Azerbaijan’s youth for future work. We are also partnering with the Ministry of Education and the Vocational Education Agency in order to effectively modernize for example, with the financial support of the EU, we are developing two vocational schools – for industry in Ganja and on agriculture in Jalilabad. These schools have been provided with modern equipment and have had a complete revamp of their curriculums. It is very important that schools are able to deliver professionals with the skills needed by the labour market. To ensure the curriculums are relevant, we carried out market research and held discussions with businesses in that area to ask them what kind of labour they need. Now we are seeing a steep increase in enrolment at these two schools and a newfound interest in vocational schools as a viable way to prepare for the labour market.
And finally, thanks to the partnership with the Ministry of Youth, we have introduced Model UN courses throughout Azerbaijan, enabling young students to learn about the way the UN institutions work by giving them a chance to step into the shoes of a diplomat for a day and learn how to play such a role. We plan to expand our engagement in support of the youth of Azerbaijan by working with the relevant institutions.
Q: UNDP is very active in the area of tackling climate change and ensuring better protection of the environment. What are the highlights of your work in this area in Azerbaijan?
A.: For over 20 years, UNDP has been working closely with the Government and national partners to adopt prudent climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, to promote energy efficiency, reduce CO2 emissions and prepare for extreme weather events that climate change brings.
Sadly, despite the strong global consensus reached in Paris in 2015, the world is struggling to master the climate change threat and greenhouse emissions keep rising. Every country needs to do more as a matter of global urgency. In Azerbaijan, we are currently supporting the preparation of the 4th National Communication, a key document that will spell out the next steps to be taken in all key sectors of the economy and society, at national and local level, to prepare for, adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.
I am particularly happy that we were able to support the government in last year’s initiative to plant 650,000 trees on the 650th anniversary of the renowned Azerbaijani poet, Nasimi. These trees will absorb 2,600 cubic meters of CO2 each year.
We are also supporting the Government of Azerbaijan in its efforts to tackle climate change, for example, by ensuring the protection of the valuable biodiversity and demonstrating the benefits of investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.
Together with the Ministry of Ecology and National Resources we have had a large programme on sustainable forestry in the Greater Caucasus for several years and a project on marine biodiversity in the Gizilagac natural protected area that resulted in the proclamation of Azerbaijan’s first National Marine Park.
We have also been working with smallholder farmers. A lot of people depend on agriculture here, but traditional farming methods produce lower crop yields, degrade the soil, reduce biodiversity, and impose an unsustainable strain on the region’s scarce water resources. To tackle these challenges, we have an ongoing programme on agro-biodiversity that values and protects Azerbaijan’s own seeds, tomatoes, cucumbers, pomegranates and persimmons. We teach farmers about sustainable agriculture. We are using innovative technology, training courses and small grants to raise farmers’ awareness of more efficient ways to plant, irrigate, fertilise, harvest, store and sell their crops, significantly increasing their productivity and market access. And we partner with the National Genetic Institute in Baku to revive and preserve a range of native species of wheat, vegetables and crops.
We are just about to launch a project aimed at helping Azerbaijan to prepare its National Adaptation Plan to Climate Change. Three sectors – water, agriculture and coastal communities – were identified in consultation with our government counterparts as the most vulnerable sectors of the economy.
We also partner with ABAD and the EU in support of small family businesses. ABAD identifies families who produce cheese, sausages, crafts, honey, etc. and enter into contracts with them to help in all the stages of production, as well as packaging, distribution and sales in supermarkets. As a result, 44 rural families in the Shaki-Zaqatala region, set up their own small businesses. With ABAD’s support, they have already launched their first products on the market.
Together with the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources we have a project with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), supporting them in greening their operations. The idea is to show the potential for cutting emissions by using electric and hybrid cars, and the possibility of capturing methane, that is released in the atmosphere. For example, we introduced gas-capturing techniques to turn harmful gases released by oil wells in the mountainous area of Siyazan into clean fuel, that can be used for heating and cooking for over 2,000 people living in remote areas. This project decreased emissions of methane on on-shore oil wells by 20% and helped to reduce deforestation by providing clean heating sources to these mountain villages. This pilot project clearly demonstrates that the private sector can make significant reductions in emissions by increasing energy efficiency and investing in research and development.
We are also cooperating with the Ministry of Energy on drafting a key legislation in the energy and alternative energy sectors, which will hopefully provide the legal framework for the growth of an alternative energy market in Azerbaijan.
Q: UNDP has recently launched an Accelerator Lab in Azerbaijan. What will this lab do?
A.: This is an exciting new initiative, launched by UNDP and our founding partners, Germany and Qatar, to support innovation. The lab will be joining a network of 60 labs around the world to test and scale new solutions to global challenges. In Azerbaijan, we have brought together a talented team with various backgrounds to speed up the testing and implementation of solutions that can help further advance the 2030 agenda in the country. These include, for example, looking into ways of rooting out the widespread use of plastic that is so harmful to the environment, or finding IT solutions to help improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Last year, one of the Lab’s first activities was to help organize Azerbaijan’s first Inclusivity Hackathon, which resulted in some innovative tech solutions to overcome barriers for people with disabilities. Launched by the Vice-President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, Ms. Leyla Aliyeva, it was part of a National Inclusivity Campaign in Azerbaijan called UNLIMITED and organized in line with UNDP’s innovation and disability inclusion development strategy. The Hackathon brought together over 30 industry experts, academia, technology pundits, national innovation labs and people with disabilities, to work alongside 16 participating teams to empower them with advanced technology skills and accelerate coding and software development tools, that can substantially improve the wellbeing of people with disabilities, such as tailored audio book systems and other prototypes. We will continue with these projects over the next few months.
We have recently begun cooperating closely with the newly created Innovation Agency and have started a dialogue with the Ministry of Culture to explore how we can best support its creative industries initiative. Together with partners and innovators of Azerbaijan, the Lab will identify connections and patterns in search of new avenues of work to effectively address development challenges.
Q: My final question is about your personal experience here – experience of work, experience of life. What is your biggest impression here so far?
A.: At work, I am surrounded by bright colleagues from Azerbaijan, who really strive to deliver results. I have great relations with everyone in the team and my impressions of work are very positive.
My family and I have been living in Baku for three and a half years and we love it. This is possibly my favourite city to work. Living in such a beautiful city would help anyone not to feel homesick. There is so much here – past, present and future. I am impressed by the speed of its transformation into a modern city while preserving the vestige of a rich history.
As a family, we are involved in many kinds of different activities – from karate to music and painting. My wife and I both gained our black belts in karate in Baku and we are proud to have received the final certificate from the Azerbaijani Karate Federation. There is such a great tradition of martial arts in the country. One of my sons is learning to play the piano. My wife is actively painting at a studio run by a talented young Azerbaijani woman and has already held an exhibition here.
We spend most of our free time visiting the old town, walking along the boulevard and visiting many museums and art galleries. It is a very rich and fascinating culture and there is a lot to learn. I think it is very important to have a ‘learning’ attitude and put yourself in the service of the country where you live. In that way you find many wonderful things – from helpful people to a wealth of creative ideas. I especially like the dawns and the sunsets over the Caspian Sea. My family also love the winds in Baku!