Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Understanding the role of UN Regional Commissions

It may not be the most obvious thing to think about when we talk about regional integration, but from where I have been sitting, it clearly looks like the UN’s five regional commissions have been playing critical roles in the facilitation of regional integration. Although it is fair to say that what they do has been presented on this blog through the prism of African integration dynamics, I must add that there is a reason for this.

First of all, I am more familiar with the terrain of regional integration dynamics in Africa. Equally, I am familiar with the noteworthy publication by the UNECA--the Assessing Regional Integration in Africa which was launched in July 2004. I’ve tried,perhaps unfairly, to look for a report by the other UN regional commissions that compare—and have yet to find any.

This does not mean that they do not play equally-important roles. Just that in a region like Europe, where the EU is rather advanced, I continue to question how relevant the UN Economic Commission for Europe is, and the extent to which it has facilitated regional integration in Europe. The same could be said with the Asia-Pacific, and other regions.

I must confess, though, that were I to pursue this line, I might be missing the boat.

This is because the UN regional commissions have been playing key roles in their respective regions. Just because Africa has a peculiarity about it that makes the ARIA report relevant does not foreclose the other important dynamics facilitating regional integration that are taking place.

Truth be told, UN Regional Commission and the work they do is frankly not sexy like that of the UN Security Council.

Let me just say that I spent the better part of two weeks endeavoring to download the last UN Regional Commissions newsletter (published July 2010), and which, frankly, takes forever to download!

It’s a 16-page newsletter that offers summaries of the “activities” of each of the five regions. (http://www.un.org/regionalcommissions /)

I noticed reading through that the UN Economic Commission for Europe(UNECE) seems to be more focused on signing partnerships—be it with private sector or international organizations. UNESCAP, conversely, was looking at an “Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific”—a publication that would most likely offer a panorama, if you will, of the economic landscape of the region.

As for ECLAC (Latin America and Caribbean), critically-important among its activities was the launch of a report entitled "Time for Equality. Closing Gaps, Opening Trails." True to form, this region has been looking at state-centred policies that facilitate integration. There are also discussions on the MDGs and climate change, including a report on the regional perspective on climate change that has been prepared by ECLAC and the Inter-American Development Bank.

UNECA touches more on publications, including an AU-ECA Economic Report on Africa that is calling for job creation to be prioritized in African countries. Equally significant is a piece on an African response to climate change, and the UNECA signing a partnership agreement with Microsoft.

UNESCWA is also concerned about MDGS, climate change, as well as a guide on public finance reform; the facilitation of clean energy, and women empowerment.

Overall, however, most of us following regional integration—as practised by the UN regional commissions—might be found wanting. There are quite a number of things it does which we might be totally oblivious to.

For example, did you know that unlike the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank was established by UNESCAP, and is the biggest of the UN's five regional commissions in terms of population served and area covered?

But back to the newsletter.

The principal role of the UN regional commissions, as per the July 2010 newsletter, is to facilitate South-South cooperation—technical, political and economic collaboration between developing countries. The newsletter writes:

“South-South cooperation is at the core of the mandate of the Regional Commissions to promote regional cooperation and collaboration, through providing Member States with capacity-building, data collection, and the sharing of experience, as a means of strengthening ties between countries and enhancing their respective capabilities”

The piece adds that the regional commissions "have further expanded their role in increasing countries’ resilience to confront the impact of multiple crises."—as exemplified, I guess, by the ECLAC report advocating state-centred policies to facilitate integration.

Truth be told, during the past two weeks I have been burrowing through material on the UN Regional Commissions, I have come to realize that they have a central and critical role to play not just in development but in regional integration. Given that they publish a lot of material which might not be as sexy as issuing press releases left, right, and centre, they are likely to be relegated in the background more easily than the more-“activist” UN agencies like the UN Office on Drugs and Crime or UNICEF In Africa, for example, the UNECA seems to be more prominent because of its association to the African Development Bank and the very explicit roles it has played in regional integration.

I remain unconvinced that comparatively speaking, the other regional commissions have been as vocal. But I am still reading and learning. When I get more, you are bound to find out about it here. But let me just remind you that UNESCAP is a UN agency that is not to be sneezed at. The history books report that since the establishment of the WTO in 1995, it has adopted a less dirigiste outlook—as exemplified by the information on its website that it “advocates for greater private sector involvement in infrastructure development.” But let’s just remember that it is thus far the only regional commission that has been instrumental in establishing a development bank.

It must be doing something very right--and so must the other four regional commissions.

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