South-South Champions: Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP

“The mandate of ESCAP, as provided by the United Nations General Assembly, is to promote regional cooperation on sustainable development among the countries of Asia and the Pacific. Therefore, South-South and triangular Cooperation (SSTC) are part of our DNA. They underpin our research and analysis, our intergovernmental and normative work, and technical assistance programmes.” (Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, 2021)

Why does South-South cooperation matter for ESCAP?

The mandate of ESCAP, as provided by the United Nations General Assembly, is to promote regional cooperation on sustainable development among the countries of Asia and the Pacific. Therefore, South-South and triangular Cooperation (SSTC) are part of our DNA. They underpin our research and analysis, our intergovernmental and normative work, and technical assistance programmes.

For example, sustainable regional connectivity – spanning our transport, information and communications technology and energy infrastructure – has been a major focus of our work and one that is gaining renewed importance in the COVID-19 era. The same is true for our trade facilitation work. For transport, ESCAP launched an online resource platform to monitor national policy responses on freight transport connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic. This will help member States gain access to the relevant information, coordinate policies and provide support to the global observatory on the status of border-crossings affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

On trade facilitation, ESCAP has a long-standing programme that supports member States in making trade processes “paperless”. Through the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-border Paperless Trade in Asia and the Pacific, electronic exchange of trade data and documents across borders reduces trade costs and promotes safer, more efficient and transparent trade procedures for traders and customs officials. This work is even more important now, amid the pandemic.

Turning to the ESCAP capacity development and research programme, the Asia Pacific Research and Training Network on Trade (ARTNeT) was established in 2005 to increase the quality and quantity of relevant research in the region in the areas of trade, investment, integration and development. The Network has organized a series of knowledge-sharing webinars and workshops on how countries can best adapt to the digital trade era, harness trade for faster pandemic recovery and generate digital COVID certificates in support of cross-border travel and tourism.

The 62 member States and Associate members of ESCAP have given us explicit mandates to promote South-South and Triangular Cooperation. For example, Commission resolution 75/3 requests ESCAP to convene regional forums where developing countries can exchange experiences and coordinate their South-South and triangular cooperation initiatives, whereas resolution 77/1 reaffirms the role of the regional commissions in supporting North-South, South-South and triangular cooperation initiatives to strengthen the relevant knowledge networks, partnerships, and technical and research capacity. To operationalize these resolutions, ESCAP, together UNOSSC Regional Office for Asia-Pacific and the Government of Thailand, inaugurated the Asia-Pacific Directors-General Forum in 2018 to share experiences, best practices and locally driven development approaches.

Going forward, ESCAP will focus on supporting member States in their COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts while ensuring that the progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is not only maintained but also accelerated. In this context, regional cooperation and partnerships, especially South-South Cooperation, will be of utmost importance to take on this challenge that no country can overcome alone.

As a UN Regional Commission, ESCAP has taken a significant role in strengthening SSTC and partnered with UNOSSC on  many initiatives. As Executive Secretary of UNESCAP, would you advise to focus SSC on some specific issues or to mainstream across regional issues? If some issues, which ones?

SSC should be mainstreamed across all regional issues, especially those that are multi-sectoral and transboundary such as sustainable connectivity, environment and ecosystem challenges, and disaster risk reduction and management.

Hence, from the ESCAP point of view, I see a significant role for SSTC in all four priority action areas that frame our regional cooperation and socio-economic response to COVID-19:

  1. protecting people and enhancing resilience;
  2. supporting economic recovery;
  3. restoring supply chains and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); and
  4. protecting and restoring ecosystems.

To ensure a concerted regional approach for sustainable recovery from the crisis, SSC has become even more important in the work of ESCAP. It is used as one of the means to forge regional and subregional solutions across the four broad areas mentioned above by facilitating knowledge sharing and capacity-building initiatives among countries from the South.

The UN Joint Inspection Unit has on several times suggested that the work of the Regional Offices of UNOSSC, aligns very well with the work of Regional Commissions. As co-Vice-chair of the Regional Collaborative Platform, what advice would you give to the UNOSSC Regional Office to be more effective and integrated in the Regional Collaborative Platform?

The pandemic has shown the importance of accelerating action on SDGs in Asia and the Pacific, particularly in building resilience and addressing widening inequalities. It is also a reminder of the key role that the UN plays in bringing together countries and peoples for dialogue and joint action.

This message has been well-reflected in our value as the Regional Collaborative Platform in Asia and the Pacific, which allows the regional UN to come together, to coordinate actions and deliver tailor-made support where it is needed the most. The scale of today’s challenges requires unprecedented levels of collaboration among UN agencies, governments and partners. South-South and triangular cooperation is an avenue through which such cooperation becomes a reality.

UNOSSC can help advocate with a wider audience for the enforcement of multilateral agreements, norms and standards which help protect our people and economies from the damage of future crises.

We welcome UNOSSC’s deeper engagement in the work of the Regional Collaborative Platform.

As a former Minister of Planning in Indonesia, and having been close to UN efforts on South-South cooperation, would you say the UN can be more effective?

Over the past few years, multilateral cooperation has come under tremendous stress. Global trade disputes and increasingly protectionist policies have hampered collective action to address global development challenges. Notwithstanding these trends, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have highlighted the interdependence of the prosperity and wellbeing of countries and peoples. It is now clear that no single country can address such crises alone. South-South, North-South and triangular cooperation are central to mitigating the immediate impacts of COVID-19 and ensuring sustainable recovery from the pandemic.

To this end, the UN’s convening power, its “honest broker” role in the facilitation of research and analysis, consensus building and knowledge exchange among countries of the region are key to addressing our shared challenges. The ability of the UN to craft a common vision for humanity, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, is unparalleled.

How can UNOSSC facilitate the work of ESCAP to help scale up South-South cooperation?

Given the role of UNOSSC in promoting, coordinating and supporting South-South and triangular cooperation globally and within the United Nations system, UNOSSC could further strengthen collaboration with ESCAP by bringing the innovative solutions, knowledge and expertise of South-South and Triangular Cooperation (SSTC) development partners – including all UN entities, multilateral organizations and private sector entities in the Asia-Pacific region – to ESCAP member States. By leveraging the ESCAP convening power as the largest regional intergovernmental platform, UNOSSC could take a broker role to better connect our regional South-South and Triangular Cooperation initiatives with global deliberations and platforms.

It would also be fruitful for UNOSSC and ESCAP to explore the possibility of setting up a South-South cooperation trust fund that could facilitate more effective and comprehensive support to countries in our region through dedicated SSC projects and programmes. These initiatives need to take into account the knowledge and expertise of all development partners to foster sustainable development cooperation in a whole-of-system approach.

Are there any other thoughts that you would like us to convey to readers? 

The countries of the South have contributed to more than half of the world’s growth in recent years. Innovative forms of knowledge exchange and technology transfer led by the South transform lives and promote sustainable development in the world. The role of effective multi-stakeholder partnerships in forging fruitful SSTCn must not go unrecognized. Effective multi-stakeholder partnerships involving governments, academia, civil society, private sector, development banks and multilateral organizations will broaden developing countries’ access to knowledge, experiences and innovative solutions and help achieve the SDGs.

Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana was appointed Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) on 13 September 2018.

Prior to joining ESCAP, Ms. Alisjahbana was Professor of Economics at Universitas Padjadjaran in Bandung, Indonesia, a position she assumed in 2005. She joined Universitas Padjadjaran as a lecturer in 1988. Since 2016, she has served as Director for the Center for Sustainable Development Goals Studies at Universitas Padjadjaran and Vice Chair of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences.

She also serves on the Governing Board of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), and member of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (Akademi Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia – AIPI), the Forum of Statistics Community (Forum Masyarakat Statistik or Advisory Council of the Indonesian Statistics), the International Advisory Board of the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies and Council Member of the Regional Science Association International (RSAI).

From 2009 to 2014, she was Minister of National Development Planning and the Head of the National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS), Indonesia. She served as Co-chair of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation from 2012 to 2014. From 2009 to 2014, she was Alternate Governor of the World Bank and Alternate Governor of the Asian Development Bank representing the government of Indonesia. In 2016, she was a member of the High Level Independent Team of Advisors to support the ECOSOC Dialogue on the longer term positioning of the United Nations Development System in the context of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

Ms. Alisjahbana has been involved in various research projects and consultancies to the United Nations University/Institute for Advanced Study in Tokyo, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Australia, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the European Commission, and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Ms. Alisjahbana earned her Bachelor degree in Economics and Development Studies from Universitas Indonesia, Indonesia, a Masters degree in Economics from Northwestern University, USA and a Ph.D in Economics from University of Washington, USA. She was awarded the Mahaputra Adipradana Order (Bintang Mahaputra Adipradana) from the Republic of Indonesia, honorary brevet from the Indonesian Navy and honorary flight wing from the Indonesian Air Force.