Your 10 questions with Kamal Malhotra

  • Business
  • Saturday, 19 Feb 2011

WHAT are the human values that go into the drafting of UNDP programmes? Bulbir Singh, Seremban

The United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) mandate and goal are advancing positive human development outcomes. As such, the most important human values that we try to incorporate in all UNDP programmes are peoplecentredness and inclusiveness with a clear pro-poor perspective. Economic growth is viewed as important but it is only one pre-requisite for human development.

We also advocate a human rights-based approach to development, which places equal values on socio-economic, cultural, political and civil rights. These need to be viewed as indivisible and equally important pre-requisites for human development. Environmental sustainability, which places an adequate weightage on future generations, is also central to UNDP programme design.

What was the most difficult issue to write about, based on your own personal experience? Bernard K.H. Lim, Penang

The most difficult issue to write about is that there should be no exceptionalism to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), regardless of differences in religious, cultural, socio-economic and political contexts. As the United Nation (UN), we are clear that the basic human rights embodied in the UDHR are universal and indivisible and therefore equally applicable in all religious, cultural, socio-economic and political contexts, even if there is no “one size fits all” implementation format in all contexts.

What made you want to join the UN and what have you achieved so far? Syidah Rosli, Damansara

The UN Charter embodies the best ideals of our common humanity. It has stood the test of time and remains a major inspiration for me and my work. In addition, even in a more real-politic, pragmatic and less-idealised real world, the UN provides the most legitimate, effective, relevant and enduring global platform for people like me who wish to contribute to global, regional and national public policy outcomes that advance human development.

I have been very fortunate in all my UN/UNDP positions to have been able to do this in very concrete ways, on issues of economic and financial globalisation, trade, poverty, inequality, economic policy, climate change, energy security and many critical aspects of governance.

What role does the KL office of the UNDP play? Azizul Khair Mohd Ibrahim, Ampang

The KL office of UNDP serves the sub-region of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. In Malaysia, the UNDP focuses on policy support to the government and our other partners in five main areas: economic policy; poverty, inequality and exclusion; climate change, biodiversity management and energy security; governance issues (such as human rights and anti-corruption); and facilitating the exchange of relevant development experiences between Malaysia and other developing countries.

In Brunei, the UNDP also helps build capacity to monitor the human development outcomes of national policies and assess the country's progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, while in Singapore, the UNDP is currently helping document and distil lessons from its public service experience, which may be of use to both Singapore and other countries.

How do you rate Malaysia in terms of human development and what are the areas in which we should focus on? Ahmad Hafiz Osman, Damansara Perdana, Selangor

Malaysia is a relatively high human-development country if measured by the three components in the Human Development Index (i.e. gross national income per capita, life expectancy and literacy), even though its overall ranking has slipped a little over the past five years and it is ranked significantly lower than countries such as Singapore and South Korea, which had roughly similar starting points 40 years ago.

More or equally important, Malaysia still has a considerable distance to travel when we include components of the human development concept which have not yet been included in the index and which cannot be as easily measured. These include inequality, human rights, other democratic freedoms, environmental stress and sustainability, or even the quality of education.

How relevant is the UN to Malaysians these days? Jagdev Sidhu, Taman Tun Dr Ismail

The UN remains very relevant to Malaysia today although its role and relevance here is different from its traditional operational role in the least developed countries and some of the roles it had played in Malaysia in the past. Malaysia is at simultaneous, multiple crossroads: economic, political and socio-cultural.

The UN, given both its mandate and unique global experience and the international expertise it can mobilise and provide, is relevant to all these multiple priority areas for Malaysia. UNDP, for example, can and is helping support economic policy in ways that will hopefully help Malaysia overcome its “middle-income trap”. It is also addressing hardcore poverty and inequality issues as well as supporting Malaysia in dealing with its climate change and energy security challenges.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), on the other hand, is helping address Malaysia's considerable sexual and reproductive health challenges; the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNFPA are together helping address maternal-mortality-related issues, while WHO is also helping Malaysia address its current major health challenges.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is helping address key refugee-related issues, while the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) addresses child poverty issues and challenges facing stateless children. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a regional programme on migrant workers protection, which has just begun. This is only illustrative of and not an exhaustive list of what these agencies already do or plan to do in Malaysia.

What do you like most about your job? Yvonne Tan, PJ

The most satisfying part of my job is seeing tangible and positive policy impact as a result of my work. More generally, it is also gratifying that the UN platform provides my work with political legitimacy and allows me to contribute to critical issues in a manner that promotes the global and national public interest without a bias in favour of either the interest of any particular country or special interest group.

You were the senior adviser on inclusive globalisation where your duties included policy work on the global dimensions of debt, capital flows and development finance. What do you think we have learned from the global financial crisis? Ginger Leong, Cheras

We have learned what many of us already know or have learnt before that unbridled, free markets are a recipe for disaster and that voluntary or self-regulation of capital flows does not work. Effective regulation and genuinely independent regulatory agencies have been and sadly, still remain, in very short supply, and individual greed and the profit motive still trump the broader public interest most of the time.

Even the Great Recession that peaked in 2009 has not catalysed the bold systemic changes needed in the global economic and financial system, and the G-20 is now more divided on the way forward than it was in the immediate aftermath of the recent global financial and economic crisis.

Unfortunately, history is repeating itself and memories are short. The international community does not appear to have learnt the most critical lessons from the still ongoing global financial and economic crisis, and its collective actions in this respect have been piecemeal rather than systemic, too little, and most often, too late.

You were the co-founder and co-director of Focus on the Global South at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University in 1990s. What prompted the founding of this organisation? Danny Quah, Bukit Damansara, KL

There is a dearth of progressive-minded independent, developing country-based and led research, analysis and advocacy organisations that simultaneously focus on and link the “big picture” paradigmatic issues of economic policy, security and religion and culture in an intertwined and interdisciplinary manner with the more meso or micro issues often prioritised by grassroots organisations. Focus on the Global South was established to help fill this void with a focus not just on the traditional “South” but the Global South.

The “Global South” concept recognises that the accelerating globalisation process had led to a North (i.e. rich world) in the traditional South (i.e. developing world). The former, in many respects now has more in common with the elite in rich countries while the poor and vulnerable in rich countries (i.e. the South in the traditional North) have more in common with the poor and vulnerable in the developing world than with their rich, privileged elites.

Focus on the Global South was established to conduct policy research on these issues and exchange analysis and experiences within the Global South as well as to forge alliances between groups in different parts of the world struggling with similar concerns and issues.

How has global trade worked for people's development, especially when much of the framework for trade is ironed out in closed-door meetings? John Hogwarts, Mont'Kiara, KL

It is important to distinguish trade policy from trade liberalisation as a framework or policy. Different types of trade policy have had very different roles for the state and different impacts on ordinary people.

The trade strategy engaged by South Korea for many decades before the creation of the World Trade Organisation, for example, was state-led, strategic in nature and helped transform the country's static comparative advantage into dynamic competitive advantage in products such as steel, high-technology electronics and shipbuilding, fuelling a very successful high value-added industrial policy which also significantly increased the living standards of the South Korean people.

However, the framework for trade liberalisation often hammered out in closed “Green Rooms” or through free trade agreements, is different from and often precludes the South Korean type of strategic trade policy. Therein lies the dilemma.

While trade policy can play a very important and positive role in national development, this depends on the type adopted. Trade policy that puts free market liberalisation at its core and needs closed-door meetings to hammer out is unlikely to work equally to the advantage of all countries since it is likely to favour the most powerful trading nations and people who are already advantaged over weaker countries and population groups.

This is because in a grossly unequal world, we are not faced with a level playing field, and “free trade” can, in many instances, make the playing field even more uneven than it already is for poorer or more vulnerable countries and people.

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