‘India has resources, ideas and initiatives’

Shoko Noda could have got involved with her family’s business of distilling sake — the Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice — or she could have, as she was inclined to do through her growing-up years, pursued journalism. But the Resident Representative in India for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had a change of heart following a life-changing visit to Cebu in the Philippines during her university days.

That’s when Ms Noda, an only child raised in affluence, came face-to-face for the first time with poverty and its victims. “I was shocked and saddened,” she says. “It was the moment when I changed my dream and set my mind on working in social development.” The episode was the spark for a career with UNDP that has lasted more than two decades and seen her serve the organisation in 10 countries around the world.

Ms Noda, who took up her present position in May 2019, opens up to Christabelle Noronha on UNDP, its social uplift objectives in India and elsewhere, and the importance of the organisation’s work in a connected world. Edited excerpts from the interview:

How has UNDP’s efforts in India evolved over recent years?

UNDP has had an incredible journey in India’s social development sector. In the 1960s we were developing important institutions and then we moved to policy work, the focus being on people and, importantly, women’s empowerment. With reference to the past decade, this has been the era when the UN first defined the ‘Millennium Development Goals’. In the context, UNDP’s mandate is driven by the concept of human development. We try to offer integrated solutions by bringing together different strands of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs].

In India, more than in any other country, we are bringing innovation to our work. We have a few global flagship programmes such as the ‘electronic vaccine intelligence network’ (or eVIN), where we are collaborating with the Indian government’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Together, we have developed the universal immunisation programme through eVIN, a unique platform that brings together technology, people and processes to strengthen the vaccination supply chain. The system is operational at 27,000 vaccine storage centres across 29 states and seven union territories of the country.

“We try to offer integrated solutions by bringing together different strands of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”

We have also started to work in the ‘circular economy’ to facilitate the recycling of plastic, a new area for many countries. It is important here to support the people who collect waste plastic. We are looking to institutionalise this labour; then the men and women who pick up and sort plastic waste can sell it through a local partner at the right price and thereby get the income they deserve. We are empowering these people by providing them with training and information. We work with state governments and local partners to ensure recycling happens.

UNDP is no longer a donor agency; we are partners in social development and we bring in global expertise and the knowledge gained through our vast experience.

Helping India get ahead on the SDGs is among UNDP’s most vital objectives and much has been achieved here. How has the country fared?

I think India has done pretty well. Of course, it still has a long way to go but the numbers are impressive. For instance, from 1994 to 2012 the proportion of people living below the nationally defined poverty line fell from 45% to 22%. Between 2005-06 and 2015-16, India lifted about 271 million of its citizens out of poverty. That is, I believe, quite remarkable.

India has demonstrated its commitment to, and ownership of, Agenda 2030 [the timeframe for getting to the 17 SDGs] from the beginning. It was an early volunteer for a national review at the UN’s ‘high-level political forum’, which enables countries to share their experiences in implementing Agenda 2030 in a way that is participatory, transparent and accountable to citizens.

India has finalised the ‘national indicator framework’ for the SDGs, which will help in outcome-based monitoring and reporting on progress with the goals. The data from the national-level framework is crucial and forms the basis for the compilation of global indicators. Given India’s size and criticality to the global development project, data from the country will determine if the world is meeting its goals.

The key to achieving the SDGs is political will and the government’s capacity and innovation quotient. India has these ingredients. I always say that if India can achieve the SDGs, then the world can as well. India’s scale and size mean that it is definitely playing a crucial role on reaching the goals, for its own people and also globally.

India has the resources, the ideas and the initiatives. I have worked in 10 different countries but I have not come across such a dynamic place. There is a good chance that India can achieve the SDGs.

Collaborating with the government, at the centre and in the states, would be critical to the outcomes UNDP is working towards. How well has this gone?

UNDP always works with governments. I do believe that for our work in India to be successful, our collaboration with governments has to be successful. The Indian government is a large institution and we work with different parts of it. This demands a lot of coordination, but I think that we have had fantastic partnerships with the government at both the central and state levels.

“The traditions, the cultural diversity, the food, the people, everything — India is like a universe in itself.”

What about partnerships with NGOs, foundations and other civil society organisations?

They have been a part of our efforts; they are the eyes and ears that determine what’s happening on the ground. I have been meeting civil society organisations, listening to them and seeing how we can work together and bring our strengths together. In addition, the private sector is now an important ally. I recently attended a CSR [corporate social responsibility] conference and it was very encouraging to see the private sector interested and keen to work in social development. Twenty years ago, when I started my career, I could not have imagined a conference room full of people from the private sector coming together to talk about SDGs. That’s happening now and it gives us hope.

In which spheres has UNDP done well in India?

I think UNDP’s strength, globally as well as in India, is that we are a flexible organisation that helps meet the evolving needs of different countries. We have different packages that we offer to a country. The key is our flexibility and our ability to focus on policy work, instead of just on project implementation. We have created a number of national and state human development reports and that has been our flagship work.

What about the challenges?

India’s scale is what makes the development challenges facing it so daunting, says Ms Noda

The development challenges are different in different states, but I think it’s the scale of the country as a whole that makes the task daunting (Uttar Pradesh, for example, has a population that is larger than of my country, Japan). There is room for improvement, and I welcome feedback from the government, from NGOs, the private sector and civil society. I am always open to having discussions in case we need to make adjustments in our approach.

The environment and climate change have gained a lot of importance in the UNDP agenda. What is the challenge in the Indian context and how is the country coping?

When I first arrived in May 2019, I was surprised to see a large number of natural disasters happening; severe droughts in some regions and cyclones and floods in others. India is definitely one of the countries being severely hit by climate change and we take this as one of our most important portfolios. It’s no longer about climate change; rather, it’s a climate crisis.

Climate change is not only about having an adequate disaster management system in place but also about adaptation and preparing the community. Varied methods have to be tried and there are so many phases of work that we need to do. What we are trying for is to provide appropriate and sustainable solutions.

On the human development indices, where can India learn from? And is there anything that the developed world can learn from India?

I think the developing world can definitely learn from India on poverty reduction. But India cannot be really compared with other countries, not many of whom have the kind of social uplift schemes that India does. As for learning from other countries, India can do that as well and UNDP lends a hand in the process.

This seems to be a difficult time for global institutions, especially those in the United Nations fold, with many powerful voices questioning their relevance and effectiveness. What is the counter to such criticism?

I agree, it’s not an easy time. Given that reality, multilateralism is even more relevant today than before. The root causes of poverty are not merely domestic; they are international as well. Inequalities and disparities at the global level have combined to create this crisis. We need to deal with these root causes and that makes the work of the UN and UNDP important.

The world has seen an overdose of political upheaval in recent years? How has this affected UNDP and its mission?

UNDP’s mission — rather its mandate — is broad and it’s basically about human development and poverty reduction. Now, no development work is completely apolitical, but whatever the surrounding environment, our focus remains on people. You have to build the peace and keep it for progress to happen.

Funding, too, has become a challenge globally. Traditional donors tend to contribute more when disasters strike, and less so when the crisis eases. But that is the moment when we have to invest more to ensure that the governmental system becomes strong, that democracy is rebuilt.

The growing extremism and fundamentalism we are witnessing is a reflection of the disparities within countries and communities. This gets politicised sometimes, with narratives coming to us discreetly.

How important are diplomatic skills in the position that you hold?

It is important, but the more important thing for me is to be honest about what is happening — and to be optimistic. If we lose hope in the work we do around the world, we can’t really make any progress.

You have worked with UNDP in 10 countries. Which did you enjoy working in the most, and why?

Maldives. I worked there for four-and-a-half years before coming to India and it was an extremely difficult time there — it was less democratic, to say the least. I was the resident coordinator in Maldives, covering not only UNDP but the UN as a whole. I was also in charge there for political dialogue and human rights. That’s where the UN was in the best position, bringing different strengths to support the government but also the people of Maldives. Democracy is back now in the Maldives and that makes for a rewarding feeling. Our persistence and patience helped.

How has the experience in India been for you personally? How different has it been compared with your other postings?

I don’t know who came up with the phrase ‘Incredible India’; that best describes this country. The traditions, the cultural diversity, the food, the people, everything — India is like a universe in itself. I’m very grateful that I have this opportunity to work here. I have not seen anything like it.

Which part of India did you like the most?

Each state is so different but for me Ladakh is a place I will always remember (it reminded me a little bit of Mongolia). I’m trying to travel as much as possible to understand the country. I will not learn anything by sitting in a room and reading reports and speaking to colleagues. I like to meet project beneficiaries and check with my own eyes whether the support we are providing is actually helping.