Looking Back at UNIDO, Moving Forward

Viewpoint by LI Yong, Director General of United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

VIENNA (IDN-INPS) – UNIDO is turning fifty years old. The anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the past. It is also an opportunity to chart a new path for a sustainable future.

Looking back at what UNIDO has achieved throughout all these years, I am amazed by the success of its technical cooperation activities, its normative function and its policy advice, and its contribution to the global discussion of industrial development.

The history of the Organization started on November 17, 1966, when UNIDO was established as a special organ of the United Nations General Assembly to assist, promote and accelerate the industrialization of developing countries, with a particular emphasis on manufacturing. After moving its headquarters to Vienna in 1979, it became a specialized agency in 1985.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when UNIDO’s profile increasingly sharpened, many development ideas were in the air: support for private industry, export-led growth, South-South cooperation.

This renewed our efforts in investment promotion and pushed us to work on export processing zones. In the context of the oil crisis, the gap between developing and developed countries widened, and UNIDO strongly committed to reduce inequality.

At the same time, we started to work on industrial energy efficiency and renewable energy – priorities which continue today with just as much, if not more, urgency. Our work became so crucial that we eventually became a specialized agency of our own, with our very first session of the General Conference taking place in 1985.

The following decade saw much change in how the international community saw development, and this indeed had an impact on UNIDO. These were the years leading to the Washington Consensus and the laissez-faire approach to economic growth that temporarily relegated industrial policy to a second level of priority. But these were also the days in which the concept of sustainable development was conceived for the very first time.

After Chernobyl in 1986, the environment became one of our serious priorities, and we began to work with the Montreal Protocol Secretariat and the newly established Global Environment Facility, which continue to be important partners for us today.

Increasingly relevant

In the new Millennium, UNIDO has worked with the rest of the United Nations family to advance the Millennium Development Goals, yet another development paradigm with social development at its core. As globalization continued, UNIDO strengthened its work in trade-capacity building also in the context of the Aid for Trade Initiative of the World Trade Organization.

After the recession, we saw renewed emphasis on climate change and industrialization reaffirmed as crucial in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, making UNIDO’s work all the more, if not increasingly, relevant.

I encourage you to read the details of our fascinating history in our UNIDO at 50 website –, as well as in other publications the Organization is issuing for this special occasion. After all, UNIDO is older than many of the readers of this magazine!

Our young and informed readers understand well the forces that brought about the birth of a special UN entity dedicated to supporting industrialization: the benefits that structural transformation brings to economic and social welfare have been recognized for centuries. They will not be surprised either by the fact that poor countries were fighting to start their own process of industrialization when UNIDO was born.

However, they may be disappointed by the fact that today – fifty years later – we are still talking about the industrialization of Africa and Least Developed Countries, and that many emerging economies and even some high-income countries are still struggling with poverty, high unemployment rates and environmental challenges, exacerbated by climate change.

As the Director General of UNIDO, I share their frustration: it is intolerable that today, well into the third Millennium, the obstacles to sustainable development and industrialization are still so hard to overcome.

Indeed, while we have seen the amazing rise of certain emerging economies, we have also witnessed how many other countries have been left behind. The recent economic history has shown the challenges associated with an increasingly interconnected world.

The global economic recession that started in 2007 has had its effects all around the globe, and hit particularly hard those countries that were not prepared to absorb external shocks. Inequality within and across nations is intolerably persisting.

Solutions to challenges

We, at UNIDO, know that the solution to many of these challenges lies in inclusive and sustainable industrial development (ISID) strategies that create and maintain decent jobs for all, provide resilience to shocks, promote food security, create value while not harming the environment and, ultimately, may prevent conflicts and reduce massive and desperate migration flows.

In these fifty years, UNIDO did its share to support its Member States in their industrialization efforts. Examples stretch from agribusiness development to providing industrial policy advice and gathering industrial statistics. UNIDO supported the birth of export processing zones, introduced for the first time resource efficiency and cleaner production practices and technologies in several countries, and built the capacity of developing nations to facilitate the access of locally produced products to international markets.

It was among the first players to implement international environmental agreements. Thanks to its innovative approach, the Organization has often been at the forefront of the United Nations system in some of its crucial battles. UNIDO’s support to women and youth employment, to small and medium-sized enterprises and to the private sector, and its backing for the Sustainable Energy for All initiative are only a few examples of how important UNIDO has been through the years.

So, today, it is indeed time for us to celebrate our past achievements. But this moment is also critical for us to trace our path for the future. Because beyond all the success we have had, what matters today is how we are readying ourselves to address the challenges of the present and future.

This brings me to the issue that strikes me most when I look into these fifty years of history: UNIDO’s great ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to relaunch its action in spite of every challenge it has had to face. It has done so in the past and is doing it today.

The path of innovation

In Lima, in 2013, in the face of shrinking core resources and increased competition for official development assistance funds, our Member States reaffirmed the central role of UNIDO in supporting efforts towards sustainable development. While recognizing that today, more than ever, we are moving in a world of constrained resources, UNIDO relaunched itself. In Lima, UNIDO once again chose the path of innovation.

A comprehensive and innovative partnership approach began that day, with a view to maximizing the impact of the Organization’s efforts and their alignment with national industrial policy priorities and global sustainable development goals.

As a first step to realizing this approach, UNIDO developed a new type of assistance package for its Member States: the Programme for Country Partnership, a custom-built formula for each beneficiary country, aligned with the Governments’ industrial development priorities and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The first such programmes were launched in Ethiopia and Senegal, and today a Programme for Country Partnership is successfully developing in Peru. Other Member States are eager to have the same approach implemented in their country.

On the other hand, UNIDO has increasingly mainstreamed the three dimensions of sustainable development – the three dimensions of ISID– in its thematic programme priorities. This approach is well-represented in new programmes on eco-industrial parks, in which the environmental protection dimension and the prioritizing of job creation, with a special focus on women and youth, are integrated into a traditional industrial park approach. Paying particular attention to the applications of new technologies and connectivity opportunities is also at the centre of UNIDO’s new programme development.

Thanks to these and other initiatives, well supported by the tireless commitment of our staff, today we are proud to say that UNIDO is on track to meet the expectations of its Member States and partners to drive development cooperation efforts to advance inclusive and sustainable industrialization. Our recipe is ISID: to create jobs and shared prosperity, advance economic competitiveness and safeguard the environment.

Today, we are fully committed to the job we started five decades ago: to put an end to poverty. And today, as never before, UNIDO has taken centre stage in the battle for sustainable development.

The relevance of ISID

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in New York, the global community committed to a set of ambitious, integrated and indivisible SDGs, among which SDG-9 explicitly reinstates at the highest level the centrality of inclusive and sustainable industrialization.

The relevance of ISID can be found in several other SDGs, and its advancement has significant ramifications for virtually all the SDGs. It is also recognized by the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on means of implementation as one of the main cross-cutting actions to mobilize financial resources, transfer technology and build capacity at the national and regional level.

The centrality of UNIDO in tracking progress on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda has also been confirmed. The UN Secretariat to the High Level Political Forum regularly invites UNIDO’s Industrial Development Board to be the intergovernmental body in charge of the official global thematic review of industry-related matters with regard to the implementation of the SDGs.

Recently, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a Third Industrial Development Decade for Africa, and specifically called upon UNIDO “to develop, operationalize and lead the implementation” of the programme for the Third Decade.

The Organization is already working hard with partners and countries to identify opportunities and appropriate financial frameworks to meet the expectations of African countries and support them in their industrialization efforts in a socially inclusive and sustainable manner.

The relevance of UNIDO goes even beyond United Nations processes. In July 2016, the G20 launched a new initiative on supporting Industrialization in Africa and Least Developed Countries, based on a comprehensive report prepared by UNIDO, in which key action areas are identified and clear links established with the G20 Action Plan on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

At the same time, UNIDO is being asked by the G20 to work with other international organizations on other issues, including on a report to assess the impact of innovation and the new industrial revolution on the global economy, and particularly on developing countries.

As it turns 50 years old, UNIDO has firmly established itself as the reference organization in the United Nations System to plan, discuss, implement and monitor progress of inclusive and sustainable industrialization matters over the next few decades. There is no doubt that today UNIDO is at the centre of international efforts to promote and accelerate inclusive and sustainable industrial development at the global, regional and national level.

Intensifying efforts

That is why, when I am asked what this anniversary means for UNIDO, I simply reply, “hard work”. From various quarters, the world is giving UNIDO the mandate to continue and intensify its efforts to advance the ISID agenda, through its range of analytical, normative, convening and technical cooperation services, as well as industrial policy advice.

Today, UNIDO is in full gear and stands ready to tirelessly assist countries around the world in eradicating poverty and advancing inclusive and sustainable industrial development. Development cooperation history shows that we cannot do this in isolation. We need our partners to realize a transformative change on the ground, and to drive sustainable development through an inclusive and environmentally sustainable industrialization process in our Member States.

We thus look forward to working with traditional and new partners, with Governments and other United Nations entities, with development finance institutions, the private sector and academia, to tap into the full spectrum of resources and expertise necessary to leverage the potential benefits of ISID for all people. Together for a sustainable future.

* This article first appeared on 17 November with the headline Looking Back, Moving Forward in Making It: Industry for Development, a quarterly magazine published by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Photo: Li Yong | Credit: UNIDO

IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

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