Serbia, with eight million educated and connected people, is the perfect size to trailblaze such a transformation. It is no longer a question of whether the country will pursue a green agenda, but how and how fast it will do so. The UN will support the country in implementing its ambitions for carbon reduction and environmental restauration
It was stated widely in 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to decades of hard-won progress being rolled back. One year on, UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia Françoise Jacob offers a more nuanced view:
“We learnt a lot in the past 20 months, including that there are limits to predictions! A pandemic like COVID-19, which extends far beyond the health challenge, keeps revealing new challenges, with far reaching consequences that we cannot properly assess and address until we face them, or even afterwards!”
The crisis laid bare glaring inequalities and vulnerabilities around the world. Just on the health dimension, access to, and the availability of, adequate healthcare and vaccination varied greatly between wealthy countries, countries with a reliable healthcare network like Serbia, and countries that had neither cash power nor proper health services. And within countries, or between countries of a similar economic level, the success and impact of the response fluctuated significantly, due to levels of preparedness, political connections, social behaviours, the reactions of leaders, institutions and communities, says Jacob.
Economic impacts have also differed between countries that were able to inject enormous subsidies for workers and the private sector and those that were not, notes our interlocutor. “The long-term impact of such subsidies on national economies is yet to be fully assessed. In Serbia, the economy dipped by a mere 1.5% in 2020, and has almost fully rebounded. A more granular look shows that marginalised communities suffered more, in terms of access to their jobs, to health, continuity of education and at-risk groups, such as people in care institutions, people with disabilities and others, have faced more economic, physical and emotional difficulties.”
On the positive side, the crisis brought renewed interest in upscaling efforts to address inequalities, underlines Jacob. “In Serbia, this has translated into fast-tracking the revision and adoption of several laws and strategies related to social protection and reshaping social dialogue between the state and citizens through the ministry of human rights and civil society. We also witnessed an extraordinary expansion of innovative solutions to deal with the new world created by the pandemic, as well as multiple demonstrations of solidarity. Within the space one year, as humankind, we managed to produce and distribute seven vaccines and have to date administered 5/6 billion doses. The accelerated progress in multiple areas once again demonstrates humans’ extreme capacity to adapt to aggravating circumstances and rebound.”
If I had to pick one lesson from the pandemic period, it would be our ability to address unexpected situations quickly and coherently, and communicating effectively proved almost as important as the solutions selected. Managing uncertainties, with calmness and empathy, has become a critical life skill!
These successes have, however, been shrouded by suffering and violence, multiple contestations, a form of war on science and the explosion of misinformation on all types of media. The COVID-19 collateral experiences have accumulated or merged with other sources of public anxiety, such as immigration and climate change, warns the UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia. “States and civil society need to address these new spins urgently. As the United Nations, we promote integrity in public information from all sides – including through and by the media – and we aim to be a source of reliable data and will continue to convene and provide bridging platforms between constituencies and parties.”
Climate Change, Security and Multilateralism are tightly intertwined. How does this translate in Serbia?
For a while, Western countries might have had a false sense of security that climate change was ultimately going to remain a developing world problem. We now fully understand that the threat is both global and local. We are at a point where climate change means systemic change, and whether the course of our future is either more resilient or more chaotic will depend on what we plan today. Action on climate will impact our livelihoods and become the main engine of green growth for the 21st century.
Serbia, with eight million educated and connected people, has the perfect size to trailblaze such a transformation. It is no longer a question of whether the country will pursue a green agenda, but how and how fast it will do so. There will be difficult trade-offs, which we will need to address with realistic scenarios, optimised resources, comprehensive plans, consultations and communication. These last three points are important to ensure that Serbian society supports and shapes the change. The green agenda requires new skills, new ways of living and new ideas, many of which have not yet been born. This is actually a powerful and exciting agenda that can bring the best out of citizens and the youth, provided we manage it meaningfully, with ambition, and as a vehicle progress, inclusiveness and wealth creation. Young people have told us in multiple forums that they want to make climate action part of their identity as shapers and bearers of the future, focus on solutions and impacts, and depoliticise the agenda. A powerful message to consider!
The UN will support the country in implementing its ambitions for carbon reduction and environmental restauration. We want to match the rhetoric with action on how we can design, build, produce, educate and legislate into a new future. The Green Agenda is also about ensuring that the most vulnerable groups benefit from the positive impacts of changes. While we start developing new technologies and financing schemes, we can carve out options for the poorer neighbourhoods, those who may lose jobs in energy transition, those with no skills. This is another important duty for both state and non-state actors.
I believe that we need more of this “working and deliver together” – the local version of multilateralism – with greater cohesion, collaboration, commitment and transparency, whether we’re talking about implementation of international treaties, coordination of investment schemes in the country with effective governance and transparent procurement, cooperation around money-laundering and illicit financial flows, or regional trade initiatives. And over the past few years we’ve seen how citizens will pick up on international commitmnts when states withdraw or fail!
I believe that we need more of “working and deliver together” – the local version of multilateralism – with greater cohesion, collaboration, commitment and transparency
The combined impacts of pollution and extreme weather events are happening at an increasing pace. How successful is Serbia in managing risks and disasters?
The Sendai Framework, as the global blueprint adopted at the UN World Conference in Japan in 2015, is an attempt by the international community to respond to climate and other challenges confronting the modern world, with a more responsible attitude towards natural resources and the social environment, and a much more sophisticated approach to prevention, risk identification and mitigation. Serbia was an early adopter and by 2018 had developed its Law on Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Management, with support from the UN. The legislative framework is solid, operationalised through a national disaster management plan and set of institutions. The country has amply demonstrated its capacity to manage all types of disasters, such as the migration crisis in 2015 and beyond and, of course, the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
When it comes to disasters related to natural events, more remains to be done at a municipal level – through planning budgeting tools and enhanced capacities. Most importantly, the multiple legislative and regulatory frameworks – including those of an environmental nature – need to be understood, applied, monitored and effectively enforced. This is probably where the biggest gaps remain, and where we need dedicated efforts to strengthen and expand the capacities and independence of monitoring bodies, along with litigation capacities. This is critical at a time when Serbia benefits from increased private and public investments in large infrastructure schemes, real estate developments, transport and more. What we build now will impact citizens for the next 50 years. The current environmental “uprising” very much relates to the aforementioned. When illegal dumpsites are opened beside the backwaters of the Danube or coal investments are expanded, we are laying the foundations for more disasters and ignoring the spirit and commitments of the laws.
To close this chapter, I would also like to point out the need for the country to retain its skilled workforce, as a key enabler of risk mitigation. We saw during the initial phase of COVID-19 how critical shortages of medical workers could influence the response. Such shortages can happen in other sectors that are essential to maintain a strong education system, key economic areas, and prevention or response to multiple disasters. While market forces will continue to prevail and make other countries attractive for Serbia’s skilled labour, this is an issue where we need to work together better, so that national incentives can balance multiple pull factors from neighbouring countries.
The UN Food Systems Summit 2021 will launch new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food. What are the key actions relevant for Serbia?
The summit will be convened by the UN Secretary General at the end of September 2021. It will present key opportunities to set up a new direction for food systems that respect planetary boundaries, focus on healthy diets and provide sustainable livelihoods for farmers. The summit is people-centred, which brings a different dimension to the usual discussions around agriculture and food distribution, which are often very technical in content. Inclusivity, sustainability, multi-stakeholder partnership and ownership were at the core of national debates in Serbia. We also understand that, in their current design, food systems have large and often damaging impacts on biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change. At the same time, food systems bear the brunt of climate change, affecting crop yield, rainfall patterns etc. We need to link the food system agenda with the enormous efforts that the country has exerted to push a deep transformation of the national economic system to one that delivers for the people, the planet and prosperity.
Serbia, through the Ministry of Agriculture and with UN support, has actively prepared its contributions to the summit and will issue a National Pathway for Sustainable Food Systems. Serbian agriculture is a vibrant sector that represents 14% of the country’s employment and 7.5% of GDP. It has shown incredible resilience to the COVID crisis. Yet, rural areas are lagging behind with a level of poverty that’s twice as high as urban areas, a low level of protection for its workers and widespread exclusion from opportunities. Priorities for action in Serbia will focus on food safety, sustainable food production and inclusive value chains, the reduction of food loss and food waste, as well as the promotion of decent and diversified livelihoods. We will see an acceleration of innovation, both in terms of knowledge and access. The whole area of infrastructure for rural development needs to be revisited: for example, financing new and adapted irrigation schemes, with increased water use efficiency, will be critical adaptation measures to climate change. On the soft side, by involving citizens and consumers more directly, we want to promote healthier and sustainable lifestyles. Food systems will be an essential part of the Green Transformation!
When illegal dumpsites are opened beside the backwaters of the Danube or coal investments are expanded, we are laying the foundations for more disasters and ignoring the spirit and commitments of the laws. The current environmental “uprising” very much relates to this
The UN75 research has shown that 60% of the citizens of Serbia are not aware of the SDGs. How can they be promoted?
The SDGs are a fantastic framework to centre the development agenda around people. While it takes time for each country and each citizen to fully appreciate their transformative power, I was pleased to engage in recent social discussions led by the Minister of Human Rights, where members of parliament, mayors, state representatives and civil society are fluently debating various SDGs. The SDGs are powerful indicators when we own them, beyond using them as statistics, when we understand what they mean to our daily lives. The SDGs should become an informal toolbox for children at school to explore the many dimensions of life and discover the world around them in a holistic way. In the context of the immense green transformation that is ahead of us, we can trigger and facilitate more dialogue within and between communities, institutions, citizens: the SDGs provide a flexible platform for debate and action, where everyone can see themselves as an agent of change, beyond any polarised political agenda.
As a conclusion: we have a shared and urgent responsibility – between people, civil society, the private sector and state institutions – to work better together, to broker honest deals that benefit all.
We must co-create this new social contract together and cultivate a culture of dialogue and openness, a culture of compromise rather than divisive rhetoric, a culture of empathy rather than apathy. We need to shift to a positive, informed narrative that harnesses the energy of all generations and focuses on opportunities, rather than continuously using threats to generate fear and resistance to change. We need to understand and constantly appreciate the fine line between individual rights and collective rights, understand and agree on the necessity and power of individual responsibility towards the preservation and augmentation of common goods for the benefit of all, including future generations. That is at the core of Agenda 2030!
The green agenda requires new skills, new ways of living and new ideas, many of which have not yet been born. This is a powerful and exciting agenda that can bring the best out of citizens
With the support of the UN, Serbia will focus on food safety, sustainable food production and inclusive value chains triggered by the acceleration of innovation, both in terms of knowledge and access
SDGs should become an informal toolbox for children at school to explore the many dimensions of life and discover the world around them in a holistic way