Continuous consultations of Iranian officials led to drafting an emergency plan to fight the sand and dust crisis in the form of a global priority. It also carried along the will of the international community to iron out a fundamental solution and to this end, Tehran hosted the first International Conference on Combating Sand and Dust Storms; an event that could have never been made possible but for the perseverance of Iranian officials and the UN representative to Iran. To learn of the various dimensions of the UN in Iran and the planning process for preventing Iran’s wetlands and environment from destruction, we conducted an interview with Mr. Gary Lewis, the UN Resident Coordinator in Iran. Throughout the interview, we had the chance to find out about his viewpoints regarding empowering women and the trend of realizing the Millennium Development Goals in Iran.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Gary Lewis,
UN Resident Coordinator in Iran
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
What purpose was the International Conference on Combating Sand and Dust Storms meant to serve?
Our conference, which took place in Tehran during 3-5 July this year, was an effort to do two things. First, to raise awareness across the globe about the socio-economic and environmental challenge of sand and dust storms. Second, to forge renewed political consensus and find technical solutions for dealing with the problem. But there is a background. Towards the end of 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 71/219. This move acknowledged “the intention of the Islamic Republic of Iran to host an international event on combating sand and dust storms…”. In line with this, the UN worked with the government of Iran to organize the event. Its official title was rather long: “International Conference on Combating Sand and Dust Storms (SDS) – Challenges and Practical Solutions”. Our main counterparts on this in Iran were the Department of Environment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A total of 90 international participants from 36 countries attended the event.
Aside from the excellent networking opportunity, the conference produced both the awareness we were seeking as well as the set of political and technical recommendations we needed to take the response to the next stage. We now need to build on this consensus in the UN General Assembly in the future as well as the UN Environmental Assembly. But we cannot let it end there. Not with words alone. What is now really needed is for countries which are affected to start implementing technical solutions within their borders. And for countries to collaborate across borders on the issue. Serving as a platform for such cooperation is the job of the UN and I hope we have done a good job. One thing I can say is that on the basis of its work, not just in July but for the past several years on sand and dust storms, Iran is seen as a leader in the global community on sand and dust storm countermeasures.
What efforts have been made to revive the Hawizeh Marshes?
Although we have a project which has been supporting the recovery of 12 of Iran’s wetlands for over a decade – and which currently has a strong focus on Lake Urmia, the
Shadegan and other wetlands – our efforts have not so far touched this location. Iran has a large number of wetlands. Unfortunately, many are not in a good condition.
As part of the challenges ahead of your operation here in Iran, you mentioned the political-security tensions in the neighboring countries. How have these tensions affected your activities inside Iran?
These tensions and the conflicts they have produced have not directly affected our operations. We are working closely with the Government to prepare in case the conflicts in the region produce refugee flows. You will know that Iran is respected for having provided a safe haven for many fleeing conflict in the past. And I try to draw attention to this important Iranian contribution at every opportunity.
The UN has two projects in progress in the Hamouns area. How contingent do you see the implementation of these projects upon the political agreements between Tehran and Kabul?
UNDP has a couple of environment-related initiatives at work in the Hamouns area. The first is the Conservation of Iranian Wetlands project. The second goes by the name MENARID (the Middle East and North Africa Regional Development for Integrated Sustainable Development).
The overall approach has been to try – to the best extent possible – to preserve people’s original livelihoods which were mainly dependent on the Hamouns wetland functions. Along with our government counterparts, we have been trying to introduce alternative and sustainable livelihoods to the local communities. This includes empowering them to adapt to their new situation where much or most of the water has disappeared due to upstream diversion.
We believe that these projects are helping the residents of these areas who are generally poor. In fact, they are among the very poorest people I have seen during my 4 years in Iran. Our efforts try to help citizens of these areas adapt to the water challenges which a hotter, drier future – produced, to a significant degree, by climate change – will bring. But, when you set these modest efforts against the dramatic challenges faced by the people of the Hamouns, our contribution is small. The Government of Iran is also trying to manage better the water in that region. However, the real solution can only come when the use of the waters flowing into the Hamouns – mainly from the Helmand and Farah rivers – can be better regulated between Afghanistan and Iran.
What importance do the Shadegan International Wetlands possess in Iran’s environmental structure? What has the UNDP done to revive these wetlands?
UNDP’s Conservation of the Iranian Wetlands Project also supported recovery in the Shadegan Wetlands for the better part of the last decade. This process actually started three years before our work in the Hamouns Wetlands. One significant result to date has been the approval – and implementation – of the Shadegan Wetland Management Plan. As a result of this plan, Shadegan Wetland water rights have been approved at provincial level.
The situation is still not ideal. I know this because I have visited Shadegan a few times during the past 4 years. However, we have introduced alternative livelihood initiatives – which are essentially adaptation efforts – at the local community level. Finally, some environmental threats like oil pipelines and garbage dumping areas have been moved away from the wetlands as a result of better planning. The role of the UN is to support the national authorities with the means – drawn from international best practice – to address, in this case, environmental problems. The real outcome will arrive when these tools are used to the maximum extent.
Despite our best efforts in coordination with the Government, it is obvious that both the Hamouns and the Shadegan wetlands are not in a good condition. Our efforts have nonetheless given visibility to the challenges we face. We think this has contributed to – at least – halting the degradation and the start of a process of renewal. But a lot more needs to be done.
One important point to emphasize is that the UN’s and in particular UNDP’s environmental projects have provided a platform for the Government and other stakeholders to practice a new ecosystem management approach for their wetlands. This is the only way to ensure that the previous unsustainable approaches and practices come to an end.
You have been here in Iran since 2013. How much has the index of human development increased thus far?
Allow me to go a little further back in time to give you a much better picture of Iran’s progress. We need to look at the past 30 years or so. The period for which we have solid comparative data.
Between 1990 and 2015, Iran’s HDI value increased from 0.572 to 0.774. This is a massive increase. But these numbers will mean little to the average person. So let’s convert them into some basic indicators.
I remember that just a few months after my arrival in Iran, we launched the 2013 UNDP Human Development Report and one of the things I remember is that for the period under review which was 30 years (1980-2010), no country on earth had improved its human development faster than Iran – with the single exception of the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
Let’s now look at life expectancy. Between 1990 and 2015, Iran’s life expectancy at birth increased by 11.8 years – from 63.8 to 75.6. We can also look at education. The average number of years of schooling increased from 4.2 to 8.8 during the same time period. Finally, earning power. Iran’s average income earnings per head of population increased by about 60% percent between 1990 and 2015.
Iran’s current human development index value is 0.774. This is the latest info we have for 2015. This puts the country in the high human development category – positioning it at 69 out of 188 countries and territories.
Based on the statistics you have, in what areas in Iran have the Millennium Development Goals been fairly accomplished? Which ones are yet to reach a considerable level?
As far as I know, Iran, unfortunately, has not formally published any reports on its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) achievements since the year 2009. This is a pity as it has achieved much since that time. Nonetheless, despite this, we can say that according to the information we have, Iran has done well on 5 of the 8 MDGs.
The first is poverty reduction. As I’ve already said, the income of the average Iranian improved dramatically during the last 30 years. Despite this – and this is not-so-good news – there is still significant income inequality in Iran. That’s a serious issue. But overall, most people have been lifted out of abject poverty across the country. And we also have recently seen that the level of income inequality has diminished slightly.
The second MDG was on the issue of education – making sure that all children have access to quality education. The numbers that I shared with you earlier whereby schooling increased from 9 to just under 15 in 25 years (1990 to 2015) equates to a doubling of the average number of years that a child can be expected to be in school. That’s a pretty massive increase and a big achievement.
The third area that Iran has done well in is reducing child mortality. The figure for child mortality is currently around 20 per thousand. That is really low. Significantly lower even than in many developed countries.
The next area that Iran has done well, the fourth in fact, is reducing maternal mortality. This is the rate of deaths among women when they’re giving birth. Overall, we’ve seen a great increase in the quality of medical and other support services including in rural areas
Provided to women at the time of giving birth. And as a result, this figure has dropped. Right now, among countries that are called “high human development” countries, the number of women who die as a result of giving birth stands at about 47 for each hundred thousand women. In Iran, the figure is 21 per hundred thousand – half that of highly-developed countries.
And the last of the 5 of 8 areas that Iran did very well in, was tackling the three main communicable diseases: HIV, Malaria and Tuberculosis. For example: Tuberculosis has been virtually eliminated. Malaria is down to about between 400 or 500 cases that we’re dealing with right now – across the entire country. That’s 400 or 500 people out of a population of 80 million. Fifty years ago, one in every five Iranians was suffering from malaria. So that’s a dramatic improvement.
And on HIV, I think it is fair to say that the epidemic is being contained even though there is a lot more that needs to be done to eliminate it – especially increasing the level of treatment to be provided to people who are HIV positive so that they suppress their viral load. In this way, we can break the chain of transmission and ultimately end AIDS in Iran.
Now there are three MDGs which I believe Iran could have done better in.
One of those is the environment. The second is gender equality and the third is promoting partnerships. Let’s look at these in reverse order.
Admittedly, the issue of promoting partnerships was severely limited by the fact that Iran was under international sanctions.
On the issue of gender equality, the first thing we can say is that Iran has actually done a great deal to empower its girls and women through education – and health. Remember the substantially-reduced maternal mortality figures that I shared with you earlier.
Nonetheless, let’s look at the numbers again. UNDP’s HDI for Iran is 69th out of 188. When you look at some of the HDI indices like UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index which includes the gender equality aspect, Iran’s ranking slips quite a number of places compared – down to 114th out of 155 countries.
These numbers are manifested in aspects like the percentage of women in the workforce. You see it in the number of women represented in the political leadership positions and in business leadership positions.
As for the environment, Iran is under pressure from climate change which is going to make the region hotter and drier. This exacerbates pressures on the natural environment caused by economic development and population pressure. A number of poor environmental management decisions have been taken during the past 30 to 40 years by Iranian citizens and by various Iranian governments. Put differently, concerns for the
Health of ecosystems have not been adequately considered in decision-making. As a result, the country’s environment is in a difficult situation.
And it’s the issue of environment that I actually see right now as the major challenge that Iran faces and will continue to face for the next 2 to 3 decades. So, while we have seen a renewed official focus on the environment during the past 4 years, much, much more needs to be done. Especially on the issue of reducing water stress and scarcity.
We must now focus on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, which are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.
These 17 Goals build on the successes of the MDGs. But they do more than this. They now include new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, among other priorities. The goals are interconnected – often the key to success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another.
I believe that the SDGs work in the spirit of partnership and pragmatism to make the right choices now to improve life, in a sustainable way, for future generations. They provide clear guidelines and targets for all countries to adopt in accordance with their own priorities and the environmental challenges of the world at large. The SDGs are an inclusive agenda. They aim to tackle the root causes of poverty and environmental degradation and seek to unite us together to make a positive change for both people and planet.
I have worked in the UN for 30 years and I have seen many ideas and agendas come and go. With the SDGs, for the very first time, I believe the countries of this world have a real plan for the future. 193 countries have agreed to this plan. The world has no alternative plan. We have to implement this plan. In the context of the SDG vision, every country thus becomes a “developing country”. That is why I am firmly committed to them.
How far has the process of gender equality going on in Iran? What has the UN done in this regard in the country?
I think I have answered this question partially in what I have said before in this interview.
As for the second part of the question in regard to what the UN has done, we ensure that in all our projects girls and boys have equal access to education and health. At the heart of all our projects lies the simple goal of empowering women.
But we need to recognize and value women’s work both at home – in terms of working with men to protect and sustain the next generation – and in the world of formal
Employment. We need to encourage women to participate in political, economic and business spheres. If women can participate in the economy on the same basis as men, the economy is going to be a lot bigger than it is today – in any country. This is what we have seen the world over. Women must have the opportunity to go all the way to the top. To be among the top decision makers.
The UN founded the convention on preventing violence against women; a subject which indeed is a human rights issue. What have the UN offices in Tehran done in this area?
As I have said, our work to empower women is a central part of our work on the ground in Iran. This can be achieved through maternal health initiatives. Or education initiatives. Or through the provision of small grants and micro-credit loan schemes. If women have a better sense of their rights, international experience has shown that they are less subject to violence. In all countries studied, reproductive freedom remains the biggest indicator of whether the society – as a whole – is poor, or educated, or long-living. We should nonetheless bear in mind that Iran has not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women – or CEDAW – and we earnestly encourage Iran to do so. The UN is engaged in a number of advocacy initiatives to raise the position of women in the country’s labour market and social engagement.
Between 1996 and 1998, you worked side-by-side with Iran’s Disciplinary Forces as a young counter-narcotics officer serving with the UN in Sistan-va-Baluchistan. Considering the great wealth of experiences, you acquired later in this field and some articles you published in this regard, how do you see the trend of curbing the stream of drugs in Iran over the past few years?
As you have said, before being appointed as the UN Resident Coordinator in Iran, I spent the preceding 20 years with UN working on counter-narcotics and counter-crime in many different countries. In fact, for part of this time, I worked on the triangular problem of drug trafficking between Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran. This was back in 1996-1998. Things have changes somewhat since that time. But much remains the same. When I was working years ago in Sistan-va-Baluchistan, I knew some of these young officers. And I would like to use this opportunity – as I have done before – to express my condolences to the families of those who have fallen – both then and now – and in between – to protect the lives of others from drug abuse.
The second thing I need to say is to commend Iran for doing an amazing job in stemming the flow of drugs into the country. Around 100 officers per year lose their lives in
Gunfights with the drug traffickers operating on its eastern borders. This is before you count the many more wounded and the lives of families and loved ones which are forever damaged. What Iran does stops drugs from not only entering the country but also from travelling onwards. This was happening before I worked with the Disciplinary Forces during 1996-1998. And every year since.
We need to recognize the actual magnitude of what is being stopped. For the better part of the past 2 decades, Iran’s interdiction efforts have accounted for the world’s highest seizures of opium – about 80 percent. It also seizes one-third of all the heroin seized across the planet. For a single country this is impressive. The net result is that fewer drugs are on the market to poison the lives of our young people.
Yet, despite all this effort, unfortunately, in Iran, drugs are still relatively cheap and widely available. Part of this is also due to the production – within Iran – of cheap amphetamine-type stimulants, like “sheesheh” (crystal meth). As a result, the impact of drug production, trafficking and abuse in Iran has been considerable.
Drugs cause adverse effects on public health including drug-related morbidity and mortality, and the associated risk of drug dependency and HIV infection. Another cost is the burden on the economy and society caused by lost productivity and the depletion of our young people’s potential.
According to some news in December 2016, there were objections to some claims and acts by the UN agencies while you were summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iran. Could you tell us more about that?
In any relationship between partners, differences of perspective arise. Such an issue arose, and was settled between the UN and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was resolved amicably.
Every year, millions of dollars are contributed by other countries for enhancing the access to healthcare and living services as well as the voluntary repatriation of Iran-based refugees. What mechanisms has the UN devised to monitor the process of allocating these sums to each section?
UNHCR is the largest UN agency operating in Iran in response to the country’s request for its technical support. Its activities and budget allocations are guided and prioritized by a number of global and regional strategic documents and procedures. These include UNHCR’s strategic priorities (2017-2020), the UNHCR-Iran Regional Plan – Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR); the UNHCR-Iran Regional Plan – Building Resilience and Solutions for Afghan Refugees in South-West Asia; and finally UNHCR’s ongoing consultations with the Government of Iran.
More than this, the Executive Committee Meeting of UNHCR (ExCom) – consisting of representatives from UN Member States or members of any of the specialized agencies – acts as the governing body of UNHCR globally. The Executive Committee holds one annual session during the first half of October in Geneva. The ExCom is responsible for advising the High Commissioner in the exercise of his/her functions, reviewing funds and programmes, authorizing the High Commissioner to make appeals for funds, and approving biennial budget targets proposed by Field Operations. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the members to the ExCom.