Andrew Cox is the newly-appointed UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative for the Maldives. Before arriving in the Maldives, Cox was based in New York as the Chief of Staff for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York.
Prior to this he held several positions in Sudan where he worked on comprehensive peace agreements between warring factions, and in Afghanistan. Before his UN career Cox worked as Field Director for Concern Universal in Sierra Leone and had assignments with various companies and NGOs in the UK, Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire.
JJ Robinson: How does your experience in development and within the UN system benefit your new role in the Maldives?
Andrew Cox: I’ve worked for the UN since 1999 and NGOs before that. I come from a development background, but I just seem to have ended up in a lot of conflict, post-conflict and post disaster-places.
During my three years in Sudan I spent a lot of time working on a comprehensive peace agreement, and I spent time in Afghanistan in 2002 just as the situation there was changing – I was very sorry to leave, actually. I have also spent some working in Sierra Leone, which oscillated between conflict and post-conflict.
I think the process of transition in [such places] is very interesting – it’s about how people behave when their basic assumptions are changing and the bedrock is shifting under them. People act in extreme ways and sometimes it’s very difficult to get institutions in these countries to change.
What is especially difficult [about countries in transition] is the need for urgency. You don’t have luxury of 10 years to see if something might work. You just have to try things at high speed and discard them if they don’t.
One of the interesting things about coming to Maldives is that I find this transition happening. There is a tremendous amount of dialogue, although sometimes a little above the level of dialogue in terms of intensity and rhetoric.
What the Maldives is going through is not unusual and is to be expected in such circumstances. What I hope I can bring from my past is help and advice, and assistance from the UN system in managing this transition.
JJ: The Maldives has made a major transition to democracy, and the next major transition is the transition from less developed country (LDC) status to middle income. What does this mean and what are the key challenges for the country?
AC: On the surface there are some things the Maldives will lose along with its LDC status, such as access to concessional credit, which is probably one of the more important things. It will also lose a certain amount of grant income from donors.
But the point is to look at it as an opportunity; OK it may hurt in certain areas at the beginning, but in the end the Maldives has got itself where it needs to be and now has more to offer the world than it might have had before – it’s not just about offering beaches to tourists coming in.
When I saw the President I asked him if he had thought about having the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) serve in UN peacekeeping operations – it’s one way in which Maldivian experience can be sent out there to benefit the rest of the world, and of course it’s a learning experience for those who participate.
Similarly, the Maldives was a victim of a major natural disaster in the tsunami, and in my view it would make a lot of sense for the country to join the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC), which sends in disaster coordination experts to a country whenever there a natural disaster. The Maldives should be able to contribute to that.
I also think, and the President said this and I fully agree with him, that the Maldives should not be about dependency on aid. It should be about development, trade, and punching greater and greater weight in the region.
What everyone seems to be doing at the moment is focusing on the future. The loss of income from donors, if things go well, will be replaced by greater trade and economic growth. But there are some structural issues making that difficult, no doubt about it.
JJ: What kind of structural issues?
AC: The budget deficit is the major one. I’m not completely up-to-date with the figures, but last time I looked it the deficit was 33 percent of GDP, which everyone – the government as well as international institutions – has said the Maldives has got to address.
The deficit in Greece is 12 percent of GDP. Obviously Greece is a very different place [to the Maldives], but everybody needs to be serious about the problem. It’s a huge challenge and until it is solved it is going to be difficult to change other things.
The UN’s position is to help the government find ways dealing with this. There’s various things you can do but in the end the gap between income and expenditure has to change, because it is simply not sustainable at the moment.
JJ: How does the UN navigate the polarised politics here? How do you find the middle-path and involve the opposition?
AC: There have been many changes here over the last few years, and the UN has been here throughout that entire period. I think we played quite a positive role – although you can’t get everything right. But by sticking to its principles, the UN tries navigate its way through. For example, during the change to democracy the UN worked closely with then-president and his party, as well as the opposition.
What we tried to do was help them manage the process [of transition]. It’s very clear what the UN stands for – our principles are out there. There’s no hidden agenda and the approach is consistent across the UN. There are many different levels of support the UN can bring.
I’m not trying to be naive or idealistic – but it’s [an approach] that works just as well if you’re dealing with rebels in the middle of a conflict or if you’re dealing with development challenges – you help those who are there to make the right choices, and sometimes provide an enabling environment for that to happen.
The UN is also here to try and improve the lot of ordinary Maldivians. One of our principles is that we work with all parts of society and we do that in an open way, and that can sometimes be difficult to explain. But in the end it is our job to work with everybody who can be a positive force for change, and to try and advise those who are less convinced for the need to change to change their approach. That’s consistent across all the countries we work in.
JJ: What are some of your experiences from the programs you have worked on in the past that you think would also work in the Maldives?
AC: I worked on the last stages of the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan, which is a mostly Muslim country. The key in Sudan was doing everything you could to get the parties to sit together. Obviously we don’t have the same kind of situation in the Maldives, but the principles are still the same.
A facilitating role sounds a little bit ‘wishy washy’, until you realise what happens when you don’t have that. It doesn’t have to be the UN – in Darfur the African Union had the lead on the political side, and the UN helped them to do their job.
As a newcomer to the Maldives, it is very obvious that there is a certain amount of heat in the political discourse, to say the least. A lot of this is a very natural outcome of the change everyone has gone through. I think the trick is to find areas where there can be cooperation, and not to allow bigger disagreements to pollute the water where consensus might be possible.
For example, I think the cross-party effort to deal with domestic violence is very interesting right now. Everyone agrees domestic violence is a problem, and although there may be disagreement over how that problem should be addressed, this is absolutely one of those areas for mature political dialogue. We will try and help that process along, but it needs to be the parties in parliament to figure out how they want to deal with domestic violence issues.
JJ: To what extent should be UN be a leader of civil society in a country, in terms of supporting NGOs and helping them work properly and efficiently?
AC: I don’t think leader is the right word. If we were, then if we withdrew our support the whole thing would collapse and that’s not the way it should be. The real strength of civil society in most countries, to use an overused phrase, is ‘grassroots.’
Civil society is only powerful if it comes into being organically. I think most people on either side of the political divide recognise that civil society is very weak in the Maldives, and that much more needs to be done to support its growth.
I think the UN can play a major enabling role. There are an awful lot of people around the world who have [grown civil society], and one thing we can do is to bring some of them in to explain how they did it. That process of sharing information and knowledge is very important.
JJ: What do you mean when you say civil society is weak in the Maldives? There are a great many NGOs and it does seem to be a sought-after profession.
AC: Yes exactly – I think across all parts of society, and obviously it varies area to area, from human rights to gender to drug prevention, there are a number of things you look for, such as sustainability of funding and resources. In the end civil society will only be strong if Maldivians embrace their own civil society and start paying for it.
Some of that is about government funding, but much more of it is local philanthropy and gift giving – and earning the organisation that you’re associated with.
The UN can give out a grant of US$20,000 [to an NGO], and what they’ll do is buy a computer, pay for some travel and training and so on, then it’s gone and that’s it. What happens then?
This is a very important question that a lot of civil society organisation managers are thinking about – or at least I hope they are. Because in the end, international funding can’t be assured for anybody over time.
I think the whole point is to use that external support as a way to building up a civil society organisation so it can have links with the community and an income stream, and a sufficiently strong volunteer network to get done what they think needs to get done.
How do we help them through that process? Definitely we have supported NGOs in the past, and there has been a proliferation in the last year or two, but now they need to move beyond that start up phase and become a bit more secure. You really need a strong civil society because it gives you a way to get important things done that is separated from politics.
JJ: The Maldives recently beat Iran to the UN Human Rights Council – what kind of an achievement does that represent?
AC: I think it’s a remarkable achievement. The Maldives ran a good election campaign on its own merit and got the support, which was a very big deal.
The Human Rights Council is in organisation in flux, and I think both [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki Moon and the High Commissioner of Human Rights [Navi Pillay] see it as a long term project – and many of its members see it in the same way.
For the Maldives it represents a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate it can be a world leader, as it already is in the area of climate change. For a country to progress so far on the human rights side allows it to go out there with a very honest position and say ‘we’re not perfect yet, but this is what we’ve done.’
Another part of the Human Rights Council is that you have support from your peers to deal with human rights issues, so when it works well is when there is an atmosphere of cooperation and people get down to business away from the heated rhetoric you also sometimes hear on human rights issues.
But I would also say that because the Maldives has a somewhat exalted position on this council, this is also a challenge. The Maldives can’t stop its progress on human rights, because the eyes of the world are on the Maldives as much as eyes of the Maldives are on the world in the human rights sense. I think it is very important that this election provokes a renewed investment in human rights in the Maldives, and if it doesn’t happen then the Maldives’ position on the Human Rights Council could invite unwelcome attention.
It just the way we seen these things work over the years. I sincerely hope – and everything I’ve heard suggests this will continue to happen – that the Maldives will continue to strengthen human rights in the country, especially now.
JJ: How would you describe the level of human rights in the Maldives, from the perspective of a newcomer?
AC: I would probably describe it again as a situation of change. There have been tremendous advances made, but obvious areas that need strengthening – areas like access to justice.
I think there are important bills pending on the judiciary, things like access to legal aid. The Maldives needs to invest in the judiciary and its ability to do its work, and there needs to be investment in corrections – I think the problems are self-evident. Then there’s right to information, and of course the police, who now have themselves been changing and adapting to new challenges. I think there’s a raft of institutional legal framework measures that are needed to strengthen human rights in the Maldives.
I think the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) needs to continue to be supported, for obvious reasons. It’s important to have a strong home-grown human rights commission to encourage the government to take the steps it needs to take, and I think it is absolutely important to have strong human rights organisations on the civil society side. This is a priority for UNDP, and we’ll be scaling up our support to human rights NGOs. If you get them right, there’s a knock on effect to other NGOs.
JJ: Human rights issues such as freedom of expression and gender equality appear to sometimes conflict with stricter interpretations of Islam. Is it possible for human rights to be fully realised in a 100% Islamic country?
AC: I think there is a very strong human rights tradition in Islam, and I think it’s absolutely possible. I know there are many different legal systems under the Islamic system, and what I think is quite important is to learn from other experiences around the world and shamelessly steal the best parts. I see absolutely no contradiction between Islam and human rights.
JJ: The Maldives has established itself as an international leader on climate change based on its vulnerability to rising sea levels, but at the same time it’s trying to attract long term business investment. Is there room for these to exist side by side?
AC: I think it’s an interesting dilemma, and if it’s going to get solved anywhere it be here. Obviously I’m not a climate change scientist, but speaking as the manager of UNDP I think there’s interesting opportunities in the Maldives over how to cope with climate change.
We still don’t know how bad it’s going be, so yes, risk inherent in every situation. But let’s not forget that the Maldives is not alone in this – the Maldives may have problem with rising sea levels, but there are many other countries with problems related to climate change – you just have to look at sub-Saharan Africa, and see how climate change is affecting water and food production there.
Certainly from the Maldives side, the country has to press on with mitigation and creating a low-carbon economy. There are thousands of different possibilities, and money to be made off successful models of technology that can be proven to reduce carbon. On the adaptation side there’s a lot we don’t know how about how reefs will react to changing water temperatures, and new technologies which can be looked at in terms of sea defenses. And things like if you’ve mangroves that you look after, you got a much greater change of withstanding rising sea levels and weather events than if you don’t have them. It’s a matter looking at these things and the impact of communities that live in these areas.
With all that in mind, the Maldives is a good place to invest in from the point of view of climate change-related industries. Businessmen and women are not stupid – they evaluate situations and make decisions accordingly. One of the things the government has committed to is loosening the trade environment and having clear regulatory frameworks, and I suspect if they successful pushing that through then that will also encourage investment.
So don’t think the two messages are contradictory. You have to do an awful lot because of climate change, but you can continue to build the economy as well.
I think adaptation is also very important – people need to be able to manage risk more than they can at the moment. Generally speaking we estimate that for every dollar spent on disaster risk mitigation you save $10 in losses when a natural disaster strikes – the economics are quite obvious.
We have quite some interest in the Maldives’ obvious vulnerabilities to climate change and major weather events, and it’s useful to use different communities around the Maldives to test ways of strengthening people’s ability to withstand natural disasters. If we get that right, then that is also something the Maldives can export – knowledge and know-how about how to deal with vulnerability in the face of climate change.
What we are going to be doing over the next year or two is looking along with the government at creating a global climate change centre in the Maldives. We are working on the details at the moment.
Another priority area is to look at governance programs and see how we can help. A major step forward of the last few months was the government getting together its strategic action plan – it’s a great document but it’s very thick, and it’s not much use unless it gets implemented. We all feel it is quite important to have a results framework, and if the government is able to do that, Maldives stock will go up in eyes of donors.