Louisa Vinton, UNDP Resident Representative: Why Croatia needs the United Nations … and the United Nations needs Croatia

Croatia can be justly proud of its achievements in two decades as an independent state, including the creation of robust democratic institutions and a level of prosperity (at least as judged by an average GNI per head of $13,580) that has vaulted it into the World Bank’s elite category of high-income economies. Even if no precise timetable has yet been set, negotiations on access to the European Union (EU) are all but complete and membership is due soon.

But averages, though telling, can conceal a wide range of individual variations, some of them extreme. The spectacular beauty of coastal resorts which captivates so many visitors and fuels the country’s booming tourism industry is just one part of Croatia’s story. So are the comfortable circumstances of Zagreb.

Croatia has many faces. Partly that is a result of the country’s wealth of distinct cultural identities and diverse natural environments. Part of this diversity, however, is also a reflection of the disparities in income, access to public services, job opportunities, and living standards that Croatia, like many other European countries, is striving to overcome. These challenges are typical of remote and rural areas everywhere, but here they are more acute in areas that have experienced the devastation of war, massive flights of refugees, and the daunting tasks of reconstruction and reconciliation.

The distance still to be covered for less-advantaged areas (and also less-privileged groups, such as Roma) is the main rationale for the continued presence of UN agencies in Croatia. The numbers here are telling. GNI per head in the Areas of Special State Concern is one-third the national average. The share of people at risk of poverty is 19%. Unemployment is almost three times higher than the national average, and 24% of families in the Areas of Special State Concern lack reliable access to clean drinking water.

Addressing the needs of vulnerable people is a focus of UN activity everywhere, and in Croatia this preoccupation has centered on the Areas of Special State Concern. UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), whose presence in Croatia dates back two decades, has worked to ensure that returnees and settlers have adequate housing and some initial resources needed to rebuild their lives. It has also provided skills training to help people develop new sources of income. And it has encouraged community reconciliation between different ethnic groups.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP), for its part, has worked with dozens of rural communities and towns to help repair and upgrade infrastructure; promote the development of small businesses; and provide vocational training, especially for people living in rural areas. Increasingly, these activities are oriented to the challenges posed by EU accession – for example by ensuring that cattle breeders gain the certification they will need to market their products on European markets, or that municipal officials gain the project skills and build the partnerships that they will need to secure EU funding.

Success in overcoming the regional and social disparities represented by the Areas of Special State Concern would enrich Croatia’s already enviable record of achievement since 1991. Even as it continues to benefit at home from the services provided by UN agencies, Croatia has become a valued contributor to a wide range of UN activities abroad. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted last year in an interview with Vjesnik (6 October 2010),“Croatia’s active contribution to the United Nations has far surpassed its size.“

The UN Secretary-General pointed in particular to Croatia’s successful transition from a consumer of peacekeeping operations to a provider. The site of five different UN peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, Croatia is currently engaged in ten UN peacekeeping operations abroad. In addition, an international training center for military police peacekeepers in Valbandon is certified by the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations and attracts candidates for certification from places as diverse as Norway and Iraq.

Croatia’s track record in overcoming a legacy of conflict has helped secure the country a prized position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2008-09. Similarly, having served as a member of the UN Peacebuilding Commission in 2006-07, Croatia is now campaigning for another term for 2012-13. These experiences have given Croatia a prominent voice in global governance and also served to expand the skills of its diplomats.

No surprise, then, that the UN is also looking to Croatia for expertise. The most prominent example so far was the Secretary-General’s selection last year of former Justice Minister Ivan Simonovic to serve, with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General, as the head of the New York arm of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In another case, former President Stjepan Mesic was invited last August to visit Kyrgyzstan on a UNDP advisory mission in the wake of violent upheaval in the country’s southern regions.

As Croatia follows its trajectory towards the EU, the work of the UN will shift in emphasis. UN agencies will focus less on providing development services in the country and more on channeling advice, expertise, and tested tools to countries facing challenges similar to those that Croatia has already overcome.

UNDP is currently working with Croatia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration to share the lessons learned in EU accession negotiations (in which Croatia faced more rigorous scrutiny than in past waves of enlargement) with other aspiring members from Southeast Europe. A series of peer-to-peer seminars is helping to transfer hands-on experiences from the Croatian negotiating team to counterparts elsewhere.

The experience of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is particularly instructive. The UNICEF organization in Croatia is unique in the world, in that it combines programmes oriented at improving the prospects of disadvantaged and at-risk children in Croatia together with a successful fund-raising operation supporting UNICEF programmes both abroad and in the country, mainly in Africa and crisis-hit countries. Since 2004, this work has been funded entirely from domestic resources, and the generosity of individual Croatian donors has been growing steadily, reaching a record level of more than $5.5 million by 2010. As UNICEF’s case shows, even as the UN continues its mission to address the needs of vulnerable groups in Croatia, its focus is shifting abroad, to countries and regions that look to Croatia as a beacon of prosperity and success.

Posted in Kolumne.