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“Development Work is Taking Place in Eritrea According to its Own National Vision”, Mr. Yacoub

By Ruth Abraham

A delegation of United Nations Regional Directors and representatives conducted a five-day visit to Eritrea starting from 24 January last week; on the occasion of the launch of a new Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework 2022-2026. The delegation was led by Mr. Yacoub Ali El Hillo, the Regional Director for Africa and the United Nations Development Coordination Office (UN-DCO). Following is an interview with Mr. Yacoub on the objectives and activities of the delegation and his overview of the Cooperation Framework as the leader of the delegation.

Welcome to Eritrea Mr. Yacoub. Could you please tell us when and how the new cooperation framework was launched?

Thank you very much and I really appreciate you giving me this opportunity to speak to you and through your outlet to the people of Eritrea. We arrived in Asmara on 24 January. We were received with a warm welcome from the Government of the State of Eritrea. The chief purpose as you have rightly indicated was for us to join the launch of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework with the State of Eritrea. The launch took place on 25 January in Asmara. It was a beginning of a full program of engagement that we have been having with senior government officials and development partners.

We also had a chance to travel out of Asmara and visit sites where development programs have been implemented. So, this team that had traveled from the regional headquarters of quite a number of UN agencies, funds and programs comprises about 10 or 11 Regional Directors or their representatives. I think this shows the importance of Eritrea, both its people and government, to the UN. This framework is going to guide the collective efforts of the UN development system over the next 5 years in our partnership with Eritrea. We will be working to provide that package of expert support in different sectors according to the development vision of Eritrea. So, it is an important framework that will be put to good use immediately. It is to provide basic services support and many other areas that fall squarely under the development vision of Eritrea. It’s good to be here.

Mr. Yacoub, can you please summarize the critical elements of the cooperation framework?

The cooperation framework captures the collective contribution by the UN to work with the government and people of Eritrea in Eritrea’s quest to realize sustainable development goals (SDGs). In that context, we have programs for basic service delivery support, capacity development, programs related to tapping Eritrea’s natural resources that will contribute to supporting sectors such as health, education and other basic services that the government is providing to the people of Eritrea. This is a framework that is also used with other countries, other members of the UN system. We are very excited about this one here in Eritrea because it was developed over the last several months in a highly consultative process with the government and the priorities that have been now agreed are very much nationally led and owned. It is now our responsibility as the UN to ensure that all the capacities and resources required in the package are delivered over the next five years, 2022-2026. It is our responsibility to ensure that what we committed to do in this partnership with the government of Eritrea gets delivered.

You have also held meetings with various line ministries. How did the meetings go?

Excellent, the discussions that we have had were very constructive, open, frank and honest. We have witnessed all the readiness on the part of the different ministries and other senior government officials that we had the honor of meeting. Readiness to continue building on all the cooperation that has been taking place between Eritrea and UN, commitment from both of us and pledging to build on that so that we can take this partnership to an even higher and more strategic level.

We are very gratified and satisfied by the spirit with which these discussions took place. But it’s also important for me to say that we were very encouraged by the clarity of the vision; the unique vision for development that Eritrea has adopted which offers a number of practices that we at the UN also think are lessons that must be learned and may be replicated elsewhere. The cooperation framework, as I mentioned earlier discusses a number of issue. For instance, climate change is one of the key areas where the space is going to be created for cooperation and transfer of expertise and knowledge. This means to grow the programs that Eritrea has already implemented, in order to adopt but also to address the challenges posed by climate change.

One of the field visits that took us to Areza was to witness the completion of one of these projects; power plant that has been implemented in partnership with the European Union and the UNDP. This plant is now providing electricity to about 28 villages, I think, plus the urban center itself, Areza. The power plant provides electricity to 30,000 people directly in addition to about 10,000- 15,000 people that are indirectly benefiting from the power supply in schools, clinics and so on. This is a model that precisely reflects how the world should behave. This is exactly how governments should take serious actions to address the effects of climate change.

This is a renewable energy, free from pollution, and it is transforming lives. Economically speaking, households are now able to power their economic activities in all different sectors, including agriculture, water supply and businesses. I am singling out climate change precisely because it’s a priority for the world and it is through programs like this that we as a community of nations around the globe will be able to reverse the diverse effects of climate change. So, Eritrea is setting the table for this and we believe the programs that we have seen should be replicated in Eritrea but also in other countries.

Mr. Yacoub, can you describe the launch ceremony of the cooperation framework from your point of view? And how did it go?

It went well; the launch took place at the Denden Guest House. It was presided over by the Ministry of Finance and National Development and was attended by quite a number of senior government officials. Eritrea’s permanent representative to the UN, Ms. Sophia Tesfamariam, all the colleagues from the UN families, the UN resident coordinator, Ms. Amakobe Sande but also the heads of the UN agencies which have country offices in Eritrea attended the ceremonies and meetings throughout the week. More to that is the regional team that we travelled with that come from different UN organizations including, the economic commission for Africa, WFP, UNDP, WHO, OHCHR, UNHCR, IOM, UNIDO, UNHabitat, etcetera.

What was your overall takeaway from the launch of the cooperation?

Serious commitment by the Government of Eritrea to engage, to grow the partnership that already exists but to take it to scale and to also provide all the facilitation that is required to ensure the speedy and efficient implementation of this program at different sectors. We did not find any resistance to the ideas and plans because this has been jointly developed by the Eritrean Government and the UN. So, the launch comes at the end of this process because the work begins now. And everything that has been agreed in this framework is actually contributing to Eritrea’s development vision that has already been adopted by the country. So, our role through this partnership is to support the realization of that vision. You have mentioned that you know Eritrea when your parents came here for their honeymoon. Please tell us the story?

It is my first time to visit Eritrea but I grew up in the Sudan with Eritrean friends. We are one people in two countries and as I mentioned at the launch, although it is my first time to visit Eritrea, I am not the first member of my family to do so. Because in 1950, my parents came to Asmara on their honeymoon. So, this relationship, this affinity started then, but it also started in Sudan. Both Sudanese and Eritreans live side by side. As I said, we went to school together; from primary school all the way to university, at the University of Khartoum. I do have many Eritrean friends at the UN but also outside of the UN and certainly in Sudan itself. So, it’s a great honor for me as a member of the UN family to be coming at this particularly important moment as we launch this new ambitious cooperation framework but also at a personal level, it’s a great honor for me to finally be able to visit this country. This is the first time, but Inshalah it will not be the last.

How do you feel about Eritrea in general after spending five days here?

You know there are many misperceptions about Eritrea. Being here in Eritrea for the past 5 days, we were given free space to interact with the government, communities, we were given the freedom to move around. And that was quite important for us to understand the context in which development work is taking place in Eritrea according to its own national vision. It’s also important for us to have been here these few days so that we also become Eritrea’s ambassadors to the UN and hopefully change some of the narratives or misperceptions that have been assigned or attached to Eritrea.

There are many areas for joint cooperation and over the years, I am sure we will be able to help in this evolution. Eritrea is a new nation that is building itself. It is still at the stage of nation building and the UN should provide all the support for one of its member countries to achieve that goal of nation building with respect to the choices made by the people of Eritrea; with readiness to strengthen the good practices and with availability to bring whatever capacities the UN may be able to deploy here to help in that process.

I know that there is also openness from the Government of Eritrea that there may have been areas where the practice or the programs may not have been fully successful or correct. What was encouraging for us is also that there is no shying away from course correction when things are not working well. So, I think this comes from a great sense of national confidence.

If something is open for discussion, dialogue and agreement so that programs can be implemented in a different way or in a way that will have greater impact for the people, it is deemed a success. We sensed that readiness and it was quite encouraging for us as a system, as a UN system, but it’s also quite important for us to carry this message out of Eritrea. Hopefully with the possibility to help change some of the misperceptions that have been placed against Eritrea.

If you have anything to say to the Eritrean people or the UN families here?

To the great people of Eritrea, at least those we have met in their communities in Mendefera, Areza, Gergera and Adi Halo in which we saw two dams that signify the huge accomplishments that have been realized by the people of Eritrea; continue and keep doing what you are doing with that very strong national pride that you have shown us. Keep your head always high; the world will come to partner with you and follow you. This is your country and it is the responsibility of us all including those at the UN to support that very proud national vision that we have really witnessed and felt interacting with the people of Eritrea. Keep it up.

Thank you very much Mr. Yacoub.

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