Leader Profile: Erna Witoelar, UN Special Ambassador for the MDGs, Asia & the Pacific

The United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched in September 2000 at the UN Millennium Summit in New York. In 2003, Erna was the first Special Ambassador for the MDGs to be appointed, with responsibility for their achievement in Asia and the Pacific.


The Millennium Declaration that launched the MDGs has particularly relevance to Asia and the Pacific; the region includes the two most populous countries in the world - India and China - and three quarters of the world’s 1.3 billion poor. While many of the MDGs have formed part of poverty reduction program aims for some years, Erna believes they help focus development assistance on the realization of solid achievements. “The United Nations is giving MDGs the momentum of global solidarity.” She explained adding, “We can see the inter-linkage between each and every Goal, and work in this way to catalyze the process. This opportunity of the MDGs is helping us see how to be more effective at the local level, while supporting more proper and more pro-MDG policies at the national and provincial levels. That way we can reach our MDGs better and faster.”


Within an Asia and Pacific context, Erna believes a change in approach is needed if the implementation of the MDGs is to be achieved. “Many of our countries - and also the United Nations - are used to handling them in a sectoral way and are not yet able to approach them in a more integrated and holistic way. That is something we need to improve. Another is that many Governments are working in a project-oriented manner, and we need to move to a more program-oriented method,” she asserted, “A third is that many countries still see them as government goals and are not yet incorporating all the efforts of civil society and the private sector in reaching those Goals. Much work on education and health has been done by civil society and the private sector. We need to include them together with government efforts.”


Erna is the founder of several civil society organizations in her home country of Indonesia including the Partnership for Governance Reform and Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI). She was President of the Indonesian Consumer Foundation (YLKI) and of Consumers International; she has also served as the Indonesian Minister of Human Settlements and Regional Development. Erna is currently Co-Chair of the Partnership for Governance Reform in Indonesia and Senior Regional Advisor of the UNDP’s Urban Governance Initiative in the Asia and Pacific region. Erna believes her personal background helps in her current position. “I have experience in putting pressure on governments from the outside, be it on the environment or consumer protection, and I have also experienced being inside, being pressured from the outside.” She said, “Poverty is not just the work of the departments of social affairs, but also has to be mainstreamed in the economic ministries and infrastructure, be it transportation or trade, in the countries themselves.” Erna is a chemical engineer by profession and has a post-graduate degree in human ecology from the University of Indonesia.


Future efforts will focus on implementing the recommendations of the second regional MDG report, “A Future Within Reach”, which argues for major institutional changes at the local, national and regional levels to make the development process fairer, advocates changes that could lead to better provision of public services, and highlights emerging and new patterns of regional cooperation that could have high pay-offs for the MDGs. “We actually have enough resources to reach the goals, but are not sometimes using them effectively. Linking the MDGs with good governance, better transparency, accountability and less corruption will help us in accelerating their achievement.” Erna said.

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