Michelle Muschett Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator, and UNDP Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean
Michelle Muschett was appointed Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator, and Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in November 2022.
“Growth on its own is not enough, if that growth is not inclusive and does not take into account its impact on the planet”
Ms. Muschett is a social policy and global development specialist with multisectoral experience in leadership positions. Before joining UNDP, she served as Senior Public Policy Adviser and Executive Education Director for Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, advising governments and policymakers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America in their efforts to address multidimensional poverty. She was also Senior Policy and Strategy Adviser for the Fourth Sector Group, providing guidance in mobilizing collective leadership and action for scaling business models and in leveraging development finance to accelerate the transition towards more inclusive, sustainable and resilient economic systems globally. In the public sector, Ms. Muschett held the position of Deputy Minister and Minister of Social Development of Panama. During her tenure, she led the process of developing the first national Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI); the creation of the first Childhood MPI in the Latin American region; and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals at the national level through civic participation and strategic partnerships. She also chaired the National Concertation Council for Development, a legally established dialogue space aimed at building consensus among multiple sectors of society around national development priorities.
Ms. Muschett holds master’s degrees in Public Administration from Cornell University, United States; Commercial Law from Externado University of Colombia, Colombia; and Management of Heritage and Cultural Projects from the Institute for Art and Restoration Palazzo Spinelli, Italy. She speaks Spanish, English, and Italian.
In this issue of Progreso magazine, he points out the challenges that Latin America and the Caribbean are facing, the need to continue working to achieve compliance with the SDGs, and the contribution of public-private partnerships to achieve a more inclusive.
- What has been the most significant and catalyzing step towards sustainable development in the last 15 years, in your opinion?
I believe that the most important step forward in the last 15 years has been reaching a global consensus that development, unless it is sustainable, is not worthy of the name and that to achieve it, a concerted effort is needed from all sectors of society. This entails the acknowledgment that growth on its own is not enough, if that growth is not inclusive and does not take into account its impact on the planet. Although income is an important measurement, on its own it is not a comprehensive indicator of progress. Recognizing this, multidimensional poverty and welfare metrics have been created to encompass health, education, work, and housing, among other non-monetary welfare dimensions, that are being adopted by increasing numbers of governments, corporations and non-profits around the world.
This global consensus is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) designed and adopted by all the states that were members of the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to end poverty in all its forms and dimensions, protect the planet and guarantee that everyone can enjoy peace and prosperity.
- In the current climate of a highly unstable global economy, experts in multilaterals warn that by 2030 there may be as many as one billion people in extreme poverty. A reality that would make it impossible to achieve the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The next seven years will undoubtedly be important, but do you think that we are at a tipping point? Can we recenter our efforts to reach these targets in time?
When the members of the United Nations drew up the SDG for 2030 and committed themselves to complying with them, the possibility that a pandemic would strike the world in 2019, moreover one that would trigger a significant reverse in human development for the first time in 30 years, was not form part of their contingency planning. On top of that, we had the effects of the global cost of living crisis, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, abruptly pushing millions of people into poverty, disproportionately affecting Latin America and the Caribbean, which in turn are suffering an unprecedented crisis of governance.
Against this backdrop the SDG as a route map have become even more significant. However, if there is one thing that is clear in the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, it is that merely more of the same will not be enough as we redirect our efforts to achieving the SDG. The Region requires innovative solutions that open the way to a new generation of public policies which support the creation of societies that are more resilient, more inclusive, and more productive, societies that are based on effective governance. It is crucial that we remember that this is a task not solely for governments, but one that needs a coordinated effort by corporations, nongovernmental organizations, multilateral bodies, the academic world, and wider civil society.
- Where are we seeing the greatest progress?
The pandemic led many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to strengthen their social protection systems to be better prepared for the future. The multiple crises suffered have shown the importance of having robust social registries as the bedrock for more resilient societies and how these should sit at the center of sustainable development strategies that take into account the new risk matrix that countries are facing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, countries with solid registries were able to swiftly respond to the crisis, extending the scope of their emergency programs and finding agile solutions. The focus for the future must be on consolidating a new social contract that ensures social protection systems that are universal, inclusive, and fiscally sustainable through integrated policies and care services.
- In your time as chief Public Policy advisor and Executive Director for Education with the Oxford Poverty Human Development Initiative (OPHI), you advised governments and senior politicians across Africa, Asia, and Latin America in their efforts to tackle multidimensional poverty. For those who haven’t heard of the Multidimensional Poverty Index, could you give us a short introduction to this measurement model?
The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), launched jointly by OPHI and UNDP in 2010 as part of their Human Development Report, is an instrument that seeks to understand and tackle poverty from a more comprehensive and precise perspective, instead of focusing on income as the sole factor. It is like a high-resolution lens that captures multiple hardships across healthcare, education and living standards that affect people’s lives simultaneously. It aims to identify not only those in poverty but also how the composition and intensity of their poverty varies between different population groups. This means that MPI has become a powerful public policy tool adopted by an increasing number of countries around the world as an official poverty measurement, which complements the purely income-based ones. Because it is flexible, states can adjust their national MPIs to the specific needs and priorities of each country. Latin America and the Caribbean have pioneered the adoption of the MPI and its use to plan, design, focus on, implement, and monitor public policies.
In the last few years, MPIs has been used beyond the realm of government, extending it to corporations and non-profits to better understand the deprivations that are facing their collaborators, clients and beneficiaries, using this as a basis to design programs and initiatives to promote welfare with a multidimensional approach.
- Bearing in mind the most important indicators for measuring housing, education, and health, in general terms, how are the poorest affected by these shortfalls?
According to the 2022 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 37 million people live in multidimensional poverty, equivalent to 2.7% of the population. Of these, 1.7% are people in extreme multidimensional poverty. The global MPI also presents the “deprivation profiles”, which show a considerable difference between urban and rural areas, and an alarming disparity by age: 1 in every 7 adults and 1 in every 3 children live in multidimensional poverty.
- What is the greatest challenge in Latin America?
Currently, one of the biggest challenges is that the region is suffering from concurrent crises resulting from a combination of pre-existing structural and institutional conditions and external factors that are beyond the Region’s control. Tackling these problems will need a multifaceted approach that considers the political, social and economic dimensions of these crises. This will require cooperation among governments, civil society, and the private sector to face the underlying challenges and build a more resilient and equitable future for the region.
However, these challenges also open up opportunities. The pandemic entailed a major leap forward in terms of social protection, in the roll-out of digital technologies, in rethinking the social contract and in aligning public and private efforts towards sustainable development. The opportunities are there; it is up to all of us to direct them toward building more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable societies.
- What role do measurements and data play in designing strategies, policies, and initiatives to fight inequalities?
Measuring and statistical data provide reliable information that is indispensable for taking evidence-based decisions, both in the public and private arenas. Let us take the example of the Multidimensional Poverty Index once again. As well as being an official statistic of poverty and increasing our understanding of it, implementing it entails a number of positive externalities. In the first place, it improves coordination between different government sectors and grades. The MPI acts as a tool for coordinating policies, facilitating the alignment of efforts to achieve a shared goal, and making coordination between subnational sectors and levels possible. It is also used to optimize budget allocation decisions by sector and region. In the second place, the MPI foments a climate of data collection and usage for the purpose of informing social policies, leading to better focus. Finally, the MPI encourages governmental accountability by promoting transparency and measuring the progress that has been made towards the defined goals, using transparent, up-to-date data. All these applications have also been transferred to the business sector and to non-profits, which means that efforts can be aligned so as not to leave anyone behind.
- The concept of the basic digital basket has been coined and OPHI has started measuring digital poverty in some countries; what does this concept exactly mean? How can we get to a situation in which everyone has this basic basket?
Digital poverty, also known as the digital gap, is the lack of access to technology and the internet, thus creating disparities and making it difficult for people and communities to participate fully in the digital economy, making the most of the opportunities it offers. The pandemic highlighted the importance of access to digital technologies in terms of people’s welfare, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Despite the progress made in broadband coverage and mobile phone ownership, many people still suffer from limited access to tools, skills and digital opportunities, which generates digital inequality, especially in rural areas.
Actors in the public and private sectors have made efforts to improve digital access and inclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean, but more is needed if we are to guarantee that everyone has the chance to access and use digital technologies in ways that extend their freedoms. The pandemic has led the way to deepening digital skills and to updating digital tools, and there is a growing consensus around the idea that inclusive digitalization must be a public priority. In UNDP, for example, we are working with small and medium-sized enterprises on digital upskilling techniques that make their businesses more efficient and productive. The idea is to support them so that entrepreneurs can really access the opportunities provided by digital tools, to improve their incomes and standard of living. #EnMarchaDigital [Digital on the move] is an upskilling program that has been rolled out in more than twelve countries in the region.
- In this area, what is the winning formula for the public and private sectors to work together and thus multiply their impact?
I believe that cross-sector collaboration is essential if we are to achieve a sustainable development model. For the private sector, social investment, as well as a commitment with growth and welfare, is a good business strategy for driving sustainability in economic activities.
The decisions made today will shape the sustainability of societies and impact the compliance with the SDG. These need innovative policies, strategies and business models that generate social and environmental welfare, at the same time as promoting economic growth with transparency and legitimacy.
To meet these goals, it is imperative that governments, the private sector, civil society and communities work together to create new agreements. These agreements must be based on the principles of transparency, accountability, and cooperation, and focus on finding solutions that are sustainable and equitable. Collaboration is key in order to find innovative approaches for the challenges facing societies and communities, and to ensure that the long-term recovery process is inclusive and beneficial for all.
- Could you give us an example of good practice?
My first example would be the UNDP’s Gender Equality Seal, which works with companies to narrow the long-term gender gaps in workplaces. This program provides tools, advice and specific evaluation criteria in order to guarantee implementation and favorable certification. For companies, the Gender Equality Seal certification supports a more efficient and equitable workplace and contributes to encouraging gender equality and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Another good example is the role of the private sector in work being done towards inclusive digitalization, especially during the pandemic. The private sector acted as a first responder and crucial partner in this area in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the outset of the crisis, when schools were shutting down, most countries in the Rregion set up initiatives, working closely with the private sector to improve broadband access across the territory. Although work has been ongoing toward connectivity and digitalization for decades, this work became more agile in response to the crisis and has been mainly driven by the private sector.
- Looking to the future, if we consider a 15-year horizon, perhaps we could return to where we started our discussion: what are UNDP’s priorities? What initiatives or innovations do you think will have most impact on sustainable development?
To get to the kind of societies that we want, we must invest in three major transformations: production, inclusion and resilience. These transformations must take place alongside effective governance.
Development financing is crucial if we are to achieve the SDG. The issue is not that the world doesn’t have enough money, but where it is invested, who gets the benefit, and who doesn’t. Sustainable debt issuance offers plenty of development financing opportunities. Innovative instruments like Mexico’s SDG Bonds, and Uruguay’s Sustainability-Linked Bond, both backed by UNDP, could have a multiplying impact on societies and are initiatives that may have a significant influence on sustainable development.
Another high-impact area will be innovation for development. The world is facing increasingly complex problems, that will only be mitigated by innovative solutions, new ways to tackle the issues and greater ability to understand the factors that link them. That is why UNDP is backing innovation. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, we have 15 Acceleration Labs that are permanently exploring, mapping, and experimenting with innovative solutions to difficult problems.