We recently sat down with Jelena Manić Petronikolos, Team Leader, SDG Integration Center at UNDP Serbia, to gain insight and learn about SDG Integration. Here is what she shared with us! Watch the video and read the longer interview below.

My name is Jelena Manić Petronikolos. I hold two master's degrees, one in international law and another in European integration law studies. While I'm in my 40s, I'm still as curious as my 6-year-old child! That's probably how I get myself into lots of work. I have worked in practically all sectors – in the private sector, in the public sector, in civil society and since 2005 I am with the United Nations in Serbia. I started working in the Office of Resident Coordinator, then I worked in the poverty reduction cluster, and I have been working in governance for about a decade.  

Today, I'm heading something relatively new in UNDP terms: an SDG Integration Center at Country Office level. The fact that I have been in other teams helps me look at things from multiple angles and find opportunities for integration between such units. Today, my team gets to define and develop our own roles. We like to say that we are truly the next generation of UNDP with no silos, no limitations, and no obstacles. We work on promoting integration, we work flexibly, and we are responsive to the needs in their entirety.  

The SDG Integration Center was established in January 2019 with an idea to tackle complex development challenges and help Serbia accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The center works on cross-cutting initiatives, covering areas from depopulation to gender equality, from accelerating government priority plans to facilitating sustainable investment in Serbia. The partners we work with include central government institutions but also private sector entities; society, academia, media, whomever it takes. The Center also supported the establishment and integration of the UNDP Accelerator Lab in Serbia. I'm proud to say that the Lab in Serbia was the first one established among 60 such Labs back in 2019!  

What does “integration” and “integrated solutions” mean to you? 

The word integration may sound a bit limiting to some, but, in my opinion, it brings freedom. It brings you the freedom to be as creative as you may wish to be. It's the ability to do more with less.  

Let me simplify with an example. Instead of digging a street multiple times, once for water pipes, another time for the Internet, or a third time for a telephone cable, if you take an integrated approach, you will dig the road and the street once, and put everything there at the same time.  

Translating this to our UNDP lingo, here is another example: we have a project we call “Serbia Trails.” It's an initiative which started off with mapping hiking and biking paths, but then we thought why not add the promotion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with the contents that they provide around these paths. We then went further to focus on women-led SMEs. Then we thought why not digitize the whole initiative and promote cash SMEs. We also invented private sector loyalty programmes for the mapping. So that's what we are currently up to, we are experimenting with these approaches, we are scaling them, and that's what you can come up with if you are not bound by silos. 

Serbia Trails

As part of the “Serbia Trails” project, UNDP helped create hiking trails for people with special needs. Photo: UNDP Serbia 

Integration itself is not a new thing, what is new is our emphasis on it and an appetite to tackle things at a systems level.

Integration makes us more aware of what we can impact when we look at issues from multiple angles and helps us position and have a greater impact on the SDGs. It also makes us adjust our actions in a way that targets as many results and goals as possible. My colleague says it's like putting a puzzle together, the world is interconnected so we should be as well. 

What are your flagship initiatives related to SDG integration? 

I would like to bring up three examples.  

One is related to depopulation. Now depopulation is a complex development challenge in Serbia, and we were on an SDG integration pilot where we set off to organize a depopulation studio. We organized the studio exercise at the beginning of 2019 with the help of the SDG Integration team from headquarters. We brought together, in one room, for five days, experts from vastly different backgrounds, for example an expert on aging, together with a demographer, an economist, a young person working in rural areas, and so on. What came out of the five-day discussions with them were some good insights into a different paradigm when talking about population trends. We are bringing this now back to the governments offering new approaches to tackle this complex development issue and building an entire portfolio around it.  

Geoanalysts Serbia

Geographical Institute "Jovan Cvijić" at SANU, the Geo-analysts team presenting their solution. Photo: UNDP Serbia 

The second example I would like to give is the SDG Acceleration Framework. The SDG Acceleration Framework is a $12 million government financed initiative where we work with the Cabinet of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet of the President, the General Secretariat of the Government, and other institutions that all have integration in their mandate. They are responsible for integrating various government departments in promoting reforms and delivering on promises to citizens. Now a feature of this program is an integration unit that we have helped establish with the Office of the Prime Minister. It is a group of advisers who are connecting the dots to efficiently execute the government’s plan.  

They work on diverse topics from the COVID-19 emergency response, digital transformation, creative industries in tourism, and more. The mechanism really works as these advisers are in a position to connect the dots together and transcend the boundaries of mandates of single government departments to get things done at the end of the day.  

The third point I would like to raise is UNDP’s COVID-19 response: the support that UNDP is providing to the Republic of Serbia in the COVID-19 emergency. Among the rest, we are currently supporting the Government in running a vaccination campaign where the Republic of Serbia is managing to vaccinate quite an impressive number of citizens daily. Now the COVID-19 emergency response overall demanded integrated solutions, but I will refer to this later.

Why was an integrated approach a game changer for your initiative? How do you think they created a positive impact for the communities we serve? 

Problems often don’t arise in silos. Take poverty for example, solving an individual’s problem with poverty is not something you can do from just one sector. However, governments and many other institutions tend to operate in silos. Yet projects would be hard to implement if we stopped short at mandates.  

As development practitioners I'm sure many of you have faced frequent responses when you come with an innovative solution to a government department where an official tells you, “Sorry but that really does not fall within my mandate so I cannot work the way you envisaged.”  

Given UNDP’s human development mandate, with human centricity at its core, is well suited, to be that anchor for governments, to help connect, integrate, and develop the whole of society. We are able to work with multiple departments at the same time under programmatic tools we have and overcome silos. We are also well suited to look at things from a portfolio approach and this brings us even closer to achieving impactful solutions. 

What are your key learnings and insights from COVID-19? How can integrated approaches help us #BuildForwardBetter and achieve the 2030 Agenda? 

The COVID-19 emergency response demanded integrated solutions.  

Just like we saw a huge spark in a digital transformation, I would also add that integration proved possible and useful under this crisis simply because people had to go beyond their mandates and borders – so integration suddenly became easier.

COVID-19 Supplies Serbia

Francine Pickup, Resident Representative to UNDP Serbia and Sem Fabrizi, EU Ambassador to Serbia stand waiting for supplies to fight COVID-19 to be unloaded. Photo: EU Delegation in Serbia 

We received an urgent request from the Cabinet of the President in March 2019 to help bring emergency supplies the country had managed to procure to Serbia. To respond to such a request, we brought colleagues together from different clusters and operations and worked around the clock. In 48 hours, with all these skills combined, we were able to not only find cargo planes amidst the global logistics challenges, but we also managed to persuade the European Union (EU) to fund them.  

Now picture this; when that first plane arrived, which was funded by the EU and loaded with emergency COVID-19 supplies from China, our UNDP Resident Representative, the Head of the EU Delegation, and the Ambassador of China, were in a bus at the airport returning from a ceremony where they were welcoming this plane and then decided to take a picture together – and it was UNDP that brought them together. We organized a total of 23 flights at the end of the day, where we also helped other UN agencies in Serbia procure immediate emergency COVID-19 supplies. In that sense we also exercised the integration role enabling UN agencies to come together and provide the emergency equipment to Serbia.  

What was the last book, article, podcast you read or listened to that really inspired you and which you would like to recommend to members of the  SDGi  community? 

Related to this example, I would like to share an article that I recently read with some key insights and learning from the COVID-19 crisis. It's Yuval Noah Harari’s article in The Financial Times on Lessons from a year of COVID-19 [which highlights in a year of scientific breakthroughs – and political failures – what can we learn for the future?]. A great read! 

This conversation is part of the SDGi Spotlight Series – stay tuned for more features! Please nominate yourself or colleagues working on SDG Integration around the world to showcase to our community what integrated solutions look like in practice.

? Get in touch and follow us on Twitter, @SDGintegration, @UNDPSerbia@JelenaManicTW

? Find out about UNDP Serbia’s work to ADD:

In case you missed them, catch up on our conversations with Matilda Dimovska here and with Stefan Liller here.

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