A native of Finland, Jaakko Henttonen is fund director for the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), in St. Petersburg, Russia, a position he has held since 2006. Henttonen holds an MSc in engineering from Helsinki Technical University, and an honorary doctorate from Kiev National University of Construction and Architecture. Henttonen served as president of the General Assembly of the REC from 2000 to 2009, and as chair of the REC Board of Directors from 2009 to 2012.
The NDEP has worked for many years with the EBRD as an implementing agency for large-scale projects. How do international finance mechanisms go about identifying what sort of projects to invest in, and what levels and types of cooperation need to be in place between these mechanisms, government authorities and civil society for projects to be implemented as successfully as possible and with the greatest mutual benefits?
With due respect, there are financing institutions other than the EBRD, but the EBRD is one of the leading ones in this part of the world — Central Europe, Russia and former Soviet countries. Specifically, one of the aims of the EBRD is to ensure two main things: one is transition, which involves other subsectors as well, including businesses and so forth; and the other pertains to environmental standards in whichever sector project development takes place. And for that sector, cooperation between government authorities and civil society is really fundamental. There have been, of course, hiccups throughout the years, but this involvement started only about 20 years ago when the geographic situation changed. Nevertheless, those are the aims, and at various levels they've been successful. However, we have a situation now in which Russia is kind of getting out of this sphere and we can only hope this trend would be reversed.
What would you identify as the greatest ongoing needs of this region with regard to sustainable development and environmental protection?
Well, there are serious challenges in the region that we are facing most recently. Practices with which we have been working with the EBRD to bring sustainable development as part of national policies are not felt strongly enough by all partners. The harmonisation of regulations and practices regarding sustainable aims and environmental issues is not really proceeding at the desired speed. So when we think about climate change, and in general about environmental protection as part of sustainable development, a lot has to be done to gain common understanding in Russia — and also the countries of Central Asia. Generally speaking, actions there seem more directly aimed at speedy economic development and gains, with inadequate attention given to the consequences of investments. Policy dialogue should be continued at all levels to meet the challenges ahead and keep the processes at set targets jointly approved by international parties.
Would you say that the difficulties there are more political or economic in nature? Or a mixture of both?
Both. The political and economic issues are intertwined. It takes a lot of effort for the EBRD to promote sustainable development as a sound base for economic and social development. Notably, sustainable development covers several specific issues, such as gender equality, energy conservation, the proper use of resources etc., which are sectors that EBRD is promoting. We've been able to take things quite far at several instances, but still I think there's a bit of a reaction taking place now that the economic projections in the short-term are bleaker than, at least in my experience, they were a few years back. International financing institutions will be required to emphasise these issues with their transactions in the countries of operation, taking carefully into account the specifics of each country.
You mentioned five years ago that "the REC has played an important transformative role during a memorable period in history". What do you see as the REC's main future challenges and opportunities?
There are quite comparative differences between REC member countries — say from Estonia to Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which have become members of the European Union during this time. Therefore, I would say the main challenges for the REC now are in the Balkan region. It took a long time for the REC to develop the environmental legislation standards in the countries looking forward to closer association with the European Union — to bring this element to standards acceptable for joining the EU. This has been a huge challenge for quite a long time — really huge. Of course the number of client countries seeking membership in the EU are diminishing, but nevertheless the REC can continue to promote civil society as such. It can bring forward issues which are relevant for development from their point of view. This is something that the REC has really been able to promote in its regional operations and activities in the respective countries — that is, through a combined emphasis on environmental policy development and civil society involvement.
With the emergence of new environmental issues and proposed solutions, what role do you see the CEE region playing in a Europe-wide or global context?
I come from Finland, which, along with many Western European countries, might be considered “old democracies”. The CEE countries, on the other hand, have gained their full political independence only recently — so they are bringing a lot of fresh perspectives regarding the development of their society. I think the so-called older democracies tend to feel pretty comfortable with themselves. The CEE area has added more content and more substance to the dialogue at European level, and that adds a fresh element for ourselves. Sometimes there are, of course, extremes, but there are nevertheless new ideas coming from the CEE region.
Globally speaking, when the CEE region joined Western Europe the continent became whole. It's no longer divided like it was earlier, and this has strengthened Europe's role globally. We're no longer so far apart on certain issues. If we take climate change — literally a burning issue at the moment — and we're preparing the next text under the UN process, there's a strength we are getting from taking joint action. It's no longer “Eastern Europe” and “Western Europe”.
What's one of the first things to pop into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
The REC is an innovative, friendly and professional group of people who are aiming for some really great goals agreed in the work plans. Not only dreaming about them, but implementing them. I find that part of it quite inspiring whenever I visit the REC.
Please could you share a memorable or humorous experience involving the REC?
At the time when I was with the REC Board of Directors, we decided to have meetings in our countries of operation once a year. Our Polish board member, Andrzej Kassenberg, invited us to Bialowieza in northeast Poland, which is a European bison reserve and well-known scientific centre — a pleasant small town though. So when we arrived the first evening we had a get-together in a small restaurant, and Andrzej recommended: "Why don't we try some Zubrovka?" — which is a special vodka. We had a few shots and, uh — had a very nice evening. The following day, we thought: "Okay. That was such a nice restaurant, let's go there again." So we went to the restaurant, and when we decided it was time for some Zubrovka, the maitre d' just smiled apologetically: "You finished it all yesterday!"