Although it is an early achiever of some of the targets under the Millennium Development Goals, Asia and the Pacific, as the world’s most populous region, needs to embrace a “new thinking” in its pursuit for more progress in MDGs. Creating new sources of domestic and regional consumption is crucial not only for filling development gaps but also for sustaining growth far beyond MDG 2015 target date.
Against this backdrop, government officials from 12 nations in the region met at a workshop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 13-15 December, to discuss national strategies to accelerate progress in reducing poverty. The event launched the “Paths to 2015” report – a joint publication by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Asian Development Bank, and UNDP – which offers in-depth analysis about development gains made so far and priorities that will need greater attention further down the road.
Progress is uneven across sub-regions and countries. According to the report, gender and income growth disparities continue to persist even within individual country. While the number of poor people has declined in the past two decades, the region is still lagging in reducing hunger, raising standards of health, ensuring that girls and boys complete primary education, cutting down child mortality, improving maternal health, and providing basic sanitation.
As the region is now recovering from the recent global economic downturn, it must shift from the business-as-usual approach to make more progress in MDGs, said Nagesh Kumar, director of ESCAP’s Macroeconomic Policy and Development Division. He said export-reliant growth has exposed many least developed countries to external shock as shown in recent times. To avoid similar scenario, nations need to re-balance their economies in favor of greater domestic and regional consumption.
“The old paradigm was that you need growth for poverty reduction to narrow development gap. Today, the (new) thinking is that you need poverty reduction and closing of MDG gaps and other inequalities to sustain growth,” he said.
“All across Asia-Pacific region we need to promote this thinking. It is not that we have to close these MDG gaps to uplift the poor, vulnerable people, but this is very critical to sustain our growth itself,” he said.
Strong economic growths of China and India have contributed to making Asia an early achiever of many of the MDG indicators. But discussions at the workshop also revealed that the progress is accompanied by considerable disparities between country groupings and sub-regions. For example, while on track for poverty reduction, South Asia is still progressing slowly in primary school enrolment and providing its citizens with access to clean water. Progress is also slow in the Pacific Island nations to expand access to improved sanitation and safe drinking water. Region-wide, some 1.9 billion people in Asia-Pacific are still without basic sanitation. The number accounts for 70 percent of global population without such an access.
The workshop’s participants concurred that for the millennium goals to gain real traction in the future they will also need to be more deeply integrated into national development strategies.
In Cambodia, the government is implementing its National Strategic Development Plan with a sharp focus on meeting its MDG targets. The major success has been in reducing HIV prevalence to 0.7 percent in 2008 from 2 percent 1998. That led the United Nations to award Cambodia an award in September. Other gains have occurred in education, health, agricultural production and nutrition. Despite average 1 percent reduction in poverty index in the past decade, progress remains sluggish in some MDG targets while others appear to be off-track.
H.E. Chhay Than, Senior Minister and Minister of Planning, said the Cambodian government remains firmly committed to realizing more achievements of its MDGs. But he added that protecting the hard-earned gains and working toward reducing poverty further are now facing new threats from high food prices and climate change-related impacts.
These are emerging challenges that require pro-poor strategies such as social protection schemes and greater coverage of social safety net to include women, children, and the urban and rural poor, UNDP Country Director Ms. Elena Tischenko said in her remarks at the workshop.
“Ensuring employment and decent work during the recovery process will be essential in cementing a more secure future,” she said. “Also, we need to mitigate and adapt to the possibilities of climate change while sustaining broad-based economic growth.” She said governments should also make more investment in agriculture since this is where most of the poor live.
The list of drivers for more MDG progress is lengthy but by no means exhaustive. One of them, the participants said, is economic assistance in the South-South cooperation framework. Asia’s two economic powerhouses China and India have recently emerged as non-traditional donors offering new potential to help least developed countries expand and sustain their growths as well.
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Mr. Munthit Ker