By Vindo Thomas
With the Millennium Development Goals expiring in 2015, a global debate is underway for a new development agenda to replace them. For Asia, the agenda must in part tackle the unfinished task of poverty reduction under the MDGs ― but also confront the newer challenges of income inequality and environmental destruction.
The latter issues are relevant for South Korea, even as it continues to help developing countries through its finance and development knowledge.
Asia did very well in the core MDG goal of reducing the number of people living in poverty by half. Yet, two-thirds of the world’s poor still live in the region. And while basic health and education have improved in much of Asia, there are glaring gaps in lower-income countries, especially in reducing infant deaths and in improving maternal health. While these tasks should remain a priority, a post-2015 agenda must confront two crucial issues that have gained prominence since the United Nations announced the MDGs in 2001.
The first is inclusive growth ― that is, forging socioeconomic policies benefiting all income stratas of society. Inequality has been increasing across Asia over the past decade in countries that are home to 80 percent of the region’s population. Among the reasons are inequalities in the provision of education, a rising premium on skills in job markets, and subsidies favoring the better-off rather than the poor.
Greater inclusion needs to be tailored to the realities of the demographic shifts sweeping the region. Among the issues are worrying rates of poverty among senior citizens in many countries. In South Korea too, old-age poverty and well-being in the context of an aging population are a banner issue.
The development community is paying attention to President Park Geun-hye’s plan to extend the coverage and benefits of the basic old-age pension. That is because public spending on social protection in Asia is lower than in other regions except sub-Saharan Africa, and countries want to learn ways to shore up such support.
Second, environmental care is of great concern in Asia. The region has performed particularly poorly on reversing the trends of rising carbon emissions and the loss of forest cover. Closely related is a growing fear over the rising incidence of natural disasters, of which Asia is bearing the brunt. Last year’s typhoon Sanba, the first time in 50 years that a fourth typhoon had struck the Korean Peninsula in a single year, is a case in point.
Sharply rising populations in several developing Asian countries have forced millions to live in low-lying, flood-prone coastal and urban areas that are highly vulnerable to natural hazards. Climate change appears to be aggravating the risk of floods, storms and droughts.
Switching to a low-carbon economy is a priority everywhere, and South Korea is at the frontier in generating green growth. But in the past two decades carbon emissions have doubled in South Korea, and in the People’s Republic of China they have tripled. This is not surprising given Asia’s rapid economic expansion, but it vividly underscores the trial ahead for a region that tops the world for carbon emission growth.
With the prospect of more natural hazards hitting the region, and particularly floods and storms, countries need to step up disaster risk reduction. It was heartening to read Seoul’s position at the United Nations Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. Government representatives from over 100 counties attended this forum in Geneva in May to discuss a new blueprint for global disaster risk reduction to replace the groundbreaking Hyogo Framework for Action. Like the MDGs, this expires in 2015.
Asia has been enormously successful in achieving fast economic growth. But continued progress calls for an integrated stance against rising natural and social vulnerabilities. That is why it is significant that South Korea’s blueprint for a “Hyogo 2” framework ― a nine-point action plan drawn up by a task force under the prime minister’s office ― emphasizes disaster risk reduction by sector ministries and social safety nets for vulnerable groups.
(The writer is Director-General of Independent Evaluation at the Asian Development Bank, and former director-general and senior vice president of the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group and chief economist for Asia)