Ending Poverty in Asia-Pacific's Least Developed Nations

For the people of Asia’s least developed countries – the 14 poorest Asian countries and Pacific small island states – the past decade was marked by multiple global economic crises and setbacks that prevented governments in each of the countries from succeeding in bringing their people out of extreme poverty.  Despite some progress since 2001, the international development agenda for these neediest states remains unfinished.  The 4th United Nations Conference on LDCs (UN LDC-IV) being held in Istanbul this week, brings together government leaders and international donors urgently seeking to establish a new course of action for this decade.

There is much work to be done.  The gap between those countries benefiting from the Asia-Pacific region’s high economic growth and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) that have not, has widened significantly.  According to the just-launched UN ESCAP Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2011, LDCs continue to suffer from the multiple effects of the food and energy crisis of 2008 and the global economic crisis of 2009. Many of the hardest-hit LDCs face the resumption this year of rising food and fuel prices, in addition to high poverty rates, high unemployment, reduced earnings from remittances and increased ecological vulnerability. 

LDCs also face widening disparities within their economies in achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Glaring urban-rural and gender-based disparities make difficult the challenge of eliminating hunger and reducing child and maternal mortality. 

The four Asian landlocked LDCs face additional barriers due to their geographical location. Their isolation from major markets and their lack of transport access separates them from the region’s growing dynamism – they are often the hardest hit by rapid global economic swings. Similarly, the LDCs which are small island states are made vulnerable by their geographic remoteness and exposure to sea level rise and other effects of climate change.

These continuing challenges, and new and emerging threats, can only be expected to intensify the development gaps faced by the Asia-Pacific LDCs in the decade ahead and underscore the critical need for new and innovative approaches in bringing their populations out of extreme poverty.  There are specific approaches that can be instituted by governments in partnership with the UN and development agencies.

Firstly, to achieve inclusive and sustainable growth, Asia-Pacific LDCs need to promote steady, equitable growth for reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for all their people. Social protections need to be strengthened alongside economic policies to spread the benefits of growth to all segments of society.  

Secondly, to increase productive capacities, LDCs should take steps to increase their manufacturing and productive capacity if they are to benefit from regional integration and regional connectivity. If LDCs are to climb the rungs of the development ladder, they need to produce and trade more diverse and innovative products.

The ESCAP Survey estimates that productive capacity in Asia-Pacific LDCs has declined in the last 20 years compared with the global average.  The 14 Asia-Pacific LDCs exported on average only 542 different types of products in competition with 105 other economies that exported similar products.
 
Thirdly, in the context of social development and social protections, reducing poverty is critical to addressing social imbalances in the region’s LDCs. Social and infrastructural investments doubly help by transforming the vast numbers of the poor into markets of new consumers, generating economic demand within countries and across the region.  Pro-poor employment policies should target agriculture, small enterprises and the informal sector.

In the area of infrastructure and connectivity, the poor quality of transport links and services in Asia-Pacific’s LDCs limits investment, employment, output and income.  Improving infrastructure within countries and between countries must be part of a new development paradigm focused on becoming more connected and more regionally integrated to generate rapid growth and development.

For regional integration, improving connectivity at regional and sub-regional levels will immediately benefit economic activity in the poorer LDCs across the region.  Concerted and bold actions are needed to set a broader framework for trade and economic integration at the regional level.

Lastly, the degradation of key natural resources such as forests, freshwater sources, and coastal marine areas risk permanent damage to communities in LDCs.  New approaches can protect our natural capital and address ecological imbalances through better natural resource use, preserving biodiversity and reducing waste generation, thereby ensuring environmentally sustainable development.  

Most importantly, the governments of the LDCs need to unleash the creative energies of their people in addressing these challenges.  Realizing, for example, entrepreneurs and women farmers untapped potential alone will directly spur economic growth in the poorest communities.  For the people of Asia-Pacific LDCs, let us ensure that the next ten years will truly bring a transformation in their efforts to make their children’s lives better. 

Dr. Noeleen Heyzer is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.