ESCAP chief calls for new approach to social protection in Asia and the Pacific

The top United Nations official in Asia and the Pacific has called for a renewed focus on social protection policies and programmes in areas such as employment schemes and pensions for older people, which are aimed at “getting people out of exclusion and poverty and building resilience to risks and vulnerabilities.”

Such measures are an essential investment in inclusive growth and human capabilities in Asia and the Pacific, Noeleen Heyzer, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), said in a keynote address on 21 April to a regional conference in Manila on “Enhancing Social Protection Strategies in Asia and the Pacific.”

Convened by the Asian Development Bank to review and recommend improvements to social protection approaches in the region, the conference was attended by more than 160 senior government and United Nations officials, non-governmental organization representatives and academics.

The recent financial crisis and the widespread economic and social distress it created through massive job losses, declining income security and increasing poverty, has “once again placed social protection at the centre of policy agendas and debates in the region,” said Dr. Heyzer.

However, “it is important that social protection not simply be seen as a handout,” she said. “More attention needs to be paid to the potential contribution of social protection as a long-term investment in reducing risks and vulnerability and facilitating economic recovery itself, thereby helping to ensure the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals in Asia and the Pacific.”

Dr. Heyzer pointed out that research by the United Nations and the international development banks has shown that social protection brings many long-term benefits to societies. These include empowering the poor; ensuring that women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities have equal access to employment; keeping children in schools; ensuring access to health care; and integrating jobless youth into the labour market at an early stage.

But to have greater long-term impact, three major changes in approach to social protection in the region are required, said Dr. Heyzer.

First, in addition to targeting risks and vulnerabilities associated with crises and upheavals, social protection schemes must be “mindful of the structural elements in society that place social groups in a situation of vulnerability in the first place,” she said.

Secondly, an approach is needed that builds on the synergies between various social protection schemes, and between social protection and other social and economic policies. “To give you an example,” said Dr. Heyzer, “conditional cash transfers for children to go to school will not be effective if schools are not properly staffed or the quality of the teaching is poor.”

And thirdly, a supportive environment for social protection is needed which includes policies leading to legal empowerment and access to justice, protection of rights, and citizenship as means for promoting social inclusion and social cohesion.

Dr. Heyzer emphasised that “stronger social protection has the potential to be a powerful tool for achieving not only the Millennium Development Goals, but also for bridging the development divide in the Asia-Pacific region and ensuring sustainable and inclusive development.”