UN Official says Economic Crisis an Opportunity to Nations to Develop Social Safety Nets

The fallout from the triple crisis of finance, food and climate change threatens to roll back a decades worth of success in economic development and poverty reduction. However, nations can rise to the challenge of not only recovering, but protecting against future crisis by providing social safety nets and public health care for their citizens, according to Dr Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Dr. Heyzer’s remarks were made at the annual, month long meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) which ends to day in Geneva. ECOSOC is the main UN body for dealing with international economic, social, cultural, educational, health and related issues and has focused its efforts this year on dealing with the impacts of the economic crisis.

According to Dr Heyzer ,the triple crises have derailed significant progress in Asia and the Pacific towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which include halving extreme poverty and hunger, fighting AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and improving a host of other social and economic ills by 2015.

“But the convergence of these crises has also brought an opportunity to take a fresh look at our policies and reshape our development agenda,” Dr Heyzer said at a panel focusing on the UN system’s support for countries in meeting the development goals.

As with the 1997 financial crisis in Asia, she said, the people most at risk are the poor, women workers in the manufacturing sector, the youngest and oldest populations and low-skilled migrants. By addressing the long term needs of these groups in the recovery, a more lasting and secure recuperation can be achieved.

“By taking ownership of reviving their economies, developing regions can ensure that the recovery is built on an alternative development paradigm that is both inclusive and sustainable and therefore far more supportive of achievement of the MDGs,” she said.

Dr. Heyzer noted that ESCAP is promoting two interlinked policy responses to the social impacts of the economic crisis. Experience from Asia’s 1997 economic crisis shows that while economic growth may resume relatively quickly, it can take up to a decade to recover the ground lost in societal costs. To expedite recovery, countries should invest in health coverage and pensions for middle- and lower-income persons, as well as increase spending in health, education and agricultural extension services targeted at lifting women.

“The huge scale of government spending in the pipeline in many countries offers an unprecedented opportunity to design development policies that will bring about more inclusive and sustainable development,” Dr. Heyzer said. “Pro-poor policies aimed at strengthening social protection systems not only create the social foundations for more inclusive societies, they also make economic sense.”

Dr. Heyzer pointed out there was a fundamental link between health, sustainable development and economic sustainability. Yet the possibility of cutbacks in health system funding, as countries struggle to finance their fiscal stimulus programmes, will impose even greater strain on the public’s ability to access health care. “Indeed, the crisis offers an opportunity as it can act as an impetus to reform health systems so they can operate more effectively and equitably,” she noted. Regional cooperation can allow Asia and the Pacific to adopt more effective financing strategies for health care and protection for the most vulnerable. “For it is the most vulnerable, including the poor, who have benefited least from development to date and who now face the greatest threats.”

Dr. Heyzer’s remarks followed a Ministerial Declaration calling for political leadership, empowerment of communities and engagement of all stakeholders, including individuals, for attaining the MDGs with renewed vigour and in the spirit of global solidarity.