UN Regional Commission Heads Outline Development Challenges in Bangkok

“The Middle East is rich but not developed”, said the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), Bader Al-Dafa, today in Bangkok. He was speaking to UN staff at a seminar which brought together the heads of four UN regional commissions.

The seminar, on emerging development issues and challenges in the regions, was organized by the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Noeleen Heyzer. The other two Executive Secretaries present were Abdoulie Janneh of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and Marek Belka of the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE).
Mr. Al-Dafa noted that although rising oil prices had boosted the revenue of Middle Eastern countries, the actual purchasing power of these countries had not risen much, because oil is priced in US dollar which has depreciated by 50 per cent against the Euro.

Unemployment was a key challenge to the region, Mr. Al-Dafa pointed out, especially among women and youth. With 40 per cent of the region’s population under the age of 25, this creates serious social problems. One of ESCWA’s key focuses is to promote job-creating growth.

For Africa, a key challenge is poverty, noted Mr. Janneh of ECA. “Africa is the only continent which is not on track to achieve the MDGs and where poverty is on the increase,” he observed.

However, citing the continent’s six per cent annual growth rate and improved governance, Mr. Janneh said that “Africa is doing better now, there is no doubt about it. Africa is governing itself better.”

Despite the improvements, better governance remains a key goal for ECA which has a division dedicated to the issue. In addition, ECA is actively promoting evidence based planning by establishing a centre for African statistics. Gathering accurate statistics on the MDGs, poverty, and unemployment, is a necessary first step in enabling policymakers to make sound development decisions, Mr. Janneh noted.

In his address, Mr. Belka of ECE pointed out that Europe is a continent of diverse economies, with rich countries in the West, economies in transition in Central Europe, and poorer countries in the East and the Caucasus. However, “the overarching theme in Europe is competitiveness”, said Mr. Belka. The advanced economies are concerned with remaining competitive, while the transitional economies are concerned with competition from other developing countries like China, and for some oil-producing countries, over dependence on a single industry.

Mr. Belka said ECE is focused on helping oil dependent countries and transitional economies to move one notch up to a knowledge-based economy. He cited a well-educated population and inflows of foreign investment as favourable factors. However, the sub-region is handicapped by a lack of investment in research and development, and in “high risk activities”. Mr. Belka said Central and Eastern Europe needs to development a system in which intellectual property rights can be protected, and commercialized.

The Asia-Pacific region, while experiencing impressive growth, is suffering from increased disparity between and within countries, noted Ms. Heyzer. She cited one recent study of 20 countries which found that inequality had risen in 14.

Ecological degradation is another challenge in response to which ESCAP has been advocating a Green Growth approach.

Ms. Heyzer also noted that, compared with other regions, Asia and the Pacific is the only one that lacks a pan regional institution. She believed that ESCAP could play this role.

The four Executive Secretaries gathered at ESCAP at the invitation of Ms. Heyzer after their joint participation in the Climate Change Conference in Bali. In response to a question, Ms. Heyzer outlined three tracks on which Regional Commissions could take action on climate change.

The first is to prepare the countries of the region for climate negotiations. The second track is to show that the region can deliver on climate change, and that it is possible to switch to a new paradigm of economic growth that does not require large green house gas emissions. The final track is on advocacy – to link climate change to everyday life and to stress the need to change consumption patterns.

About 80 staff members and delegates of member states attended today’s seminar which was the second in a series organized by the Executive Secretary of ESCAP. The next seminar will be held on Monday, 17 December, and will feature UN Assistant Secretary-General on Economic Development, Jomo K. Sundaram.