2014 Policy Statement by the Executive Secretary

Ms. Shamshad Akhtar, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, delivering her welcoming remarks and policy statement at the opening of the Ministerial Segment of Phase II of the 70th Session of the Commission on 7 August 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand.
Photo Credit: UNESCAP/Suwat Chancharoensuk

Your Excellency, Mr. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão,
Prime Minister of Timor-Leste & Chair of the 69th Session of the Commission

Your Excellency, Lord Tu’ivakano,
Prime Minister of Tonga

Your Excellency, Mr. Tshering Tobgay,
Prime Minister of Bhutan

Your Excellency, Mr. Manasvi Srisodapol,
Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand

Excellencies,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Introduction

Welcome to the second phase of the 70th ESCAP Commission session which, significantly, coincides with the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations itself.

This is my first Commission session as your Executive Secretary. I would like to acknowledge the presence today of my predecessor, Ms. Noeleen Heyzer. As I watched the inspirational parade of nations this morning I was struck by the thought that every flag represents not only a country, but the lives, hopes and aspirations of millions of people.

Women, men and children in every corner of our region look to their leaders for a better future. No country can meet those needs alone. The foundation of the United Nations success is that we do better together.

I am deeply honoured to lead the secretariat at this time, and I would like to start today by making you a pledge. Every member of the ESCAP team will redouble their efforts to deliver the more inclusive, sustainable and resilient future our people deserve, but the Commission is only as effective as our member States empower and resource it to be.

This is why I will use my first Policy Statement today to make the case for your support for an even stronger ESCAP. I will start by outlining the scope of our regional challenges and opportunities, and then talk about the changes we are making to the Commission to better support your development priorities.

Ultimately, however, we are defined by the guidance, mandates and resources which you provide. As we move into the next phase of global development, and Rising Asia-Pacific takes centre stage, it is time to invest even more in multilateralism and in ESCAP - one of our region’s most valuable shared assets.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sustainable Development Challenges

There are a little more than 500 days left to the end of 2015, the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). No region has done better than Asia and the Pacific. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has more than halved, from 52 per cent in 1990, to 18 per cent in 2012.

The countries of our region have reduced gender disparities in education, reduced the prevalence of HIV and the spread of tuberculosis. Parallel progress has been made in increasing forest coverage, reducing ozone-depleting substances, and more than halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. By 2015 our region is also likely to achieve the goals of universal primary education and completion of primary schooling.

There is, however, no room for complacency. About 750 million Asia-Pacific people are still desperately poor. 360 million in our region are without safe drinking water. More than 1.7 billion are still without basic sanitation, and 3 million children in the region still die every year before they reach the age of five.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Asia-Pacific Growth Priorities

The key to closing our development gaps and achieving our development goals is economic growth. The Asia-Pacific region is well-recognized for its contribution to global growth, which averaged about 70 per cent between 2008 and 2011.

But we cannot afford growth at any cost. To build the future we want, growth must be sustainable, inclusive and job-generating.

Asia-Pacific growth, while continuing to lead the global recovery, is now showing signs of strain. ESCAP’s 2014 Economic and Social Survey, which we launched yesterday, forecasts a third successive year of average growth below 6 per cent across Asia-Pacific developing countries.

Our regional growth dynamics are being influenced by the anaemic recovery in the developed world, given weak implementation of policy responses and lags in the transmission mechanism of the impact of monetary policy normalization.

At the same time, there are deep-rooted domestic structural weaknesses which are holding back the region’s growth potential. Impediments such as infrastructure shortages, large budget deficits, environmental degradation, high resource-intensity of production, and rising inequality must be urgently addressed. Overcoming these is vital to ensure higher, inclusive and sustainable growth.

Current average regional growth levels are subpar, and insufficient to lift more than 700 million people out of extreme poverty, and to simultaneously address our emerging challenges such as the impacts of global climate change.

To address the wider development concerns requires focusing on and nurturing new drivers of economic growth, and in this context the theme of our 70th session, regional connectivity, offers a basis for higher, better quality growth and shared prosperity.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Regional Connectivity for Shared Prosperity

Asia-Pacific’s economic dynamism has, thus far, been primarily driven by individual economies. The basis for much of our recent success has been international trade, foreign direct investment, and the establishment of global and regional production networks and the web of global value chains, supported by improved trade and transport connectivity.

To raise the bar on both levels and quality of growth, requires us to more effectively exploit our regional complementarities and diversity.

Enhancement of regional connectivity across the Asia-Pacific region requires political will and cooperation, to explore what is achievable and optimal, to develop consensus on conducive approaches and modalities of engagement, and to put in place a game plan for how this will be achieved.

ESCAP’s 2014 theme study on regional connectivity advocates a more integrated and transformed approach, and calls for exploiting the interdependence and synergies of five elements constituting the new drivers of Asia-Pacific growth: trade and transport networks; ICT networks; energy networks; people-to-people networks; and promotion of knowledge-based economies.

By developing all of these regional networks, in a coordinated and integrated manner, the benefits from improved regional connectivity can be spread more evenly across and between countries, particularly to our least developed, landlocked and small island developing countries.

Part of this new approach to regional connectivity is to look beyond the extent to which networks are connected to one another and to concentrate instead on the level of effectiveness of regional networks in facilitating flows of goods, services, people and knowledge. This is about shifting our focus from the quantitative to the qualitative aspects of connectivity - and deepening the benefits reaching those excluded from the growth of these networks.

What ESCAP is advocating is an approach which views connectivity as a shared regional public good. To develop, manage and maximize regional networks requires Asia-Pacific countries to build consensus about the role of these networks, the distribution of costs, sharing of risks and benefits supported by the appropriate institutional and oversight mechanisms, long-term sustainable financing, and approaches to avoid the potential negative impacts of such growth.

The right sequencing of policies and actions will therefore be fundamental, which is why the deliberations of the Commission this week on the 2014 Theme Study are of such importance.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Addressing Rising Inequalities

The persistence of inequality in the region suggests that market-led growth alone is not enough to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. In the region, inequality is rising and pervasive. Different dimensions of inequality reinforce each other, creating “an inequality trap” that disproportionately affects all vulnerable groups. While income inequality is an important cause for poor access to education and health, the social marginalization of certain groups or geographic locations leads to similar outcomes, which in turn drives income inequality.

Inequality jeopardizes the social cohesion and stability of societies. The “inequality trap” risks intensifying social exclusion and creating a group of the “bottom billion” that would be left behind. Leaving individuals and groups behind could negatively impact the long-term development of Asia and the Pacific. Inequality dampens growth, because countries cannot fully capitalize on their economic and social potentials.

To reduce inequalities of outcome and opportunity, our region needs a combination of measures, in particular redistributive policies, the enhancement of social protection, and the promotion of productive and decent work, especially for our youth.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sustainable Development and its Means of Implementation

As we embark on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, we are optimistic that our region will lead the way, as it did in MDG delivery, but that we will also learn from those experiences.

ESCAP will have an important role in supporting the final negotiations on sustainable development goals (SDGs), as well as on supportive financing and other means of implementation. In this context, the new SDGs, as reflected in the final report of the General Assembly’s Open Working Group (OWG), stand out for their comprehensive coverage of development issues. They target 17 areas, seven of which allow continued work on the unfinished business of the MDGs.

The Asia-Pacific intergovernmental framework on the SDGs and their means of implementation, as well as on monitoring and accountability, a subject on which this session has already held very valuable deliberations, will be anchored around the Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD). In addition, we will draw guidance from the United Nations Secretary General’s synthesis report, to be submitted by the end of 2014, which will integrate different strands of the development agenda: the SDGs, their financing, the Climate Finance Summit, and other key conventions.

In shaping our response to this new global agenda, we must recognize that “business as usual” will not serve us well. This is largely because the depth and breadth of the global sustainable development agenda is substantive, as evident from the many goals and targets likely to be agreed. The magnitude of this agenda underscores the urgency for a new global partnership. ESCAP’s work is therefore cut out. We will need to have a more holistic view of how we deliver policy and normative advice in some of these new emerging areas.

Key considerations to be kept in perspective are that the sustainable development agenda calls for:

  • Balanced development of the economic, social and environmental pillars, with emphasis on recognizing the interdependence and inter-linkages. This means we need to position ourselves to form an integrated view of regional sustainable development;
  • Supporting member States in terms of institutional development, to coordinate the sustainable development agenda across ministries, and to ensure its effective monitoring and accountability - an area where the regional commissions will have a leading mandate;
  • Deeper policy thinking and consultations on different elements of the means of implementation, in particular on finance, and science, technology and innovation (STI). As with the ESCAP sustainable financing outreach meeting, which we held in Jakarta in June, we need member State consultations on STI. There is an ongoing debate about the appropriate focus of STI discussions. Some advocate for enhanced technology transfer and facilitation mechanisms, others focus on promoting synergies and coordination between the current technology transfer initiatives, programmes and mechanisms already operating within the UN system and under the Rio Conventions (e.g. the LDC Technology Bank and UNFCCC Technology Mechanism). There are also those who push for broader development of international cooperation in STI for sustainable development, where countries are able to develop the governance and regulatory frameworks of science and technology policies and institutions, to support the sustainable development agenda. Yet others call for confining the STI agenda to cleaner technologies. ESCAP plans to set up an expert advisory group to define a pragmatic approach for the Commission’s mandate in this vital area;
  • Broadening and deepening our knowledge bases to share best practices and cross fertilize experience from other regions and within the region;
  • Development of statistical databases and strengthening of the capacities of national and regional statistical agencies; and
  • Forming new global partnerships with the private sector, to adopt and promote a sustainable development culture and practices, as well as to engage private sector philanthropic institutions and bodies in the region to nurture innovative approaches to development.

Strengthening ESCAP for Sustainable Development

The whole United Nations system is currently working to reflect on how best to deliver on sustainable development. This has extended to debates such as the ‘fit-for-purpose’ discussion at the Chief Executives Board of the United Nations.

It is therefore vital for ESCAP to align its work and to position its activities in support of our member States in shaping and implementing this emerging agenda. My priority, as your Executive Secretary, is to seek your support to strengthen ESCAP in terms of its mandates and its resources, to deliver on three main imperatives: sustainable development, regional economic cooperation and integration, and regional connectivity.

Amongst the most important focus areas for the secretariat to achieve this will be:

  • Greater Organisational Efficiency: There are three distinct areas in which ESCAP must lead. With your help, I want to re-energize ESCAP as your regional and subregional intergovernmental platform, your regional think tank and your regional hub for knowledge on all issues of economic, social and environmental development. We will need to further streamline our programme delivery strategy, to integrate and synergize ESCAPs intergovernmental, analytical and knowledge management functions. The secretariat will focus on efficient delivery, and providing the evidence and analysis you need for better policy-making and implementation.
  • Renewed Focus on Countries with Special Needs: Our most vulnerable countries must be our priority in development delivery. ESCAP’s primary support to our LDCs, LLDCs and SIDs will be in terms of assistance with integration of the sustainability agenda in national and subregional development plans; technical assistance and institutional strengthening; development partnership facilitation; improvement of statistical capacity; and by ensuring that the voice of these groups is more widely heard in global development deliberations.
  • Better Strategic Partnerships: A key priority in the coming year will be ESCAP’s long-term partnerships with ASEAN, as well as with other subregional institutions, such as SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), SPECA (UN Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia) and the PIF (Pacific Islands Forum), as well as with the multilateral development banks, the private sector, academia, and civil society. Our subregional offices will be critical in implementing this partnership focus and our regional institutions will need to be strategized to play a key role in the areas of technology transfer, sustainable agriculture and mechanization, as well as statistical and ICT capacity building, and other hubs which we may be creating.
  • Reinvigorating the Intergovernmental Process: There are a range of initiatives planned to boost ESCAP’s performance as the region’s premier intergovernmental platform. For instance, in terms of implementing the 2013 Bangkok Declaration on Regional Economic Cooperation and Integration, four working groups will be established within ESCAP to develop policy options for the second ministerial conference in 2015. We are also recommending, for the consideration of member States, a regional tax forum to share best practices, avoid tax competition and stem illicit transfer of funds. Building on the outcomes of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development will be our establishment of Committees on Energy, Science, Technology and Innovation, as well as on Financing for Development, which you have called for.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen

Conclusion

I began today by making the observation that the Commission is a truly valuable regional asset. The reason this is so, is because our member States have been unstinting in their support for ESCAP and its work.

For almost seventy years, to the credit of your Governments, you have provided the leadership and resources necessary for the Commission to achieve great things, even in the face of financial austerity, global conflicts, as well as changing development paradigms.

As we move now into the post-2015 development era, it is clear that the scope of our social and economic challenges has never been greater. It also clear that ESCAP offers our member States the best intergovernmental tools to tackle these issues together.

Shared prosperity calls for shared responsibility and shared accountability.

We count on your support to provide the guidance and resources that will ensure ESCAP delivers on its potential to help you to build the future we want for all the people of Asia and the Pacific.

I thank you again and look greatly forward to our deliberations this week.