Harnessing Regional Integration for Asia-Pacific Inclusion and Sustainability

Excellencies,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Introduction

It gives me great pleasure to extend a very warm welcome to you all to the sixty-eighth session of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), as we begin our deliberations today.

Asia and the Pacific is undergoing rapid transformation, with many challenges and risks, but also new opportunities.

If 2011 has shown us anything, it is that Asia and the Pacific is again confronted by a deeply challenging external environment, and that the path to shared future prosperity can best be travelled together.

We live in a world where challenges and opportunities have moved beyond the narrow confines of national boundaries – and so must we.

The world economy has entered a second stage of the financial crisis, with stalling growth in developed economies, high unemployment, volatile capital flows, and high and fluctuating commodity prices. These are direct threats to the countries of our region.

We face a “new normal” — of persistent volatility and turbulence in financial and commodity markets. The global financial architecture is poorly-equipped to handle this new reality.

Regional solutions, through regional cooperation, are the way for us to forge more sustainable economic growth, close development gaps, and lift tens of millions of people out of poverty.

As you articulated five years ago, in Resolution 64/1, the “Commission has a unique role as the most representative body for the Asian and Pacific Region”; and a “comprehensive mandate as the main economic and social development center of the UN system for the Asian and Pacific region”.

The Commission is the best regional platform to initiate, debate, and formulate strategies to address the challenges we face, and the most inclusive forum in which to share experiences, insights and comprehensive advantages to benefit all of the people of Asia and the Pacific.

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Achievements & Challenges

As we begin the Senior Officials segment of the Commission, let me start by highlighting some of ESCAP’s achievements during this past year, and share some thoughts on the challenges which lie ahead for our region, and which we must address together.

First, our socioeconomic policy analysis, summarized in the Economic and Social Survey 2012, represents a clear set of policy recommendations for building the future we want – of shared and sustained prosperity, amidst the external challenges defining the turbulent and volatile “new normal”.

Our key policy recommendations focus on stimulating and rebalancing the sources of Asia-Pacific growth; strengthening regional cooperation; and forging a stronger voice for the region in crucial global debates.

Since the 67th Commission session, ESCAP has assisted member States in shaping more coordinated regional positions on several fronts.

Among these was the High Level Consultation for the G-20, held in October last year, to ensure that the perspectives of developing Asia-Pacific countries, particularly the least developed countries and island states, were heard in global policy discussions.

The outcome of this G-20 Consultation was communicated to the Secretary General and to the senior representatives of the eight Asian countries in G-20. As you know, the third high-level regional Consultation on the G-20 Mexico Summit will be held on 23 May, the last day of the Commission session.

ESCAP also assisted regional inter-governmental preparatory processes for global agendas on issues ranging from sustainable development and climate change, to international trade, disaster risk reduction, and social protection. In a similar vein, ESCAP played a key role in the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries in 2011, shaping the Istanbul Programme of Action.

Our technical support to countries with special needs also continued, with critical achievements in South Asia, Central Asia, and Myanmar.

Second, with the advanced economies no longer a reliable foundation of economic growth for Asia and the Pacific, regional economic integration has become more important in our quest to find new drivers of regional growth.

Large Asia-Pacific middle classes are emerging. As rising incomes and purchasing power creates the world’s largest markets for products and services, we must take greater responsibility for our inter-generational future. This is generating enormous opportunities for intra-regional trade, but also the need for more ethical investment and sustainable corporate responsibility.

The reality today, however, for many developing countries in the region, is that it is easier and cheaper to trade with Europe and America, than it is with their neighbours. In addition to gaps in physical infrastructure, there are many other non-physical barriers and bureaucratic red tape preventing intra-regional trade, transport, and investment. ESCAP’s continued support to member States in the upgrading and development of the Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway networks, aims to promote much-needed intra-regional connectivity.

The development of an intergovernmental agreement on dry ports, and the initiative taken by some member States at this Commission, calling for a regional agreement to promote paperless trade, will further strengthen our efforts towards regional economic integration.

Third, while the combined economies of developing countries in the region have doubled in size over the past decade, and steadily become more prosperous, this prosperity has not been equally shared.

Development gaps have widened. Inequalities, within and between countries, are rising—intensified by changing population dynamics, growing urbanization, and unabated migration.

Tens of millions of people with disabilities, for instance, still face discrimination, denied access to necessary basic services. Similarly, people living with HIV, in a number of Asia-Pacific countries, still confront legal barriers in accessing treatment, care and support.

ESCAP has extended our efforts this year to support our member States in addressing disparities and exclusions - through the promotion of rights-based policies to address inequality for women, youth and vulnerable groups, such as persons with disabilities, older persons, migrants and people living with HIV.

Fourth, closing development gaps, and achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and our other development targets, requires rigorous, evidence-based advocacy and analysis.

We rely on statistics to track regional progress and ESCAP has led the way by assisting member States to make critical advances in data collection, especially in the areas of civil registration and vital statistics, agricultural and rural statistics, and statistics on gender and disability.

We are in a big final push to the 2015 deadline on the MDGs. Our 2012 regional MDG report, published jointly with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and UNDP, has clearly identified areas where critical interventions are needed if off-track countries in Asia and the Pacific are to achieve the Goals by 2015—especially in the areas of nutrition, primary health and basic infrastructure.

Fifth, continued and rapid economic growth is placing ever-greater pressure on the carrying capacity of our regional environment.

The high levels of growth necessary to create jobs and reduce poverty require a serious re-examination of resource- and carbon-intensive development. We will need a more coordinated regional response to address our shared vulnerabilities to natural disasters, growing resource scarcities, and shrinking carbon space.

A future which values the gifts of the earth depends on the transition to a greener, low-carbon economy supported by sustainable production and consumption.

A growing number of member States are exploring ways to ‘green’ their economies. ESCAP’s work in this area has been instrumental in developing a framework for Asia-Pacific’s low carbon future.

We are also working with member States to explore the development of an integrated regional power system, in effect creating an Asian Energy Highway. Such a ‘smart-grid’, to better share energy resources, would strengthen energy security, improve efficiency, and promote a greater share for renewables and clean energy, for a more sustainable future.

These issues also build directly into our preparation for the Rio+20 conference, next month in Brazil. It will be the best chance of this generation to agree on a better, more sustainable growth path for our people and our planet.

The outcome document for the Summit is already the subject of intense negotiations, and I am pleased to be able to share with you that, of the limited number of paragraphs agreed so far, the regional dimensions of sustainable development are already included. This strongly reaffirms the role of UN regional Commissions in the post-2015 development agenda. ESCAP, and our sister Commissions, will have a crucial part to play in implementing the outcomes of the Rio+20 Summit, and helping to bring regional perspectives to the global stage.

Finally, the economic, social and environmental vulnerabilities which I have already touched upon, have been exacerbated by the increased frequency and intensity of the natural disasters and extreme weather events which have plagued our region.

2011 was the most costly year for disasters, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for over 70% of global losses. These multiple shocks, often occurring simultaneously, have far-reaching socioeconomic consequences and raise serious concerns about the resilience of our region.

ESCAP has focused our work on helping member States to protect hard-won development gains by mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in national development strategies. Data and knowledge sharing, building partnerships, and helping countries make better use of space technology and ICT, have been important elements of ESCAP’s disaster risk reduction efforts.

In short, ESACP has made significant progress this year in transforming the Secretariat into a powerful regional hub for rigorous analysis, innovative policy options, sharing development practices, and building regional consensus, on a range of economic, social and environmental issues.

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Conclusion

The ability of the region to simultaneously address multiple economic, social and environmental challenges will determine the nature and sustainability of our region’s development path for decades to come.

The theme of the 68th Commission session is harnessing the power of regional integration to realize an inclusive and sustainable Asia-Pacific century.

ESCAP is proposing a four-pronged strategy for the region—one that calls for an integrated Asia-Pacific market; seamless physical connectivity; greater financial cooperation; and mutual efforts to address shared vulnerabilities and risks.

Over the next few days you will have the opportunity to engage in wide-ranging discussions on the most pressing issues for the region. With your continued support, ESCAP will facilitate the collective policy leadership that Asia and the Pacific needs in strengthening regional integration.

As the regional arm of the United Nations, ESCAP is your platform, the Commission is your UN regional assembly, and we are here to support you.

I look forward to your recommendations from this Senior Officials segment to the Ministerial session next week.

Let’s work together for an inclusive, resilient and sustainable future for Asia and the Pacific - where we grow together and share collective prosperity.

I thank you.