People and Planet Centered Development Strategies: Lessons from Asia and the Pacific

Sixth Astana Economic Forum
Panel session: Industrial Revolution - Transition to a Green Economy
Astana, Kazakhstan, on 24 May 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I bring you warm greetings from Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Dr. Heyzer has asked me to convey her sincere regrets for not being able to join you in person, and her best wishes for the success of this Forum. She has also asked me to deliver the following statement on her behalf:

Asia and the Pacific has transformed itself, in pursuit of rapid economic growth and social development, which has affected more than 60 per cent of the world’s population, and has made a real difference to people’s lives. Even before the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the countries of Asia and the Pacific were making impressive progress.

The rapid economic transformation, in a particular set of countries in East and Southeast Asia since the 1970s, of China since the 1980s, and of India since the 1990s, defied the then-prevalent global pessimism about Asia.

East and Southeast Asian progress was seen as a miracle, because these countries not only grew rapidly, but also managed to avoid worsening income distribution in the process. They defied the so-called ‘inverted U-shaped relationship’ between income per capita and income distribution, and there was shared growth, at least until the mid-1980s.

However, all was not well. Inequality started to grow in the early 1990s. Economic insecurity and the vulnerability of people and communities increased with rapid globalization, and intensified as the region was hit by a series of financial crises and external shocks.

Our regional environment also paid a high price for rapid growth, resulting from the resource-intensity of production structures. Additionally, the Asia-Pacific region has seen increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather, as the global region most vulnerable to climate change-related natural disasters.

In other words, all three pillars of sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific have shown signs of weakness. Economic growth has become more volatile and susceptible to external shocks, and structural impediments are increasingly becoming stumbling blocks to the sustainability of growth. The social pillar is weakened by rising inequality, persistent poverty, social exclusion, and a lack of progress on the elimination of gender-based discrimination, and violence against women and girls. The environmental pillar is undermined by high resource intensity, the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, and loss of biodiversity and forest cover.

These weaknesses are interacting with one another to threaten our regional development progress towards a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable Asia-Pacific future.


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Asia-Pacific Achievements & Challenges

Allow me to briefly highlight some of our regional achievements and challenges in each of these three pillars, and to then explore a few key lessons for people- and planet-centered development.

Asia Pacific, with some sub-regional differences, has managed to halve the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 per day and more than halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. We have mostly achieved gender parity in education, begun to reduce the prevalence of HIV, and have stopped the spread of tuberculosis.

However, nearly 800 million people still remain in extreme poverty, with 900 million more still vulnerable to poverty. 544 million people across our region are malnourished, with high levels of food insecurity. Our more than 500 million slum dwellers, account for more than 61% of the world’s total, with low levels of social security: public social security expenditure is less than 2% of GDP, only 30% of older people receive a pension, and less than 10% receive unemployment benefits. 1.1 billion people are in vulnerable employment, and inequality is on the rise.

In terms of protecting the planet, our region as a whole was an early achiever on MDG 7, but CO2 emissions have increased and forest cover has declined in some countries and subregions. Production structures remain resource-intensive, annual extraction of regional biomass has increased by a factor of three , and the water-intensity of most Asia-Pacific subregions far exceeds the global figure. Our growth patterns have increased our vulnerability to resource-price volatility and have damaged our ecological sustainability.

Therefore, business as usual, or “grow first, distribute and clean up later” will no longer support ‘Rising Asia’. We need to make a structural shift from past patterns and paradigms of development, to more sustainable models.

This will not happen if left only to the market – governments must drive this critical change to people- and planet-centered development, because there is a time gap between short-term costs and long-term benefits, and a price gap between current market prices and the real cost of natural resource use and ecosystem services. Strong government leadership and political commitment are therefore required, to bring businesses and the public on board for closing these gaps

Although the market has a key role, only governments can lead this systematic transition, by actively promoting a forward-looking approach among those in office and the general public, as well as by pursuing more forward-looking macroeconomic policies.


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Blueprints for Forward-Looking Macroeconomics & Greener Growth

ESCAP’s 2013 flagship publication, the Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific, calls for such a paradigm shift, and provides a blueprint for investing in people and planet.

One example proposed by the 2013 Survey is an upward adjustment of the minimum wage, in a win-win measure for both workers and the economy, as has been implemented in Thailand. Other good-practice regional examples are inclusive finance in Bangladesh, the employment guarantee scheme in India, and a pro-poor policy shift in China.

ESCAP’s 6-point people- and planet-centered development agenda, set out in the Survey, is affordable and sustainable for most Asia-Pacific countries, especially if they improve their tax collection efforts and can stop capital outflows, especially through illegal channels. Least Developed Countries will, of course, need international support, especially in harnessing their natural resources for development, and in stopping illicit money transfers.

ESCAP’s Low Carbon Green Growth Roadmap for Asia and the Pacific also provides policymakers in the region with a comprehensive list of policy options and practical implementation strategies for shifting to more sustainable economies, based on national priorities and circumstances.

The countries of our region are already acting on this agenda. China has introduced a number of measures for greener growth since 2005 - with resource and energy efficiency featured prominently in both its Eleventh and Twelfth Five-Year National Social and Economic Development Plans. In 2008, India adopted a National Action Plan on Climate Change, encompassing an extensive range of measures, including eight national missions focusing on renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean technologies, public transport, resource efficiency and tax incentives.

Kazakhstan has introduced elements of green growth into its National Sustainable Development Strategy since 2007 and adopted the Zhasyl Damu – Green Development Strategy 2030. Cambodia developed a National Green Growth Roadmap in 2010. And the Republic of Korea unveiled comprehensive action towards green growth when, in 2008, the president declared low carbon green growth as the national vision for the country to follow for the next 60 years.

In short, Asia and the Pacific is already leading by example, on inclusive and sustainable development. This is our acknowledgment that to truly rise, the countries and peoples of our region must anchor not only the global economy, but also sustainable stewardship of our shared global future, that takes care of our people and our planet.


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Critical Role of Regional Cooperation

People- and planet-centered development requires collective action, especially at the regional level, because so many of transboundary issues are about regional public goods.

System change entails risks and uncertainties, and we know that some countries are reluctant to be first-movers. Collective action and partnerships can, however, reduce the risks and uncertainty associated with systemic transition and structural shifts.

Our region also has a large pool of financial savings which can be utilized for developing planet- and people-friendly infrastructure, and for building resilience to economic crises and natural disasters.

This need for greater regional cooperation on sustainable development was reiterated at the recently-concluded 69th Commission Session of ESCAP, and was the focus of ESCAP’s 2012 theme study: Growing Together. As the largest and most inclusive intergovernmental forum for Asia and the Pacific, ESCAP stands ready to assist all of our member States in these efforts.


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,


In conclusion, our region needs to accelerate our next great transition towards people- and planet-centered sustainable development.

It is time to reset our thinking, create new policy frameworks and institutions, as well as global partnerships to build the future we want…together

I thank you.