A Social Protection Agenda for Asia Pacific

President Kuroda,
Vice-President Schaefer-Preuss,
Distinguished participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to join all of you at this Regional Conference on Enhancing Social Protection Strategy in Asia and the Pacific.

I would like to congratulate the Asian Development Bank for its initiative in convening this Conference on a topic that is so vital in our efforts to build a stronger social foundation for inclusive and sustainable development.

I would like to focus my speech on what a social protection agenda in the Asia-Pacific region could look like.

Asia Pacific is a diverse region with some of the richest and poorest countries in our world. This variation is mirrored in the MDG indicators on poverty, hunger, health and education, capturing the development divide in our region.

Rapid economic growth from the ‘miracle economies” - in the context of globalisation, side-by-side with rising inequalities, chronic poverty and exclusion - are all part of the Asia-Pacific experience.

With this development landscape, together with different political and governance trajectories, from stable to fragile states, it is not surprising that there is no shared understanding on approaches to social protection, much less an agenda for social protection in the region.

Despite these challenges, the recent financial crisis and the widespread economic and social distress it created through massive job losses, declining income security and increasing poverty, has once again placed social protection at the centre of policy agendas and debates.

The financial-economic crisis, on top of the food, fuel volatility and climate change disasters, revealed new vulnerabilities and the inability of states, communities or households to absorb livelihood and other shocks and to reduce risks to future vulnerabilities.

These crises opened the possibility of designing more resilient and inclusive social protection systems in Asia Pacific. I argue that this type of agenda on social protection must include four elements: poverty and risk reduction, social inclusion for inclusive growth and political stability, human security as a basic right, and contribution to the achievement of the MDGs.

In this context, I have been invited by the organizers to address the subject of “Securing the Millennium Development Goals through stronger social protection.” With only five years until the 2015 deadline, the road to MDG achievement in the Asia-Pacific region presents a mixed and challenging picture.

The crises that have confronted the region, particularly the economic crisis, have forced many countries to discuss the need to develop a more systematic approach to social protection. Currently attention has focused mainly on mitigating the impacts of shocks and assisting people most affected by those crises.

More attention needs to be paid, in the current development discourse, to the potential contribution of social protection as an investment in reducing risks and vulnerability and facilitating economic recovery itself, thereby facilitating the path to MDG achievement.

There is certainly evidence to support the view that well-designed and cost-effective social protection is indeed critical for the achievement of the MDGs.

We know that the poor and other marginalized groups are in need of social protection instruments to enable them to meaningfully access education, health and other services that will pave the way to MDG achievement.

There are lessons from the work of the United Nations and the Development Banks that show that:

• Social funds are effective in empowering the poor and help to build social infrastructure.

• Social transfers targeted to children and youth help to reduce current as well as intergenerational transmission of poverty.

• Policies against discrimination ensure that women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities have equal access to employment.

• Social protection programmes help to get and keep children in schools and clinics.

• Social protection interventions, including cash transfers into the hands of women, lead to benefits in terms of health and nutrition for the households.

• Social protection and broader social risk management are effective measures to integrate jobless youth into the labour market at an early stage.

I have touched upon only a few of the range of social protection policies and programmes that support the MDGs. On the basis of these experiences, and as we approach the forthcoming United Nations MDG Summit in September this year, I am pleased to inform you that the UN Secretary-General’s MDG Action Agenda for 2011-2015 addresses the critical link between social protection and the MDGs.

To support the Secretary-General’s initiatives, ESCAP is working with its member States in advocating the crucial role that social protection policies and programmes play in supporting the achievement of the MDGs, and the need for such policy interventions to be highlighted in the regional report and roadmap leading up to 2015 which we are working on with the ADB and UNDP, as well as with the UN Regional Coordinating Mechanism.

We are committed to the following policy aims as part of our regional contribution to the Secretary-General’s MDG Action Agenda:

1. Strengthening and extending social protection systems in Asia Pacific.
2. Expanding affordable access to essential services such as health, education, water and sanitation, especially for the poor.
3. Increasing investments in basic social services.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The first part of my statement has covered the subject of MDGs and social protection. I would like to devote the rest of my statement to the role of social protection in inclusive growth of the Asia-Pacific region, especially by addressing the development divide.

We are aware that, despite progress in meeting some MDGs, the Asia-Pacific region continues to be plagued by persistent issues of chronic poverty, social exclusion and inequality, which not only generate vulnerabilities but also amplify the impact of crises. In fact, many countries are off track in their achievement of the MDGs.

Social protection can, and should be, a key component of broader economic and social development policies. But for this to happen, we must change the way we formulate and implement social protection strategies.

I believe three major changes are required.

First, the goal and structure of social protection programmes and interventions must be transformed from solely a welfare to an investment strategy. In addition to targeting risks and vulnerabilities associated with crises and upheavals, the enhancing of social protection must be mindful of the structural elements that place social groups in a situation of vulnerability in the first place. What are some examples of these?

• Spatial such as remote locations, isolated rural areas, and slums. These need to be connected to development services.

• Economic and financial, such as limited access to employment opportunities and productive assets.

• Socio-cultural, such as identity-based forms of exclusion – ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and physical ability.

• Legal, such as complicated registration systems for birth certificate and home registration, leading to statelessness or “people without papers.”

Existing social protection frameworks rarely include social exclusion as a source of vulnerability.

When we refer to social exclusion, we are talking of a complex set of social, economic and cultural practices by which certain groups of people, such as ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, or people living with HIV/AIDS, are excluded from the benefits of social and economic development.

These challenges need to be addressed by appropriate social protection investments if we are to have inclusive societies.

It is also important to acknowledge that risks and vulnerabilities are not static but dynamic processes. At the level of the individual, they are the result of changes over the life course of a person further affected by events such as changes in location (rural-urban) and household composition.

Conditions are dynamic also at the level of communities and nations, namely demographic and economic shifts. Some of the changes that social protection strategies need to address are: (1) urbanization and migration; (2) ageing populations; and (3) the breakdown of informal support structures based on the extended family.

This leads to my second point, namely that we need an approach that builds on the synergies between various social protection schemes, and between social protection and other social and economic policies. To give you an example, conditional cash transfers for children to go to school will not be effective if schools are not properly staffed or the quality of the teaching is poor.

Labour market interventions already feature in many social protection interventions to promote employment and income opportunities. However, an integrated approach needs to also align social protection with economic development policies. People with social security have more consumer power and can participate actively in the market, creating higher demand and larger domestic and regional markets.

However, securing the intended effect of social protection strategies requires careful attention to potential impacts on the economy. Social protection must not simply be seen as a handout. It is an investment in inclusive growth. It is an investment in n human capabilities to get people out of exclusion and poverty and to build resilience to risks and vulnerabilities.

I move to my third point, namely that we need to create a supportive environment for social protection.

Such an environment must include policies leading to legal empowerment and access to justice, protection of rights, and citizenship as means for promoting social inclusion and social cohesion.

To support the goals of stronger social protection, legal empowerment has to go beyond formality into the informal sector, from the urban to the rural. It needs to bring about a change in the relationship of the poor and the excluded with the law.

The rule of law may not mean much to the excluded if they perceive existing laws as being part of the cause of their exclusion. We need to examine our laws to ensure that they are “just” and do not generate “exclusion by design”. Only then will we be in a position to advocate for the rule of law.

Similarly, we need to improve our record in protecting the rights of individuals, particularly the most vulnerable, if social protection is to have a long-term impact in the development of this region.

Many countries in Asia-Pacific are signatories of various human rights instruments as well as international conventions. Yet, there is still a gap in the harmonization of national laws with the international obligations under these treaties. While some countries have made progress, by and large, the political will is still generally lacking to implement these obligations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The prevailing inequalities are the result of social, economic, cultural and political structures which place populations at risk, creating a development divide.

Stronger social protection has the potential to be a powerful tool for achieving, not only the MDGs, but also for bridging the divide and ensuring sustainable and inclusive development.

It is my hope that you will address these challenges as you discuss the future direction of social protection in our region, and in so doing, assist in developing a more systematic and comprehensive agenda for social protection in Asia and the Pacific.

I thank you.