Hon. Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Policies and Plan Implementation of Sri Lanka,
Excellencies Secretary General of SAARC,
Excellencies, distinguished delegates, participants, ladies and gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to welcome you all to the Fifth South Asia Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals.
At the outset, I wish to express my appreciation to the Government of Sri Lanka for co-hosting this very important Forum.
The annual Forums are very important in the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.
They help us to gather the concerns and aspirations of our member States and bring them to the attention of the regional and global community through the Asia Pacific Forum for Sustainable Development (APFSD) and the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), respectively.
The outcomes of the Forum also help us in planning and executing our work programme in South Asia.
This year’s Forum assumes special significance. The whole region is still reeling from the devastating impacts of COVID-19 economically, socially.
ESCAP estimates that in the Asia-Pacific region, about 89 million additional people have been pushed into multidimensional poverty by the pandemic, out of which more than 80 per cent are from the South and South-West Asia subregion.
ESCAP’s annual SDG progress report for South Asia concluded that, I would like to iterate again the points that prior to the pandemic, South Asia was making good progress on several targets related to Goal 1 (No poverty), Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) and Goal 3 (Good health and well-being). A significant reduction in maternal and child mortality was also noted.
However, the post-pandemic situation reveals that the subregion has slipped back on some of these achievements.
While some progress has been made on Goal 7 (Affordable and clean energy), particularly in terms of increase in investments in renewable energy, the proportion of renewable energy in the total energy mix is not increasing as needed.
Alarmingly, the subregion is found to be regressing on Goal 11 (Sustainable cities and communities) and key environmental Goal 13 (Climate action) and Goal 14 (Life below water).
Progress is either very slow or stagnant on most of the remaining Goals. It is worth noting that globally SDGs can never be met if South Asia or South Asian countries fails to achieve the goals by 2030.
Looking forward, we must adopt a strategy for utilizing the resources and opportunities available to us to address both the immediate concerns of recovery from the pandemic and the long-term requirements of resilience and sustainability of our economies.
ESCAP just recently released report on “Achieving the SDGs in South Asia” again highlights that building back better from COVID-19, if done effectively, can also help countries achieve the SDGs.
It also points out that focused interventions and investments in selected areas can generate spillover benefits for all 17 SDGs. The Report puts forward five critical areas of policy reforms.
We need to revitalize the economy through economic diversification, particularly by focusing on sustainable industrialization. By utilizing the full potential of industry and empowering the SME sector, more productive jobs can be created. This can also improve productivity in the agricultural sector by absorbing excess labour from among primary sector dependents.
To prepare the workforce for meeting the demands of economic diversification, we need to raise investments in human resources, particularly in the core social sectors of health and education.
To ensure that the opportunities created by diversification are available to all, policies that promote inclusiveness are needed, principally by universalizing social protection, closing gender gaps and improving basic infrastructure.
Given the specific conditions of South Asia, characterized by high dependence on rural agrarian sectors with a higher incidence of poverty, rural development must be given special priority and attention.
Finally, the subregion needs to factor in environmental sustainability as an overarching guiding principle of implementation of the SDGs in all aspects.
One of the main areas for South Asia in this regard is increasing investments in clean energy infrastructure and promoting cross-border trade in renewal energy.
It is encouraging to note that South Asian countries showed solidarity at the regional level by setting up the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund during the early stages of the crisis.
Since then, they have responded proactively to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis. Subregional governments have been at the forefront of our fightback through efforts on vaccination, augmenting health sector capacities, fiscal stimulus packages, and other support measures.
This cooperation is continuing through measures for affordable vaccine distribution and other diverse programmes for mutual support. I commend the leadership of SAARC in these initiatives and wish you success in all your endeavors.
For South Asia, it is important that efforts are doubled to build sustainable cross-border transport, energy and ICT connectivity.
There are several initiatives ESCAP is making to advance subregional connectivity, along with a focus on integrated, sustainable, climate and disaster-resilient infrastructure development.
I take this opportunity to reaffirm ESCAP’s commitment to continue to support cooperation for sustainable development in South Asia, using all the resources and channels available to us, including through partnering with the South Asia Network on the SDGs (SANS) and with the South Asia Peoples Forum and certainly with all colleagues from the UN system.
These efforts will be led by ESCAP’s Subregional Office for South and South-West Asia.
I wish you all successful deliberations at this Forum and look forward to receiving the outcomes of your discussions, which will be tabled for further discussions at the 9th Asia-Pacific Forum for Sustainable Development (APFSD) to be held next March.
Thank you very much