Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Realizing the promise of protection

By Noeleen Heyzer (China Daily) Updated: 2011-05-25 08:05

It is widely agreed that crises create opportunities of sorts. As the Asia-Pacific region slowly emerges from the recession of 2008 and attempts to cope with the after-effects of a food crisis and natural disasters - including that which took place in highly-prepared Japan - governments are looking anew at ways to mitigate the rising insecurity and heightened social risks experienced by millions of people across the region, especially those living in or close to poverty.

The region's capacity to ensure all citizens receive a minimum level of security is at the heart of discussions as heads of state, ministers and senior officials from across Asia and the Pacific are meeting at the 67th Session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). This year's commission session focuses on a critical challenge facing us: our ability to match the economic recovery underway in Asia and the Pacific with a renewed emphasis on the social dimension of development as well.

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The region's new economic growth, following the shock of the global financial crisis, our growing urbanization, and the continuing migration of people, within our countries and across our sub-regions, require a new commitment by our governments to institute social protection to secure the benefits of economic growth for all the people of the Asia-Pacific region.

Instead of approaching specific development setbacks and challenges through limited, reactive interventions, our governments are now prepared to seek and implement comprehensive, universal coverage solutions capable of strengthening coping capacities and resilience as part of their vision of inclusive development. The resumption of food and fuel price inflation in many of the region's economies and continuing aftershocks of the global financial crisis has lent new urgency to their efforts.

But importantly, the just-released ESCAP study, "The Promise of Protection", shows that a basic social protection package is affordable and within the reach of most countries in the region at virtually any stage of economic development - and at a cost lower than countries may realize, of around 1 to 3 percent of their gross national income for essential health, education and pension schemes. Social protection programs then make good economic sense - acting to broaden and deepen opportunities for all and thus building more resilient and inclusive economies.

Furthermore, the study shows social protection is an investment which helps people escape from poverty. To date, many countries have relied for poverty reduction primarily on the trickle-down effects of economic growth. However, if they introduced more comprehensive social protection with appropriate supporting policies, they would reduce poverty much faster. Thus, rather than seeing social protection as costly measures, effective protection should be seen as an investment that will increase productivity and reduce the need for future spending.

Building universal social protection programs is not without its challenges. But the long-term political and economic dividends that such comprehensive mechanisms would yield, including greater domestic consumption, higher levels of human development and greater shared opportunity - including for women - and ultimately more equitable and robust economic growth, are undeniably compelling grounds for action.

That is the opportunity - and the challenge - before us. Working together, Asia Pacific can shape the forces of the economic recovery by investing in its people, its human capital, by strengthening our social commitments and implementing social protections as a mainstay of national development. The opportunity is now for Asia Pacific to emerge as a leader: in the global economy, in the realm of social progress, and in safeguarding our global environment.

Let us demonstrate that Asia Pacific's development can be balanced - with our focus on all three pillars working together, our economic wealth shared, our social gains secured, and the gifts of the earth protected.

The author is under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

(China Daily 05/25/2011 page9)

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