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A Relentless Battle Against Poverty & Hunger in World’s Most Populous Region

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 15 2019 (IPS) - The world’s two most populous nations-– China and India—have been making steady progress in eradicating extreme poverty, but have fallen short in their attempts to eliminate extreme hunger, according to the Bangkok-based UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

In an interview with IPS, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP said Asia-Pacific is on track to eradicate extreme poverty, which still afflicts 285 million people in that region, but that goal would be successful only “if current progress is maintained until 2030”.

“Both China and India are reducing extreme poverty faster than the regional average. And half the population lifted out of extreme poverty globally, since 2000, comes from China,” she said.

The Asia-Pacific region, the world’s most populous, comprises of 53 members and nine associate members, and is home to over 60 per cent of the world’s population.

This makes ESCAP the largest UN intergovernmental body serving the Asia-Pacific region.

Of the world’s 7.7 billion people, China ranks number one with a population of 1.42 billion followed by India with 1.36 billion, with the US ranking third with 329 million people.

A new report on a global poverty index, co-authored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPDI) released last week, says of the 1.3 billion people worldwide who are multidimensionally poor, more than two thirds—886 million— live in middle income countries (also described as developing nations).

“To fight poverty, one needs to know where poor people live. They are not evenly spread across a country, not even within a household,” says Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator. “The 2019 global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) provides the detailed information policy makers need to more effectively target their policies.”

The MPI goes beyond income as the sole indicator for poverty, by exploring the ways in which people experience poverty in their health, education, and standard of living.

Alisjahbana said the ambition of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goes beyond eradicating extreme poverty.

“It also focuses on reducing multidimensional poverty for all, and the Asia-Pacific region is lagging in other dimensions, such as provision of sustainable jobs and promoting equality. Inequalities of opportunity, and exposure to environmental degradation and natural disasters, which are widening within and between countries.”

With this challenge in mind, she pointed out, there is scope to significantly increase government investment in basic services, such as education, health and social protection, but also to strengthen our region’s resilience to natural disasters. This is essential to break the cycle of poverty.

“When it comes to eradicating hunger, progress has been too slow in Asia and the Pacific since 2015. While levels of stunting have been reduced in parts of the region, particularly in China, there remains work to be done across the region to support sustainable agriculture and reverse losses in biodiversity,” she declared.

Meanwhile, the targeted date for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be up for review at a UN summit meeting of world leaders September 24-25, is 2030.

But how many of these goals are really achievable?

These are some of the issues, up for discussion, during a ministerial meeting of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York July 16-18. The theme: “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality.”

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: What are the countries in the Asia-Pacific region which have made the most progress on SDGs?

Alisjahbana: ESCAP takes a regional approach to the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but we conduct analysis of our subregions which is included in the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2019. This indicates how different parts of Asia and the Pacific have their own distinct set of challenges and priorities.

For instance, East and North-East Asia has made the greatest progress towards poverty eradication but has registered a regression on several Goals focused on the environment. Urgent action is required to reverse course if the subregion is to build sustainable cities and communities and protect life below water and ecosystems on land by 2030.

South-East Asia and the Pacific have made the swiftest progress towards building a resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization and fostering innovation. Yet our analysis finds the subregion to be heading in the wrong direction when it comes to promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

North and Central Asia made the most progress towards six Goals, while South and South-West Asia is ahead in its efforts to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

IPS: Of the 17 SDGs, which are the goals which are most likely to be achieved by 2030 by all countries in the region?

Alisjahbana: Asia-Pacific governments have taken on the challenge of the 2030 Agenda with decisive leadership – making significant investments to enhance data and statistical coverage, scale up partnerships and promote people-centred policies and strategies. This however has yet to take full effect.

The region is making significant headway towards poverty reduction (SDG1), good health and well-being (SDG3), quality education (SDG4) and affordable and clean energy (SDG7), and partnerships for the goals (SDG17). On more than half of the 17 Goals, progress is stagnant, or the situation has deteriorated since 2000.

On our current trajectory, we need to accelerate progress towards all Sustainable Development Goals if they are to be met by 2030. Supporting this accelerated progress lies at the heart of ESCAP’s work, it guides our analysis, our intergovernmental work and our technical assistance.

IPS: The recent ESCAP report on concluded that, Asia and the Pacific will not achieve any of the 17 SDGs by 2030? What are the primary reasons for this and is this due to lack of funding or the absence of political will?

Alisjahbana: Our recent Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2019 estimates that developing Asia-Pacific countries need an additional annual investment of $1.5 trillion, or just under a dollar per person per day, or 5 per cent of the region’s GDP in 2018.

People and planet related interventions would account for most of the additional investment, with $669 billion needed to support basic human rights and develop human capacities, and $590 billion to be invested in our planet to support clean energy, combat climate change and strengthen environmental protection.

The remaining $196 billion is needed to support sustainable transport, improved access to ICT, and water and sanitation services.

While the level of investment required is within reach for many countries, the price tag is highest for those which can least afford it, including least developed countries and small island developing States.

Strong development partnerships and strengthened multilateral financing mechanisms will be essential. A shift in mindset is needed to look beyond economic growth and focuses on an economic philosophy which puts people and the planet first.

To help shape sustainable development policies and target our investments, work must continue to produce timely and reliable statistics. Currently only 36 per cent of the SDG indicators in the Asia-Pacific have sufficient data for progress to be accurately assessed. Improving data and statistics is a key area of ESCAP’s work. Non-traditional data pools such as geospatial information and big data need to be fully tapped help address data gaps in the region.

IPS: As far as the Asia-Pacific region is concerned, do you expect anything concrete to come out of the SDG summit in New York September 24-25?

Alisjahbana: The SDG Summit is an important opportunity to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It can help ensure ongoing work is taken a step further in Asia and the Pacific to achieve the SDGs.

It is crucial it does, because the region’s sustainable development achievements and failures will have a strong impact on the rest of the world. We are home to two-thirds of the world’s population and have in recent years been the engine of global economic growth and poverty reduction.

In addition to the inter-governmentally agreed political declaration that has been negotiated over the past months, the SDG Summit is an opportunity for our leaders to identify ways, cross-cutting areas and critical multi-stakeholder action to accelerate progress.

I also look forward to the announcements of “SDG Accelerated Actions”, which are voluntary initiatives undertaken by countries and other actors and should raise ambitions to advance the Goals at the speed and scale required.

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  • sally radford

    Progress is possible if food and shelter have priority. PRC should focus on domestic needs and curb totalitarian control. Democratic India should release potential of youth and scrap moon exploration to improve water supply and food production. Such simple solutions are within reach.