Helen Clark: UNDP Regional Bureau for Asia Pacific Cluster Meeting

Nov 13, 2010

Opening Address, Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
 UNDP Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific
Cluster Meeting, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Saturday 13 November 2010, 9: 00 am

(Check against delivery)

I welcome you all to the Annual Cluster Meeting of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia Pacific here in Bangladesh.

At the outset, let me express my thanks to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and the Government of Bangladesh for hosting this meeting, and for their warm hospitality. I am also very pleased that Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan is able to join us by videoconference today. I look forward to hearing from both Prime Ministers on their countries’ experiences in advancing development.

It is a sign of our times, and indeed one of the themes of my visit to Bangladesh, that we are able to use the very latest technology to bring us together.  I saw this in action on Thursday, when I was able to join the Prime Minister ‘virtually’ from the Bhola District to inaugurate the latest of Bangladesh’s Union Parishad Information Centres. Through these Centres – which now number over 4,500 – Bangladeshis can now get the information they need, for example,  to protect themselves better from natural disasters and determine when it is best to plant their crops. The internet facilities at these Centres also help people apply for schools, obtain land records, insure their farms, and access other public services.

As well, the internet is being brought into the villages and pockets of the rural poor. Our world is estimated to have over 5 billion mobile phone subscribers, and the majority of them are in the developing world. By expanding affordable broadband, these subscribers will be increasingly able to use their phones to save, transfer, invest, and borrow money – and much more besides. The potential of this technology as a platform for development in the Asia Pacific is exciting, as are many other prospects for this dynamic region.   

When I addressed this forum last year in Thailand, we were faced with many questions about how the global economic crisis would impact on the region’s development.

Yet the Asia-Pacific has proven to be resilient in this crisis, and is leading the recovery from it. According to the latest IMF projections, Asia is returning to strong growth this year of almost 8 per cent, relative to 2.7 per cent for the United States, and about 1.7 per cent for the Euro Area.

At this year’s meeting, therefore, our focus can turn to what UNDP can do to deepen and strengthen growth in the region, by making it more sustainable, more widely shared, and a contributor to human development.

So, let me provide an overview of the context in which we are working – including the recurring human development and MDG challenges the region faces – and then highlight three key areas where more action would help drive development progress in the Asia-Pacific.  Finally I will touch on how UNDP needs to perform to meet programme countries’expectations.

Regional Progress Towards Human Development

Last week we launched the twentieth anniversary edition of the global Human Development Report, “The Real Wealth of Nations”, in New York. It records that East Asia and the Pacific and South Asia, have seen, respectively, the first and second fastest rate of Human Development Index improvement in the world over the past forty years.

Five of the top ten ‘movers’ in the Human Development Index between 1970 and 2010 are from the Asia-Pacific region. They include not only the well-known examples of China, Indonesia, and Korea, but also Laos and Nepal where progress in the non-income dimensions of human development has been impressive.

Looking at human development over the last four decades also confirms what Bhutan, with its Gross National Happiness index, realized long ago.  Countries which achieve high growth rates do not necessarily also do well in human development terms. Many countries in this region and elsewhere have made impressive gains in health and education, even when growth in income has been modest. The Report did not find that strong economic performance per se over the decades necessarily correlated with progress in the non-income dimensions of the Human Development Index.  

Yet, if growth is inclusive, if it is job rich, if it advances decent work, if it occurs in the agricultural and rural sectors where such a large proportion of the developing world’s population lives, and if it leads to growing tax revenues which can be recycled into health, education, and infrastructure improvements, then it will indeed help advance human development.  

Regional Progress Towards the MDGs

This region has seen considerable progress on the MDGs. Extreme poverty in East Asia and the Pacific, for example, fell from nearly eighty per cent of the population surviving on under $1.25 per day in 1981 to seventeen per cent in 2005.

Many countries have made good progress on getting all children into school and reducing gender disparities in education, containing the spread of HIV/AIDS, expanding access to safe drinking water and reducing infant and child mortality rates. Bangladesh itself has reduced the mortality rate of children under the age of five by nearly two thirds, well ahead of the 2015 deadline for that target.

Yet regional progress is still too slow on reducing maternal mortality, improving access to basic sanitation, and on meeting the MDG’s environmental targets.

While fast-paced growth has helped reduce poverty, it has been accompanied by rising inequality and the social tensions it brings. Across Central, South, and East Asia and the Pacific, more than one in every four people remains in extreme poverty. Too many marginalised groups have been unable to benefit from the progress made around them. As well, inequality is not just a barrier for those at the bottom of the ladder – it limits the overall progress a country can make.  

This year’s Human Development Report has calculated the human development losses caused by inequalities in health, education, and income. The losses, which can be attributed to inequality in general, and to gender inequality in particular, in South Asia, are among the highest in the world.

With five years remaining until the 2015 target date for the MDGs, the Heads of State and Government attending the MDG Summit in New York called for an acceleration of progress on the MDGs to meet the expectations of the world’s poor.

All 192 UN Member States agreed on an outcome document which calls for holistic, evidence-based, and scaled-up efforts to achieve the MDGs. It spells out the broad parameters of policies and approaches which will accelerate progress, based on lessons learned and development successes.  

Building on that consensus and on the political momentum generated by the Summit, UNDP can help countries identify and agree on their next steps to accelerate and sustain progress, specific to their own context. We can with programme countries and our partner agencies in UN Country Teams deploy the MDG Acceleration Framework, which has been successfully piloted in Laos, Papua New Guinea, and eight other countries. It helps countries identify the bottlenecks and constraints to MDG progress, and then determine what the solutions are to overcome those barriers.

The Government of Lao PDR, for example, used the Acceleration Framework to generate support for tested and proven interventions which could improve primary education for girls – prioritizing its 56 most disadvantaged districts.  As well, Laos has developed an MDG Compact, with UNDP support, which identifies specific interventions to reach the goals of its MDG-based seventh National Socio-Economic Development Plan.

Application of the Acceleration Framework breaks down the silos which exist between sectors and disciplines with a pragmatic problem-solving approach.  It builds on existing national strategies and local evidence, and international best practice to determine a way forward to meet MDG targets.

Much good work has been done, including here in Bangladesh, to align national planning frameworks with the MDGs. The time is now to turn strategies and plans into accelerated action. The Acceleration Framework helps focus the work necessary to do that.

Accelerating progress on the MDGs and development overall will require UNDP to do even better in assisting countries with high-quality and timely development services in line with their national priorities. We need to draw on knowledge of what has worked from around the world and across our own bureaux to have the maximum impact.

Going Forward: Three Regional Drivers

In the Asia-Pacific right now, accelerated action in three areas would be timely and useful:

First, it is critical for countries in the region to improve social protection systems. As stated in the MDG Summit outcome document, countries need to view social protection not as a drain on their budget, but as an investment in their country’s ability to cope with present and future shocks and sustain development momentum.

Social protection systems like India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Thailand’s health insurance scheme, China’s rural pension plan, and “cash for work” programmes in Tonga, Samoa, and Mongolia can help expand opportunities, build domestic demand, and spur human development.  

That is particularly important as countries around the world face economic uncertainty and the impact of natural disasters including those which can now be attributed to climate change.  

The impact of economic and other disasters is inevitably felt most acutely by the poor causing setbacks to their health, livelihoods, and education which may not be reversible. Without social protection, millions of people face seeing the gains they have made disappear when disaster strikes.

But this leads me to my second major point – the critical importance of disaster risk reduction to sustainable development and, within that, adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

The threats posed by climate change and natural disasters overall to the Asia-Pacific are huge – witness Pakistan’s floods over an area roughly the size of Britain which affected around twenty million people.  

Bangladesh itself is hugely exposed to such disasters, but it has also been proactive in its response.  Many tens of thousands of lives have undoubtedly been saved over the years by its improved disaster risk management.  

More than thirty million Bangladeshis are estimated to live along this country’s 710 kilometre coastline. With rising sea levels caused by climate change, their vulnerability to disaster is increasing.   

On Thursday I had the pleasure of visiting the Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change Through Coastal Afforestation Project in the south of the country. It helps local communities establish mangrove and other plantations which they manage.  

 This initiative will help reclaim lost land as a buffer against sea-level rise, and also act as a carbon sink. It is a good example of how effective climate change responses can also build sustainable livelihoods.

More broadly, in this carbon-constrained age, growth based on reduced carbon footprints is vital for our planet. A new climate agreement which generates significant funding for low-carbon energy and development – as well as for adaptation - is essential and must not be allowed to fall off the international list of priorities. The historic agreement reached by the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan at the end of October,  on a new strategic plan to address biodiversity loss, demonstrates that bold multilateral agreements are possible. That spirit needs to carry through to Cancun next month when nations meet again in climate talks.

The third area for focus which I want to highlight this morning is achieving gender equality.  It is increasingly recognised that investing in women and girls is in itself a critical breakthrough strategy for the MDGs and development generally.  It is not only the right thing to do in human rights terms, but also has multiplier effects across generations and communities.

In South Asia and the Pacific in particular, many women and girls can’t access health care, decent work, or education.  Laws, custom, and practice often relegate women to subordinate status.

Yet much can be done.  In India, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has a minimum quota for women’s participation, as does new electoral legislation before the Parliament there. Bangladesh also reserves parliamentary seats for women. Here, the government has been working closely with UNDP on a flagship programme which has already generated two years of regular wage employment for some 25,000 poor rural women.  Where such initiatives are proved to work, it is critical that they are brought to scale.

Vision for UNDP in the Region

It is indeed on initiatives with the potential to transform the development prospects of whole nations that UNDP must focus.  Years of development practice focused on a series of small projects so often have not added up to more than the sum of their parts.  We need to be able to provide the strategic, policy, and catalytic support which will help nations make a step change in their development.

In doing that, we must recognise the role of inclusive growth and the potential of trade and investment, and facilitate and draw on the opportunities presented by  South-South Co-operation.  That is why we have entered into new strategic partnerships with China and Brazil, and are exploring others with India and South Africa – knowing the potential for leverage from their dynamism for those associated with their economic growth and development co-operation programmes.

At UNDP, programmes must be designed from the outset to be sustainable, and to leave capacities and systems in place which lock in and expand the progress made long after our involvement with a programme has ended. Both the UN Development Assistance Frameworks and our country programmes need to be more strategic and higher in quality.

To improve UNDP’s performance as a leading development organization and co-ordinator of the UN development system, UNDP must continually evolve and renew itself.

We are undertaking a serious management effort aimed at sustained organisational change to improve our performance all round.  This will need to be deeply embedded in the organization’s DNA – and that requires both persistence and patience.  As UNDP’s leaders in this region, we ask you too to be leaders in this change – about which there will be more briefings during this meeting.  

Over the next two years, our goal is to get real gains in efficiency and effectiveness, and, above all in development impact.  This is not just about a better UNDP – but about a UNDP able to deliver fully on its mandate of supporting its partners to achieve sustainable human development.  That is what attracts us all to work for this extraordinary organization which has been such an important part of the development journey in the Asia-Pacific and beyond, and now needs to reconfigure for the next steps along the way.

Thank you all for the contribution you are making, and all the best for a highly successful cluster meeting.

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