Helen Clark: Speech at the Opening Session of the 2017 Regional Management Meeting for UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia-Pacific

Mar 8, 2017

Between 1990 and 2013, over 1.14 billion people in the Asia Pacific region were lifted out of extreme poverty. Leaving no one behind is vital to achieving Agenda 2030. Photo: UNDP

Welcome to the 2017 Regional Management Meeting of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia-Pacific (RBAP).

Let me begin by expressing my sincere condolences to the people of Thailand at the passing of His Majesty, King Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej. During His Majesty’s long reign, Thailand was transformed into one of the region’s leading economies, and recorded major human development gains. In 2006, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, presented His Majesty with UNDP’s Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to human development. 

The relationship between the Kingdom of Thailand and UNDP is a long and enduring one. It is my hope that UNDP will continue to reinvent itself to remain a relevant partner to Thailand’s development journey and as it implements the Sustainable Development Goals. In this respect, I commend the Government of Thailand for taking on the role of ASEAN co-ordinator for sustainable development last year. 

In my remarks today, I will reflect on three transformational changes in the Asia-Pacific over the past quarter century, and then comment on emerging issues in the region and on how UNDP is responding to address them. 

1. The world’s ‘centre of economic gravity’ has shifted towards Asia and the Pacific. The region’s tremendous GDP growth, over 7.5 per cent per annum on average over the period 1990-2015, has transformed economies and people’s lives.  Except for just three countries, the region is now comprised of either middle or high-income countries. Asia-Pacific’s share of global GDP is now over thirty per cent, and is expected to rise to 55 per cent by 2050.  

2. Poverty reduction in the Asia-Pacific has been enormous. Between 1990 and 2013 over 1.14 billion people in the region were lifted out of extreme poverty . Thailand itself was a trailblazer in this effort, having eradicated extreme poverty by 2004.

3. High and sustained economic growth is leading to a rapidly expanding middle-class . Asia’s middle class comprises 1.38 billion people and is growing rapidly, with the majority living in cities. In a span of just five years—from 2015 to 2020—Asia’s share of the global middle class is projected to grow from 46 per cent to 54 per cent . By 2030, two-thirds of the global middle class will be Asian. The spending power of this population is estimated to grow from US$ 12.3 trillion per year in 2015 to US$ 36.6 trillion per year by 2030 when Asia-Pacific will make up almost sixty per cent of global middle-class spending. 

Asia-Pacific’s future growth will increasingly be driven by demand and consumption from within the region.  A larger middle class reflects growing prosperity, and offers new opportunities for growth 

But there are also challenges:

First, while the region’s middle-class is expanding, the divide between those at the top and those at the bottom of the income ladder has widened. Our focus, therefore, must be on ensuring that marginalized, excluded, and vulnerable populations are not left behind as the region continues to prosper. This goes to the very heart of the 2030 Agenda: leave no one behind. 

To support implementation of the holistic 2030 Agenda, UNDP is working with its UN Development Group partners through the MAPS approach (which stands for Mainstreaming, Acceleration, and Policy Support). Through this we can pool expertise across the UN system and support ‘whole of government’ approaches for accelerating progress on the SDGs.  MAPS missions are taking this forward, and 35 Asia-Pacific countries have expressed interest in being associated with this approach.

Second, consumption and production patterns are becoming increasingly unsustainable. In 2015, the Asia-Pacific was estimated to represent 63 per cent of global natural resources use.  The demands of a rapidly growing middle-class will pose a significant additional burden on these resources. It will be vital to have cities at the forefront of crafting more sustainable development pathways. Currently, Asia-Pacific’s cities generate over eighty per cent of the region’s GDP, use seventy to eighty per cent of its energy, and create over 75 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions.  


Asia-Pacific is the most disaster prone region in the world. The impacts of climate change will be especially felt in the region’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Pacific Island communities and those on the atolls of the Maldives are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Climate change poses an existential crisis for SIDS – yet their small size often means there is a lack of capacity to address the pressing challenges; compounding that, six Pacific SIDS are still classified as Least Developed Countries. 

Rapidly expanding Asian cities also face challenges. Bangkok, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Kolkata, Manila, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Yangon are all low-lying or coastal cities which are highly vulnerable to rising sea levels, floods, and other impacts of climate change. Elsewhere, inland cities and land-locked developing countries across parts of South Asia are facing periods of increased heat and drought. 

UNDP’s focus on sustainable development is therefore highly appropriate for addressing the challenges faced by the region. We have built strong funding partnerships with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), including its Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) and the Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) , as well as with the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, the Adaptation Fund established under the Kyoto Protocol of the UNFCCC, and, most recently, with the Green Climate Fund. During GEF-5 (2010-2014), UNDP mobilized US$ 591 million in the Asia-Pacific region. 

For the period 2014-2018, UNDP is on track to achieve its internal target of mobilizing US$ 647 million for the Asia-Pacific from environmental funds. This already includes 51 GEF-funded projects valued at US$ 243 million, and six projects valued at US$ 223 million approved under the Green Climate Fund during the past eighteen months for significant projects in the Maldives, Pakistan, Viet Nam, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu and Samoa. 

The environmental funding flowing through UNDP is being transformed into results on the ground through projects in virtually every country in the region. Risk-informed planning, both through climate change adaptation, as well as through mitigation measures, is yielding results at the local and national level. 


Major demographic transitions are underway. Several countries in Asia, and especially in the Pacific, face a “youth bulge” , while others, such as China and Thailand will likely  face a rising fiscal burden to meet the needs of growing aging populations. According to WHO estimates, the share of the population aged over sixty-five years in Asia is expected nearly to quadruple in the next four decades to reach 26 per cent in 2050.  Governments will need to introduce stronger social protection measures to meet the needs of older citizens. 

On the other hand, the countries where the median age of the population is under 30 years of age, for example, Afghanistan, Laos, Timor Leste and several Pacific Island nations, are also countries at a critical phase of their development. Reaping a demographic dividend, from which youth can actively contribute toward and benefit from sustainable development, will require significant public investments in health, education, and skills training. 


Migration, especially intra-regional migration, is on the rise. Political and violent extremism across parts of Asia, disparities across development outcomes, human rights violations, and extreme poverty, especially among marginalized groups are leading to significant movements of people—both within countries and across borders. 

Migration is also a key factor affecting coastal zones. The figures in China and Southeast Asia are staggering: one thousand people are estimated to arrive in China's large coastal cities each day, and similar numbers move daily to the coasts of Viet Nam and the Philippines.  These are the very same areas which will be most affected by sea level rise, flooding, storm surges and inundation. 

UNDP, working alongside its partners, has a critical role to play as people migrate in the hope of a better, more secure future for themselves and their families. This is both a humanitarian and development issue.

Sixth, and finally, governance deficits persist even as development challenges have become more complex. Existing governance deficits are impeding institutional capacities to respond to emerging issues. In a region which has made significant socio-economic progress, women’s political participation is less than the global average, ranging from a low of 3.6 per cent in the Pacific sub-region to a high of 19.7 per cent in South Asia.  Political changes in some countries have been accompanied by a shrinking of public space and voice. Corruption is still prevalent, and conflict, including that generated by political tensions and violent extremism, is on the rise both in South Asia and in parts of South East Asia.

The last mile in development is the most challenging. Asia-Pacific’s record in reducing poverty has been exceptional, but the total eradication of poverty remains a challenge. Reaching the as yet largely unreached will require both imagination and empathy, and constantly innovating in approaches and partnerships.

In this context, I commend our Regional Bureau for Asia-Pacific at headquarters and in the Bangkok hub, our Regional Director, Haoliang Xu, and our Country Offices for being major proponents of fostering innovation and on pushing the envelope on new partnerships for advancing sustainable development. Some examples of this work include:

• the launch, on World Water day, of Indonesia’s first ever crowd-funding campaign, “Bring Water for Life”, which raised more than its expected target of 350 million Indonesian Rupiah. With UNDP’s support, the campaign mobilised public support for providing clean water access for Napu, a remote village in East Sumba district, by building a solar-powered water pump system.

• In Maldives, UNDP successfully used drones to produce three-dimensional maps of atolls at risk of natural disasters and sea-level rise. These maps are helping the Government identify where the coastline is being eroded, as well as the areas which would be more resilient to flooding.

• To promote evidence-based policy formation and decision-making, UNDP China used big data to develop a living standard dimension in its Human Development Index, covering 2,284 counties across the country. It has presented the data in a user-friendly format through publicly accessible interactive maps. 

• UNDP is helping to develop the Islamic Development Bank’s new innovation strategy at its request.

• RBAP has established a new partnership with the China-based Baoshang Bank to launch a regional network of youth leaders and to develop incubators to boost entrepreneurship.

• On new financing mechanisms, RBAP has created UNDP’s first Social Impact Fund - a blended finance platform - to bring donors, the private sector, development banks, and other institutional investors together to support the implementation of SDGs.  

Furthermore, RBAP has strategically leveraged UNDP’s convening power by establishing and institutionalizing three multi-stake holder platforms on priority issues, including:

(i) The SDGs Regional Knowledge Exchange;

(ii) The Responsible Business Forum which works with private sector partners; 

(iii) and the Summit on Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the SDGs.

These platforms will serve as vehicles for connecting governments, forging partnerships, and generating integrated approaches, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and joint advocacy. In effect, RBAP is operationalizing a broad concept of South-South Co-operation.  

Through these examples and many other creative initiatives, UNDP has strategically positioned itself as an innovative development actor in this region.  

To conclude:

At this meeting there is much  discussion on future scenarios for the Asia-Pacific, and on how UNDP needs to adapt continually to ensure that it is a relevant and responsive development partner in the region. RBAP’s demonstrated willingness to take calculated risks, be flexible, and establish new partnerships is supporting UNDP’s overall capacity to anticipate and adapt to the changing nature of development. Under the strong leadership of our Regional Director, and with the firm commitment of RBAP’s staff in our Country Offices across the region, in the hub here in Bangkok, and in HQs in New York, I am confident that UNDP will continue to be a partner of choice in the Asia-Pacific region.


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