Haoliang Xu: “The Future of Development Cooperation in Asia and the Pacific” Speech prepared for a lecture at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on October 5, 2015 in Washington DC.

Oct 5, 2015

I am delighted to join you today at this important seminar on the Future of Development Cooperation in Asia and the Pacific aimed at implementing the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) – also known as the Global Goals.  I thank Professor Cinnamon Dornsife, former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank for the warm welcome and introduction, and thank you also to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University for organising this lecture.

This event takes place at an important time.  As you all know, development cooperation has been the focus of considerable attention in recent weeks in New York and across the world, as we adopt the called “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  In my presentation this afternoon, I will touch upon three issues:

1. Key development challenges in Asia and the Pacific

2. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

3. Implementation of the 2030 Agenda and UNDP’s role in Asia and the Pacific

1. The changing development landscape and challenges in Asia and the Pacific

The economic boom in Asia and the Pacific may seem to be a modern phenomenon, but it is in fact a re-emergence. Through millennia, up to the early part of the 19th century, Asia and the Pacific dominated the global economy.  Until 1820 Asia generated more than half of the world’s GDP, with China and India accounting for one-quarter each.  It is clear that the 21st century will see the re-emergence of Asia.

This economic re-emergence takes place while the region is going through a turbulent phase marked by great uncertainty and volatility: frequent and intense natural disasters linked to climatic change, as well as economic shocks that have increased in the recent years, making the challenges we face even more complex than a decade ago.

As it develops the region is also going through an extraordinary transition. In 2000, 15 out of 36 Asia- Pacific developing countries were low income countries.  Now, there are only four: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Nepal.  Some argue that the sharp reduction in the number of low income countries in the last decade should be trumpeted as a success for development.  But we should not forget a disturbing fact: that about 90 percent of the poor in Asia and the Pacific -- over 600 million people* -- now live in the middle-income countries. 

Looking back at human development in the last three decades, the East Asia and Pacific region has made the fastest progress in the Human Development Index (HDI), followed by South Asia.  But both of these sub-regions still lag behind Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe and Central Asia. And South Asia also lags the Arab States.  HDI values in most countries in Asia and the Pacific were below the global average in 2013, underscoring that while the region may have achieved an 'economic miracle', it has not yet attained a 'human development miracle'.

2. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Let me turn now to the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders on September 25 as the global blueprint for addressing the challenges I mentioned earlier.

The Secretary-General called Agenda 2030 “a universal, integrated and transformative vision for a better world.”

It builds on the Millennium Declaration signed 15 years ago, which launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Since then, those eight MDGs have guided global development.

The MDGs helped achieve much progress. The world has made significant headway in lifting more than a billion people out of poverty; getting millions of children who lacked education into school; we have reduced infant, child, and maternal deaths; and dramatically reduced the incidence of HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and TB.  This progress would have been unlikely without the focus, funding, and action surrounding MDG targets.

But the MDGs did not achieve all they set out to do.  While the target of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, was met by 2010, there are still the so-called “bottom billion,” people for whom life has scarcely changed.

The 2030 Agenda calls for a paradigm shift in our understanding of development and in the means of achieving it. It is very different from the MDGs.

• The new agenda applies to all countries

• It is an inclusive agenda  designed to “leave no one behind”

• It focuses on both ends and means

• Since it covers social, economic, environmental and governance issues, it is much more ambitious and broader than the MDGs agenda

• And the new agenda has been formulated following one of the most inclusive and participatory processes in UN history

UNDP played a central role within the UN Development Group’s project on post-2015 consultations which facilitated dialogues in nearly 100 countries, and engaged experts in discussions focused specifically on SDGs implementation. Through the MY World survey 8.5 million people have shared their perspectives on the new agenda. Governments, civil society organisations, businesses, academic institutions, NGOs, and multilateral organisations mobilised their networks and got involved in the exercise.

The agenda outlines 17 ambitious global goals and 169 targets.  They’re aimed at several issues including: poverty eradication; inclusive growth; improving governance; providing people with decent work; increased employment for women; fighting climate change; and promoting green growth. 

It recognizes that, to achieve the sustainable development people seek, all countries must be engaged in the process. All countries need economies that generate jobs and opportunities, especially for an ever increasing number of young people who lack promising job opportunities.   We need societies and political systems which are more inclusive and cohesive.  We need healthy ecosystems.  We need peace.  Development will play a major role in advancing these goals.

The new agenda is universal – it applies to all countries at all stages of development – and this universality reflects the new global geopolitical shifts.

3. Implementation of the 2030 Agenda and UNDP’s role in Asia and the Pacific

When it comes to implementing the 2030 Agenda, countries have high expectations of support from the UN development system. And we are ready to provide that help through:

• Mainstreaming, Acceleration and Policy Support

• Development solutions and thought leadership

• Mobilizing new financing for development

• Trilateral and South-South Cooperation

• And Coordination

Mainstreaming, Acceleration and Policy Support

Drawing on UNDP’s 50 years in development and extensive experience with the MDGs, UNDP expects to be at the forefront of the UN Development Group’s common approach to support countries on implementing the 2030 Agenda: “Mainstreaming, Acceleration, and Policy Support” also known as MAPS.

• Mainstreaming refers to the support we can give governments to incorporate the SDG’s into national and local strategies, plans, and budgets. We can also contribute to mapping the development work in countries, and recommend new areas of emphasis and direction needed to achieve the SDGs. And we can help countries strengthen data systems to further aid development work. 

• For acceleration, we can draw on the past five years of experience with MDG acceleration to help identify the obstacles and bottlenecks in the way of making progress on goals and targets, and to identify actions which could speed up progress on multiple targets at the same time.

• On policy support, we can provide coordinated and demand-driven advice, drawing on knowledge and programme experience from across the UN.

MAPS is so versatile that it can be applied to any development context or challenge in any country, including those in transition or crisis.

When it comes to development solutions and thought leadership, there is still a demand from governments for high quality advice to design policies and systems that can tackle emerging challenges and bring about transformational change.  The government in middle-income countries are looking for assistance in obtaining new technologies, so called “technology transfer,” coping with the challenges of rapid urbanization, job creation, and sustainable growth. There is a critical role for us also in early recovery after disasters. UNDP continues to strengthen its advisory capacity to meet these demand in the region.  We even underwent a restructuring process, moving advisors from headquarters in New York to our Regional Hub in Bangkok, to place expertise within the region.  We are continually providing development solutions and thought leadership through:

• Advisory services to governments

• High-level fora

• And through several key analytical publications, such as Human Development Reports

In addition, we have been supporting cutting edge research and innovation.  For instance, the award-winning UNDP-Baidu Recycle app helps users recycle electronic products by connecting them to certified waste recycling and dismantling agencies, across major cities in China. The app also seeks to integrate the informal e-waste recycling sector into the legitimate e-waste processing industry.  Our partnership with Microsoft in Nepal resulted in the creation of new technology to aid disaster relief work following the earthquake.  These are just a few examples of how we are innovating by using new technology to scale up our development work.

Another vital area where UNDP can make a difference is our ability to mobilize financing for development. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has forecast that to achieve the SDGs worldwide by 2030 -- in key sectors such as food and nutrition, water and sanitation, and health -- will require an investment of about $3.3 to $4.5 trillion a year.  To put that sum in perspective, Official Development Assistance (ODA) last year amounted to around $135 billion.

According to our regional report on SDG implementation “Making It Happen”, ODA reached $27 billion dollars in Asia and the Pacific in 2012.  While that is a significant figure, remittances reached $ 212 billion, and foreign direct investment $ 626 billion.  This economic reality is creating a new market for development services, where demand is coming from beyond traditional donor countries.

Previously, the work of agencies like UNDP was financed by donors, such as the US, Japan and Europe…top contributors in Asia and the Pacific.  Now however, that donor aid is being overtaken by other financing such as domestic financing. As a result, middle-income countries are hiring development agencies, and using domestic resources instead of ODA to pursue their development goals.  The demand for UNDP’s services by governments in Asia and the Pacific nearly doubled over the past five years.  This not only provides an opportunity to fast-track sustainable development, it also creates an opportunity for development organizations like the UNDP to reposition themselves from being a donor agency to being a capable partner to the government.

With regards to climate finance, UNDP is one of the world’s largest brokers of climate change grants for developing countries.  In Asia and the Pacific, we delivered $117 million from the Global Environment Facility and Montreal Protocol in 2014. Additionally, the Green Climate Fund Board approved UNDP in March 2015 as the first UN agency to access the Fund’s resources for developing countries.

When it comes to South-South and Trilateral Cooperation UNDP has provided ample support to countries in Asia and the Pacific to design and execute such activities.  With five decades of development experience and a network of offices in more than 130 countries across the world, UNDP brings tremendous expertise and goodwill that can be used to bring together ideas to deal with stubborn development challenges. 

For example, UNDP and China recently concluded the first trilateral cooperation project with Cambodia, and at present we are engaged in other trilateral projects with Ghana, Zambia, Burundi, Malawi, Nepal and Bangladesh. These projects are funded by the UK Department for International Development, Denmark and the government of China.

As the development sector grows, the demand for coordination too continues to grow.  This challenge of coordination goes well beyond the UN development system.  In the traditional development regime, there were a handful of donors and aid agencies, such as USAID, the Japanese aid agency JICA, UK’s DFID, Australia’s AusAID; the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.  Today, there are a host of new players that include: South Korea’s KOICA, Thailand’s TICA, and aid is coming in from China, India, and Indonesia. Both India and Indonesia have long been involved in South-South cooperation, and are planning to launch their own development agencies.  In addition, there are powerful philanthropists; non-governmental organizations; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, engaged in funding development. So coordination of activities can prove increasingly difficult, and there is need for coordinating body.  Given its reach and experience, UNDP is well suited to meet this demand.


While we support the achievement of all 17 SDGs, UNDP has decided to especially focus on Goals 1, 10, and 16 -- poverty, inequality and governance.  Our job is to support countries to eradicate poverty, and to do that in a way which simultaneously reduces inequality and exclusion, and avoids destruction of the environment.  UNDP has been working on this agenda since the MDGs were launched, supporting countries to integrate such plans into their policies and working to strengthen capacity, share knowledge, and support access to finance.

As UNDP Administrator Helen Clark said: “Ours is the last generation which can head off the worst effects of climate change.  Ours is the first generation with the know how to eradicate extreme poverty, and secure a more hopeful future for all.”

But governments and organizations such as the UNDP cannot do this alone.  We must all step up to realize the opportunities the new development agenda offers.  If we do, we can achieve sustainable development – and with it improve the prospects for people and planet.

I am confident that together we can achieve these ambitious goals.

Thank you.


*See new data for extreme poverty available at the World Bank 

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