Working towards shared prosperity in Asia-Pacific

Interview with Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Secretary ESCAP 

Published by: Asian Tribune

Date: 03 August 2009

For the first time since it was born some 60 years ago, the UN’s Asia-Pacific arm has a woman as its head. Noeleen Heyzer could be infectious. She espouses her causes with almost a passionate commitment, be it about finding a voice for Asia’s voiceless millions, about the marginalization of women or the region’s rightful place on the global stage.

Those who have listened to her explaining her world view or more mundane issues like the Asian Highway or the Trans-Asian Railway cannot but be moved by the genuineness of her commitment.

It is not only individuals who find her enthusiasm contagious.

Regional organizations too have been touched by it. The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) invited the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (ESCAP) to make a presentation at last month’s Summit held in Thailand.

This was the first time in Asean’s 40-odd year existence that such an invitation had gone out to ESCAP. The signal was clear enough. It underlined the growing nexus between Asean and the UN, a new and burgeoning relationship that should benefit the Asia-Pacific region.

So Noeleen Heyzer, who is also an Under Secretary-General of the UN, spoke to the leaders of the Asean 10 and of the six Asian-Pacific nations that make up Asean’s Dialogue Partners bringing together the region’s most populous countries and the tiniest, the advanced economies and the emerging ones.

Here she spoke of ESCAP’s role in bringing the region closer together not only through an expanding network of road and rail that she calls the hardware of connectivity but also by promoting development.

Critics see the UN system as a vast, unwieldy and wasteful talking shop producing mounds of reports that are either unread or unreadable. But here in Thailand where ESCAP has found a permanent home, there is a new verve, a new energy that is finding expression very much on the ground where development would mean an improvement to the livelihoods of millions who still wallow in the morass of disparities that exist across Asia.

Before taking up her position as head of ESCAP a little over two years ago, Dr Heyzer (she has a doctorate in the social sciences from the prestigious Cambridge University) she was the first from the developing ‘South’ to be the head of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Asked why she accepted this post at ESCAP after playing such a pivotal role in New York as head of UNIFEM where she was largely instrumental in pushing through a Security Council Resolution concerning the impact of war on women and their part in peace, Noeleen Heyzer’s reply was simple as it was honest.

“It was the excitement of bringing to the region a vision of development I had.”

She wanted to be a driver of sustainable development, a laudable though tough task given the diversity and disparities that mark the Asia-Pacific region.

The ESCAP region has within it the two countries with the largest populations in the world- China and India. It also has island states with populations of a few thousand.

To Dr Heyzer, a national of a small but prosperous city- state, Singapore, but of Dutch ancestry with roots in Sri Lanka and India, the vastness of the region has not overawed her. Rather it has proved a challenge against which to test her views on economic and social issues.

“It is time for the Asia-Pacific to play a more important role in the world. The region is punching below its size,” she says.

While she realizes that the region has the potential to play a bigger role and be part of the solution to the global problems of the day, Dr Heyzer knows that to have a meaningful voice the region must have a coordinated stand on global issues.

After all, says the head of ESCAP, Asia-Pacific is not poor. It has US$ 4 trillion in reserves. It can pull the rest of the world out of the doldrums as it has done before.

But it needs to be more cohesive, it needs to coordinate its efforts and fill the development gaps, removing the disparities that inhibit economic growth and social progress.

“There are already signs of recovery in East-Asian economies. However our experience with the crisis of 1997 suggests that social recovery takes much longer.”

“Over 26 million workers have lost their jobs in Asia-Pacific this year with millions more experiencing income insecurity, especially migrant workers and casual workers in the informal sector.”

Dr Heyzer says that the inequalities that exist in the region have been made worse by the financial crisis. Confronted by multiple threats such as the spiraling food prices earlier and climate change, there is a risk of losing the poverty reduction and development gains achieved over the past few decades.

She believes that old development models will no longer do. She believes that the “manufactured in Asia, consumed in the West,” could well end up as an economic shibboleth and the region cannot wait for that to find a new and sustainable approach.

“We need to find new drivers, but this is only possible by increasing the consumer power of the poor and emerging middle classes through decent work, social protection and other inclusive policies, unleashing their potential to contribute to both economic development and reducing inequalities and social disparities.”

With the region having some of the world’s largest and most dynamic economies Dr Heyzer sees a more unified market in East-Asia as a potential economic powerhouse and an emerging centre of gravity of the world economy.

But to achieve this it requires the strengthening of the region’s “connectivity’’ as a means of complementing the region’s strengths.

She said that ESCAP is actively pursuing the development of a sustainable transport system and working with member-states to transform transport routes into economic corridors.

The Asian Highway network will provide 142,000 kilometres of roadway while the Trans-Asia Railway has a rail network of around 114,000 kilometres selected by 28 ESCAP members as vital arteries for international trade.

Since climate change is a matter of major concern in the region, the improved access to rail services will provide a better balance between modes of transport and help lower CO2 emissions.

But that is what Noeleen Heyzer would call the hardware. What about the “software”-society and the people- who must be the ultimately beneficiaries of all this development. If all development is intended to benefit the people-especially the countless millions who are voiceless and marginalized- and minimize the disparities that divide society, how could this be achieved?

As she told the Asean summit, efforts to improve regional connectivity must include people and communities.

“The social foundations of inclusive and resilient societies need to be established to allow more equitable sharing of development benefits, investment in human capital and strengthening resilience of people and communities to cope with risks and disasters.”

She said that people without social protection hold on to their savings and are unlikely to spend. Providing minimum wage and employment insurance will buffer people from financial uncertainties and help drive economic recovery.

ESCAP has placed social protection on the social equity agenda of the region, she says.

In the last several weeks Asia-Pacific has been struck by typhoons, tsunamis and earthquakes across several countries. These varied natural disasters have served eye openers (if indeed that is necessary) to the essential vulnerability of the region.

So however much Asia-Pacific might be seen as the powerhouse of the future, it is also prone to natural disasters that take their toll on human and material resources.

If member-states of the region must coordinate their efforts to play a collective role in influencing the global economy, it also needs to get together and coordinate policies and measures to face one of the biggest challenges of the times-climate change.

At the heart of the Noeleen Heyzer ‘thesis’ for Asia- Pacific is the brick-by-brick creation of regional cooperation that would help address shared concerns such as common prosperity, social progress and ecological sustainability.