A Social Protection Agenda for Asia Pacific

Regional Conference on Enhancing Social Protection Strategy in Asia and the Pacific

21 April 2010, Asian Development Bank Headquarters, Manila, Philippines

President Kuroda,

Distinguished participants,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to join all of you at this Regional Conference on Enhancing Social Protection Strategy in Asia and the Pacific.

I would like to congratulate the Asian Development Bank for its initiative in convening this Conference on a topic that is so vital in our efforts to build a stronger social foundation for inclusive and sustainable development.

I have been invited by the organizers to address the subject of “Securing the Millennium Development Goals through stronger social protection.”  With only five years until the 2015 deadline, the road to MDG achievement in the Asia-Pacific region presents a mixed and challenging picture.

The crises that have confronted the region, particularly the economic crisis, have forced many countries to pay more attention to social protection. However, this attention has focused primarily on mitigating the impacts of shocks and assisting in accelerating the recovery of the people most affected by those crises.

Scant attention has been paid, in the current development discourse, to the potential contribution of social protection in reducing vulnerability, and thereby facilitating the path to MDG achievement.

There is certainly evidence to support the view that well-designed and cost-effective social protection is indeed critical for the achievement of the MDGs.  The MDGS are cross-sectoral in nature.  The achievement of goals, such as those related to education, health and gender equality, need to be supported by interventions that transcend sector-specific areas.

We also know that the poor and other marginalized social groups are in need of social protection instruments to enable them to meaningfully access education, health and other services that will pave the way to MDG achievement.

There are lessons from the work of the United Nations and the World Bank that show that:

  • Social funds are effective in empowering the extreme poor and help to build social infrastructure.
  • Social transfers targeted to children and youth help to reduce current as well as intergenerational transmission of poverty.
  • Policies against discrimination ensure that women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities have equal access to employment.
  • Social protection programmes help to get and keep children in schools and clinics.
  • Social protection interventions, including cash transfers into the hands of women, lead to benefits in terms of health and nutrition for the households.
  • Social protection and broader social risk management are effective measures to integrate jobless youth into the labour market at an early stage.
  • Social protection helps vulnerable groups, in particular persons with disabilities, to gain access to education and health care. There are about 400 million persons with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.  The highest rate of disability is among the poor.  Only some 5% of children with disabilities are enrolled in schools.  Therefore, Education for All can not be achieved unless we find the means to provide schooling to these children with disabilities.

I have touched upon only a few of the range of social protection policies and schemes that support the MDGs.   On the basis of these experiences, and as we approach the forthcoming United Nations MDG Summit in September this year, I am pleased to inform you that the Secretary-General’s MDG Action Agenda for 2011-2015 addresses the critical link between social protection and the MDGs.

To support the Secretary-General’s initiatives, ESCAP is working with member States in advocating the crucial role that social protection policies and programmes play in supporting the achievement of the MDGs, and the need for such policy interventions to be highlighted in the regional MDG roadmap leading up to 2015.

We are committed to the following three key policy aims as part of our regional contribution to the Secretary-General’s MDG Action Agenda:

  1. Strengthening and universalizing social protection systems.
  2. Expanding access to essential services such as health, nutrition, education, water and sanitation, especially for vulnerable populations.
  3. Increasing investments in basic social services.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The first part of my statement has covered the subject of MDGs and social protection.  I would like to devote the latter part of my statement to expound on the role of social protection in the longer term development of the Asia-Pacific region.

We are aware that, despite progress in meeting some MDGs, the Asia-Pacific region continues to be plagued by persistent issues of structural poverty, social exclusion and inequality, which not only generate vulnerabilities but also amplify the impact of crises.

ESCAP believes that social protection must expand beyond its current reactive character focused on symptoms, and further tackle the causes of these vulnerabilities.

Social protection can, and should be, a key component of broader socio-economic development policies.  But for this to happen, we must change the way we formulate and implement social protection strategies.

I believe three major changes are required.

First, the goal and structure of social protection programmes and interventions must be transformed. In addition to targeting risks and vulnerabilities associated with crises and upheavals, social protection must also address the structural elements that place those social groups in a situation of vulnerability in the first place.

We must examine poverty, exclusion, and inequality as causes of vulnerability and focus on the barriers that generate such conditions.

What are some examples of these barriers?

  • One – spatial such as remote locations, isolated rural areas, and slums.
  • Two – economic and financial, such as limited access to employment opportunities and productive assets including bank loans and credits.
  • Three – socio-cultural, such as identity-based forms of exclusion – ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and physical ability.
  • And four – legal, such as complicated registration systems for birth certificate and home registration.

ESCAP notes that existing social protection frameworks rarely include social exclusion as a barrier or source of vulnerability. In fact, some of the social protection approaches sponsored by development agencies explicitly separate risks and vulnerabilities from the need for social inclusion.

When we refer to social exclusion, we are talking of a complex set of social, economic and cultural practices by which certain groups of people, such as ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, or people living with HIV/AIDS, are excluded from the benefits of social and economic development.

Major challenges that we must address include: (1) disparities in distribution, consumption and assets; (2) deprivation of capabilities; and (3) inequalities in access and opportunities.

In view of these potentially severe restrictions and disparities in access to services and jobs, social exclusion is closely associated with poverty and increased vulnerabilities. The socially excluded frequently constitute the poorest among the poor, and consequently, the most vulnerable when a crisis emerges.

It is also important to acknowledge that barriers and vulnerabilities should not be seen as static conditions but as dynamic processes.  At the level of the individual, they are the result of changes over the life course of a person further affected by events such as changes in location (rural-urban) and household transformations.

Conditions are dynamic also at the level of communities and nations, namely demographic and economic transformations. Some of the transformations that social protection strategies need to address are: (1) the prevailing urbanization and rural-urban migration; (2) decreasing fertility and ageing population; and (3) the breakdown of informal support structures based on the extended family.

This leads to my second point, namely that these barriers can only be overcome effectively through an integrated approach, which recognizes the diverse and complex linkages between economic and social policies.

We must adopt an approach that builds on the synergies between various social protection schemes, and between social protection and other social and economic policies. To give you an example, conditional cash transfers for children to go to school will not be effective if schools are not properly staffed or the quality of the teaching is poor.

Labour market interventions already feature in many social protection interventions to promote employment and income opportunities. However, an integrated approach needs to also align social protection with economic development policies.

Securing the intended effect of social protection strategies requires careful attention to potential impacts on the economy. For example, redistributive policies need to be designed in such a way that they do not stifle growth by dampening the incentives for investment.

I move to my third point, namely that we need to create an “enabling environment” for social protection.

If we are serious about the long-term development of the Asia-Pacific region, we need to address the complex determinants of social exclusion through structural and institutional transformations that transcend conventional social protection interventions.

Such an environment must include policies leading to legal empowerment and access to justice, protection of rights, and citizenship as means for promoting social inclusion and social cohesion.

For example, according to the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, four billion people worldwide are robbed of the chance to improve their lives and move out of poverty because they are excluded from the rule of law.

However, to support the goals of stronger social protection, legal empowerment has to go beyond the extension of formality into the informal sector. It needs to bring about a change in the relationship of the poor and the excluded with the law.

The rule of law may not mean much to the excluded if they perceive existing laws as being part of the cause of their exclusion. We need to examine our laws to ensure that they are “just” and do not generate “exclusion by design”. Only then will we be in a position to advocate for the rule of law.

Similarly, we need to improve our record in protecting the rights of individuals, particularly the most vulnerable, if social protection is to have a long-term impact in the development of this region.

Many countries in Asia-Pacific are signatories of various human rights instruments as well as international conventions.  Yet, there is still a gap in the harmonization of national laws with the international obligations under these treaties.  While some countries have made progress, by and large, the political will and an ideology of entitlement are still generally lacking.  Economic efficiency and growth often take precedence over the rights of the people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Not only the MDGs, but the social stability and cohesion of our nations depend on our ability to protect and empower the poor and the excluded.

The prevailing inequalities are the result of social, economic, cultural and political structures which place populations at risk, and which are symptomatic of social injustice and social inequity in the Asia-Pacific region.

Stronger social protection has the potential to be a powerful tool for achieving, not only the MDGs, but also for attaining the social justice essential for ensuring sustainable and inclusive development.

It is my hope that you will address these challenges in your forthcoming deliberations on the future direction of social protection in the Asia-Pacific region.

I thank you.