[Opinion] The prospects for reducing poverty and inequality in Asia and the Pacific

Mid-February 2024 the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) released a report on the progress of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in this part of the world. While significant progress has been made on several fronts, much has to be done to increase living standards, provide jobs, rehabilitate the natural environment and reduce socio-economic inequalities. The Covid-19 pandemic led to an increase in poverty. “At its current pace, the report further highlights that the region will not achieve all 17 SDGs before 2062 – marking a significant 32-year delay.” This is a sobering conclusion, particularly for those who believed that the 21st century would undoubtedly become Asia’s century.

Without change and increased efforts to address poverty, inequality, and climate change, it is far from certain whether Asia can indeed turn itself into a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable continent. As the report demonstrates, the indicators economic loss from disasters (indicator 1.5.2), moderate or severe food insecurity in the population (2.1.2), unemployment rate (8.5.2), sustainable fisheries (14.7.1), proportion of land that is degraded (15.3.1), internally displaced persons (16b P1), and several other indicators regressed instead of progressed.

Even for relatively successful countries like China and Malaysia, it remains to be seen if they can achieve high-income status in the coming two decades. Perhaps the most worrying indicator is youth unemployment which is currently approximately 20 percent in China and 10 percent in Malaysia. The lack of sufficient job opportunities in manufacturing and services sectors in urban areas implies that the processes of structural economic transformation and absorption of rural migrants are not silver bullets anymore to increase living standards. This will have profound implications for the current and future youth in Asia and the Pacific. In addition, US efforts to de-risk its economy (reduce supply chain dependence on China) and automation and robotization could further change labour markets in the Global South in significant ways. The advantage of low wages is becoming less relevant when multinational companies require fewer people to produce things.

What will young women and men do without enough work? How can the young generation address social and environmental challenges when they increasingly find it hard to remain part or become part of the middle class? And, what are the prospects for countries that still have a longer way to go to eradicate poverty like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, The Philippines, and Cambodia? Given increasing climate change impacts and regression on various environmental indicators, the UN-ESCAP argues that “integrating robust climate action measures into national policies, strategies and plans is of paramount importance….Simultaneously, urgent remedial actions are warranted to enhance access to decent work and support economic growth.” This is of course easier said than done. A possible avenue is to increase efforts in the spheres of green growth, renewable energy, and rewarding farmers and fishers for activities that rehabilitate the natural environment. One example is to think about strategies how to reduce the dependence on coal while also taking care of the tens of thousands of coal miners. Yet, in several countries coal production is set to rise rather than decline. Another example is to focus more on coastal communities. Many Asian countries have long coastal zones inhabiting millions of people and these areas are prone to flooding and are hit hardest by typhoons; see my blog on this topic.

Another avenue is to for us, here in the Republic of Korea, to think about our own actions and patterns of consumption. From where do we import our food and other products? Do we actually help farmers and fishers when we eat and drink or do we perpetuate existing patterns of inequality and environmental degradation? Who benefits the most when we order a cup of coffee at one of the many cafes on the Seoul National University campus? As the UN-ESCAP states: “Similarly, fostering responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), safeguarding life below water (Goal 14), and life on land (Goal 15) are pivotal for the Asia-Pacific region to accelerate its progress towards the 2030 Agenda.”

Without increasing initiatives at the individual, country, and international levels we need to wait until 2062 before all SDGs are met. Before that, the geography of economic inequalities as well as environmental inequalities could become so disturbing for the most marginalised people that the only way out is outmigration. This is a scenario that would destabilize the social fabric in many Asian and Pacific countries and could fuel anti-immigration sentiments in the richer countries. Let’s not wait until happens, but demand action from our leaders and think about what we as individuals could do.

The author is a professor at Seoul National University’s Department of Geography. –Ed.