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April 18, 2013

Asian Economies Urged to Invest in Social Issues

by Robert Carmichael

The United Nations' development arm for the Asia-Pacific region released its flagship report Thursday and is calling on governments to spend more money on key social issues, rather than concentrating solely on fiscal restraint and inflation.

For the past 30 years, countries have focused their macroeconomic policies on keeping inflation low and their spending within tight limits. But the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) believes this narrow focus on fiscal stability is wrong, particularly when applied to developing countries, because those measures have cut spending in key social areas such as education and health.

In its annual report, UNESCAP, said that approach has damaged development objectives -- and it is calling for a better balance.

Governments should be concerned with the quality of their spending, not just the quantity, and should focus more on health, education and social safety nets such as pensions and disability payments, said the report's authors. Nations must also keep a watchful eye on the damage done to the environment in their pursuit of economic growth, it said.

Nobuko Kajiura, an economic affairs officer with UNESCAP, said the U.N. body’s report arrived at its conclusions by simulating increased spending on its key recommendations in 10 countries, including China, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, to calculate whether a new approach was sustainable. They found that it was.

“So basically we are saying that this is still affordable," Kajiura said. "Another question is: Is it going to destabilize the economy? No. These policies are affordable and doable without causing a destabilization of the economy.”

UNESCAP covers 62 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, from Turkey to Kiribati, Russia to New Zealand and everything in between. Those 62 countries are home to more than four billion people -- two-thirds of the global population.

Thursday’s report notes that the world’s economy remains in a vulnerable position after the 2008 global economic crisis, which it estimates cost this region $870 billion in lost gross domestic product. By 2017, it predicts, that cost will have risen to $1.3 trillion.

The global slowdown reduced growth in the Asia-Pacific region. Last year, it managed 5.6 percent, which is well under the approximately eight percent annual figure seen in the previous decade. The region’s economic growth is expected to reach six percent this year.

UNESCAP said that even during the decade of robust growth, income inequality in many countries worsened, leaving hundreds of millions of people vulnerable. And it worries the lives of the region’s poorest 800 million people, who live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day, might not improve unless governments refocus efforts on inclusive and sustainable development.

It also points out that a further 900 million people in the region live above the poverty line, but still earn less than two dollars a day. It would take very little to push them back into extreme poverty.

There are effective policies that can address the most vulnerable, said Nobuko Kajiura.

“The job guarantee program, universal non-contributory pension, benefits to all persons with disabilities, increasing the share of public health expenditure - five percent of GDP by 2030 - and universal enrollment in primary and secondary education and energy access to all," Kajiura said.

Another recommendation is a well-designed minimum wage policy. According to the report, Thailand put that into effect and, in so doing, will boost the number of jobs and its GDP.

UNESCAP estimates implementing these changes would cost most countries between five and 10 percent of GDP by 2030. Boosting relatively inefficient tax collections would help to finance that cost. But Nobuko Kajiura acknowledged whether countries in the region will carry out the recommended policies is an open question.

“It is up to the countries whether they will actually sort of implement any of the recommendations. But what we are trying to do is flag the kinds of possibilities to show that focusing on more social expenditure, for example, [will] not collapse the economy and that it actually eventually would benefit the country," she said.

In short, the report says focusing on economic growth at the expense of social development and environmental sustainability is outdated. It says all three goals can reinforce each other, with the result that many more people would be better off.