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UN Calls for Investment in Protections for Asia’s Poorest

Informal settlers play while bathing on a tub in San Juan, Manila. The Philippines is expected to sustain post-crisis economic growth, but this will be without development which may increase poverty, according to a new study from the United Nations, May 2

Economists and Asian leaders say basic social protections are key to sheltering Asia’s poorest from financial and environmental shocks that put millions at risk. Officials say increased spending on social programs can be affordable and effective in helping Asia’s poorest lift themselves out of poverty.

United Nations economists say that government-funded social protections such as universal education, basic health care and job programs provide a critical safety net for the millions of impoverished Asians who are most vulnerable to rising food prices and environmental calamities.

The United Nations Economic and Social commission for Asia and the Pacific says that such guarantees give the poor the opportunity to take the risks needed to improve their lives.

UNESCAP officials say the growing trend to urbanization across the region requires a new commitment by governments to institute social protections.

Economists and government officials from Asia are gathered in Bangkok for UNESCAP’s annual meeting.

Monday, at the start of the conference, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Thinley told delegates that crises in recent years showed that growing concerns social progress should not be based just on narrow competition and economic growth.

Thinley says a “calamitous” decade of crises ranging from ecological and climate change, a financial and economic crisis of 2008, as well as crop failures, health crises, and rising social conflicts all pointed to the need for reform.

“All these crises tell us that there is something grievously wrong in the way human society conducts itself. They warn us that our way of life as dictated by market forces that are guided not so much by sense and sensibility as are insatiable greed - is not sustainable, responsible or just. Unless we mend our ways things are just going to get worse,” said Thinley.

Asia’s economic export growth model over the past 30 years has succeeded in lifting millions out of poverty, with gains in China a major contributor to reducing poverty levels across the region. But analysts say the growth has come at social and welfare costs, especially through pollution, the loss of forestry habitat and a widening of income disparities.

Thinley says intense business competition high rates of consumption resulting in the depletion of natural resources posed a threat to democratic systems of government. "How can democratic systems serve at the community, national and global levels when inequality becomes a reality and when limited resources including water will be in the hands of the strong and the powerful, whose narrative will be one of rivalry and escalating conflicts? But the more I think of our future, the more I’m convinced that we need to change,” he said.

Thinley blamed the standard measure for economic growth - gross national product - as being used as a “singular indictor” for social progress.

He said societies need to adopt a broader measure of economic progress, marked by Bhutan’s measure gross national happiness. The GNH measure also takes into account the GDP measure but also looks at governance standards, culture and the environment.