As Asia rebounds from the economic crisis and resumes rapid economic growth, a big question will be whether Asia will lead the world in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the set of eight broad development goals for 2015 to which world leaders signed on in 2000 at the United Nations.
At a meeting held earlier this week in Jakarta, Asian ministers and experts discussed the region’s progress and strategies to accelerate it.
Progress on the MDGs can be described as uneven — some good, some bad and some ugly.
First, the good news: Asia has since 1990 succeeded in reducing poverty by an aggregate of some 500 million people.
The global crisis of 2008-2009 has halted this progress and may even increase the number of poor by some 30 to 40 million people.
As growth is restored, however, poverty reduction will resume, although those that fell back into poverty will need greater support to climb back.
Asia has also made good progress on education, particularly on enrollments, and quite noteworthy is the increase in girl’s enrollments.
Infant mortality has also declined and helps explain the rise in life expectancy in the region.
More than half of Asia’s population now have access to safe drinking water.
Now for the bad. Much less progress has been made on health indicators such as maternal mortality, as well as on sanitation and environmental goals.
In many countries in Asia, well organized health systems, especially in rural areas, do not exist.
Basic sanitation has also not been accorded the highest priority in many parts of Asia.
While the carbon footprint per capita in many parts of Asia remains small because of low incomes, the carbon intensity of development in Asia as a whole remains very high and China is now the largest consumer of energy in the world.
Degradation of land and water systems also has a worrisome trajectory.
Growth has helped reduce poverty, but rising inequality in almost every country in Asia has enhanced social tensions and reduced the potential impact of growth on poverty reduction.
Had inequality remained the same as in 1990, another 300 million people could have climbed out of poverty for the same level of growth. Incomes at the top have grown faster than those at the bottom.
Though reasons behind rising inequality are complex, some broad themes emerge.
First, there has been a relative neglect of the agriculture sector both at the national and international levels.
Second, globalization favors skilled labor against unskilled labor — leading to slower growth of wages among the poor.
In this context, countries that have grown rapidly but have not seen substantial reduction in poverty and hunger rates will need to focus on the inclusiveness of their growth strategy.
This is the ugly side to the Asia story. Almost 600 million people go to bed hungry every day.
The irony is that over this period, Asia has eliminated the scourge of famines and per capita food grain availability has increased, yet hunger still affects millions.
Asia’s social assistance programs and food subsidy systems have not succeeded in reaching hungry people.
The massive rise in food prices in 2006-2008 had a hugely disproportionate effect on the poor, with the bottom quintile seeing a decline in purchasing power by 24 percent versus only a decline of 4 percent in purchasing power for the top quintile, or the richest.
The resources and political will exist in Asia to fix these problems.
As world leaders gather in September at the UN for the MDG Summit, there is much to learn from Asia and much to be gained by renewing the political will to accelerate progress on the MDGs.
As growth resumes in Asia, the smaller resource-rich economies such as Mongolia, Laos and Papua New Guinea are on the verge of a dramatic increase in their resource base to tackle the MDGs.
The attainment of the goals offers a good guidepost to ensure that a resource boom does not become a resource curse, because the MDGs offer a much broader yardstick of development than income alone.
In the rapidly growing export-led economies of Asia, such as Indonesia, reducing inequality by ensuring a much more inclusive development strategy and improving social protection is vital for ensuring that those who get out of poverty stay out of poverty.
Greater regional integration is vital to ensure that the benefits of rapid growth benefit all.
Free trade agreements are stitching together, slowly but gradually, a common market; but pan-Asian infrastructure still lags behind and is vital to ensure that prosperity spreads across Asia.
Above all, the region must begin to systematically address social and cultural inequities to ensure that not only will progress be made to achieve the MDGs by 2015 but that an Asian renaissance will lead to an Asian century.
Ajay Chhibber is UN assistant secretary general, UNDP assistant administrator and director for UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.