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Delivered by Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

30 March 2021

ESCAP

Opening Remarks

Dear Professor Jeffrey Sachs,

Participants, Ladies and gentlemen,

It has been a truly challenging year for policy makers in the Asia-Pacific region. The COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented social-economic disruptions to all, reversing hard-earned development gains by years, if not decades.

We estimate that 89 million more people in the region have been pushed back by the pandemic into extreme income poverty.

I am pleased to note that the member States in Asia and the Pacific have taken bold and solutions-oriented policy measures to minimize the pandemic’s social and economic damage, including unprecedented fiscal and monetary support.

Last year, developing countries in the region announced some $1.8 trillion, or nearly 7 per cent of their combined GDP, in COVID-19 related budgetary support.

However, the scale of such policy measures remains limited compared to the challenge in front of us.

Our analysis shows that progress towards recovery has been highly uneven to date.

Fully healing the deep scars of the COVID-19 pandemic on human well-being and sustainable development is likely to be a time-consuming process.

If history is any guide to navigating current and future challenges, Survey 2021 finds that adverse shocks such as the Asian financial crisis, Indian Ocean tsunami and SARS resulted in permanent economic, social and environmental losses.

But the region’s own experience with crises also illustrates the important role of policies in mitigating those shocks and facilitating recovery.

The Survey asks an important policy question:

How can the Asia-Pacific region recover better together? In other words, how can post-pandemic development be more resilient, inclusive and sustainable?  

The Survey proposes an illustrative policy package that aims to provide access to social services by all, close the digital divide, and strengthen climate actions.

This means that when the next shocks strike, all people would have access to healthcare services, the poor and vulnerable population groups promptly receive financial aid, and all workers and students including in remote areas have stable access to the Internet.

From the environmental perspective, this policy package entails spending to promote energy access and efficiency, climate-resilient infrastructure and biodiversity.

Our estimates show that such a package could help reduce the number of poor people in the region by almost 180 million and cut carbon emissions by about 30 per cent in the long run.

Ambitious and targeted policy measures are needed to ensure that recovery is robust and inclusive, and that a more resilient and sustainable future emerges from this crisis.

However, public debt sustainability in some developing Asia-Pacific countries could be at risk while delivering such a package.

For example, emerging economies such as China, India and the Russian Federation are major creditors for least developed countries in the region.

The success of debt relief effort, such as debt service suspensions and debt swaps, depends crucially on goodwill and cooperation within this region.

At the global level, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has underlined the need to reform the international debt architecture.

At the regional level, there are also other areas that emerging Asia-Pacific economies can do to help the countries with special needs, including the least developed countries.

For instance, Lao PDR has raised over $2 billion from issuing public bonds in Thailand.  Other small economies could explore this option.

Similarly, India and the Russian Federation are hosting many migrant workers from the region.

Governments in origin economies can consider issuing diaspora bonds in these destination economies.  

More broadly, assets held by pension funds and sovereign wealth funds in emerging Asia-Pacific economies are huge, but their investments barely contribute to sustainable development in the countries with special needs.

Relaxing investment rules that govern these funds can be an important step forward.

In this regard, I call on Governments to show a spirit of multilateralism.

To conclude, COVID-19 has been a pandemic like no other.

Yet, it offers a unique opportunity for Governments and other stakeholders to chart a new path to rebuilding.

Whilst being forced to adjust, the Asia-Pacific region has seen fundamental transformations in lives and livelihoods.

It is high time that the region takes its lessons from this pandemic and commits to a foundation that ensures an enhanced ability to withstand future pandemic-induced crisis to the system without its people, and the planet, having to again pay a high price.

The 2021 Economic and Social Survey is a timely publication that takes us through the immediate socio-economic challenges, historical lessons and future options for building towards post-COVID-19 resilient economies in the Asia-Pacific region.

I hope you will find it to be a valuable contribution to our knowledge on this subject.

Thank you.

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