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Delivered by Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

20 October 2020

Excellencies, distinguished delegates,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and to the sixth session of the Committee on Social Development.

This Committee comes at a critical time when our region faces unprecedented social development challenges due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past eight months, member States have witnessed reversing hard-won development gains with significant implications on patterns of widening inequality and rising poverty in Asia and the Pacific. Shifting population dynamics are also impacting the way our families, societies and economies are shaped.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to highlight some key findings of our analysis for social protection in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social protection coverage in the Asia-Pacific region is low. ESCAP research shows that, across the region, excluding health, many countries in the region spend less than 2 per cent of GDP on social protection. This low level of investment stands in contrast to the global average of almost 11 per cent.

Over half the population in the region still lacks access to even one social protection scheme, and only a minority enjoy comprehensive protection. Only a handful of countries have comprehensive social protection systems in our region.

Maternity, unemployment, sickness and disability benefits are the preserve of a minority of workers in the formal economy, leaving 70% of workers locked out of contributory schemes. Lower labour force participation among women accentuates gaps in social protection coverage.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

There are three key reasons for the lack of access to social protection scheme in our region.

First is informality. Two thirds of the labour force in Asia and the Pacific are informal workers. We need to connect the two agendas: expansion of social protection and tackling of informality, to be able to fill the vast gaps.

Second is inefficiency. Delivering social protection to vulnerable populations is a challenge. A robust civil registration system is needed to correctly include people and families in social protection administration systems. We need advocate for universal schemes.

Third is lack of political commitment. Strengthening institutional architecture and sustainable financing modalities are not enough in the region. There is a need to convince policymakers to urgently focus on social protection for all.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

ESCAP, together with ILO, has recently launched the first regional report on social protection, “The Protection We Want: Social Outlook for Asia and the Pacific”. The report builds a strong case on the urgent need for comprehensive and inclusive social protection.

Our analysis shows that the proportion of households living in poverty would fall by up to 18 percentage points if governments were to offer social protection to their populations.

During this unfolding health and economic crisis due to COVID-19 pandemic, evidence shows that well-managed social protection systems have been far better equipped to respond to the unexpected. They are more effective in shielding the most vulnerable population groups and stabilizing our economies and societies.

By establishing basic non-contributory schemes for children, older persons and persons with disabilities, government would need between 2 and 6 per cent of GDP. It is a significant financing requirement, but still fiscally affordable with large socio-economic benefits.

Therefore, to counter the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, many member States have strengthened existing social protection schemes and sometimes introduced new, ad hoc measures. In times of socio-economic crisis, social protection is our society’s primary line of defence.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

The region faces overlapping global trends that risk compounding social development challenges.

Rapid population ageing is placing unprecedented challenges both on societies, older persons and those working.

Technological innovation is also reshaping labour markets and creating a set of opportunities and challenges.

Natural disasters are aggravated by climate change and becoming more frequent and more destructive.

Yet, with the right policy interventions, we can mitigate and transform these challenges into strengths and opportunities.

These trends are a reminder that we need to integrate population dynamics, sexual and reproductive health, and gender equality into all development strategies. We also need to invest in comprehensive social protection systems and to monitor our progress in achieving relevant targets of the 2030 Agenda to ensure an inclusive, resilient, and prosperous Asia-Pacific.

With this background, allow me to highlight two important issues for your further guidance.

First, the endorsement of the Action Plan to Strengthen Regional Cooperation on Social Protection in Asia and the Pacific. This has been done as per the request made at the fifth Committee on Social Development.

Second, the endorsement of the Asia-Pacific Indicator Framework. This draws upon the 2018 Midterm Review of the Asian and Pacific Ministerial Declaration on Population and Development. ESCAP, in collaboration with UNFPA, has developed this indicator framework to monitor progress in implementing commitments made by member States on population and development, within the context of the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

I hope that through your active participation and deliberations, the Committee will identify ways to operationalize these two documents and how ESCAP can best support member States on these endeavours.

In emphasizing the importance of regional solidarity and partnership, I take this opportunity to thank our partners, ILO and UNFPA as well as our civil society organizations and other stakeholders for their excellent collaboration.

I deeply appreciate your continued trust and commitment in our partnership and engagement.

Thank you for your attention. I wish you a very successful Committee session.

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