In the 7th Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) held virtually last May 20, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), government ministers, civil society organizations (CSOs), and other stakeholders discussed the status of the Agenda 2030 in addressing poverty and inequality, further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are left behind. Panelists reported the obvious – we have a long way to go in achieving the goals set for 2030. Kaveh Zahedi, UNESCAP’s Deputy Executive Secretary, said that there was some progress in poverty reduction (Goal 1) and quality education (Goal 4) and little progress in infrastructure (Goal 9), sustainable cities (Goal 11), life below water (Goal 14), and reducing inequalities (Goal 10). Meanwhile, gains regressed for responsible consumption and production (Goal 12) and climate action (Goal 13).
In this regard, UNESCAP proposed six (6) entry points and four (4) levers to accelerate transformations in the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report. Essentially, to address impediments and remove barriers in achieving sustainable development, systemic and strategic shifts must be made through aligning national sustainable development plans with the entry points. The levers, on the other hand, are the necessary mechanisms which, when deployed coherently, will accelerate action and delivery of Agenda 2030.
CSOs, however, stand with a more critical stance. The Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (APRCEM) said in a statement that sustainable development “will never be realised without recognising the root causes of crises and tackling structural impediments in achieving 2030 Agenda”. Such crises include the neoliberal global trade and investment regime, corporate capture of governance and resources, land and resource grabbing, militarization, and resurgence of authoritarian and patriarchal governance, among others.
The consequences of these long-standing, multi-dimensional crises are further exposed by COVID-19. Current government responses in most Asia-Pacific countries are inadequate to address not only the immediate impacts of the pandemic on public health and the economy, but also on marginalized and vulnerable communities which have been battling through poverty and inequality long before COVID-19 swept the world.
COVID-19: more action, less talk. The APFSD was cognizant that the effects of COVID-19 disrupted any development gains. For instance, governments promptly shifted focus and re-channeled national and aid budgets to prioritize COVID-19 responses, thereby sidelining long-term programs geared toward sustainable development. Stimulus packages (mostly comprised of loans) from international finance institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank and ADB, were made available. But even so, robust fiscal policies coupled with human rights-based, democratic measures to address COVID-19 are not in place.
In the Philippines, the Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG) said in a statement that the ongoing militarist lockdown failed to flatten the curve and instead, resulted in“the biggest and quickest collapse in jobs and incomes in the country’s history”. Moreover, “emergency relief for over 18 million affected poor and low-income households is slow and, for most recipients, the income support is not even half the official poverty line.”
Insufficient support is particularly worse for women. Sai Jyothirmai Racherla, Deputy Executive Director of The Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW), explained how COVID-19 is not gender neutral and that women work longer hours during the pandemic. This is especially true for mothers who need to balance making a living with caring for their families. Thus, to usher an equitable future for women, ARROW asserts that feminist care economies, social security, and accessible education, among others, must be urgently provided for.
The Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific (RoA-AP) also heeds the demands of CSOs in calling for sustained and increased social and economic relief for the poorest and hardest hit, including migrants, refugees, informal workers, and those living in conflict-affected, fragile states. Moreover, mass testing should be done rapidly and aid must be utilized to augment medical supplies and equipment.
Amid lockdowns, a number of AP governments reportedly take advantage of the pandemic not only through militarist measures but also through crackdowns on grassroots organizations and activists, curtailment of press freedom, approval of mining operations in indigenous communities, and other human rights violations.
“Build back better”. This seems to be the resounding call of most APFSD participants as means to facilitate the post-COVID-19 era. Apart from strengthening disaster resilience, risk analysis, and early warning systems, UNESCAP recommends to take advantage of technology toward green initiatives as well as to optimize resources and open up fiscal spaces.
Stress was given on capitalizing technology to build data infrastructure and address data gaps, move toward renewable energies for clean and green cities, and utilize digital tools for sustainable development. Ministers recognized that central to these recommendations is the role of democratic governance and policy-making together with an efficient and effective multilateral architecture and regional cooperation.
Largely missing, however, is the analysis that governments across the region operate within a neoliberal economic framework, which facilitates “better business climates” and promotes public-private partnerships (PPPs). Not only does corporate capture of development worsens poverty and inequality, thus impeding the region’s sustainability and resilience, but it also risks sidelining the historical and crucial role of official development assistance (ODA) in reducing poverty and inequality.
While the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) reported an increase of ODA in 2019, ODA levels are still insufficient to reduce poverty and inequality in developing nations. Leveraging ODA for IFIs and relying on PPPs to drive development have been proven to be unsustainable. RoA-AP published a synthesis report documenting how 15 development projects across the region, backed by IFI funding, resulted in human rights violations, militarized rural communities, environmental degradation, and undemocratic practices.
Accelerating action toward sustainable development should not mean “business as usual”. Financing and programming for development should be based on development effectiveness principles and human rights standards. Regional cooperation must give emphasis on inclusive and democratic partnerships, with special focus on CSOs and their important work as development actors and representatives of the marginalized and vulnerable.
However, CSOs were hardly heard during the forum as most intervention slots were given to government ministers. In a regional, multi-stakeholder space like the APFSD, ample time and recognition should have been given to CSOs whose already limited space is continuously shrinking and in a number of countries, even criminalized.
Discussions from the APFSD will feed into the global High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) set in July 2020. But until the United Nations and Asia-Pacific governments commit to address the root causes of poverty and inequality according to a human rights-based, people-powered sustainable development framework, UN recommendations, government actions, and development programs by multilateral organizations on achieving Agenda 2030 will only continue to serve corporate interests, which do not reflect genuine and sustainable development for the marginalized and vulnerable.
Human well-being and capabilities, Sustainable and just economies, Food systems and nutrition patterns, Energy decarbonization with universal access, Urban and peri-urban development, and Global environmental commons
Governance, Economy and finance, Individual and collective action, and Science and technology