Last March 23 to 26, the 8th Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) was held virtually by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The forum serves to bring together representatives from multilateral institutions, national governments and the civil society to discuss the region’s progress and perspectives on sustainable development and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s APFSD focused on the theme “Sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in Asia and the Pacific”.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was a global phenomenon, its effects have far-reaching consequences for developing countries and for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. The pandemic reversed years of efforts and progress towards sustainable development, with the region off-track in achieving the SDGs by 2030. According to the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report for 2021 published by UNESCAP, the region has seen the most progress for good health and well-being (Goal 3) and industry, innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9). Considerable progress was seen in eradicating poverty (Goal 1), achieving zero hunger (Goal 2), providing quality education (Goal 4), reducing inequalities (Goal 10) and promoting partnerships for the goals (Goal 17). However, the region has regressed in addressing climate action (Goal 13) and life below water (Goal 14).
A dictated regional response to the pandemic. In advocating for a sustainable and resilient recovery from the pandemic, the UNESCAP, along with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched the report Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leaving No Country Behind during the APFSD. The report, along with policy recommendations from the APFSD, heavily focused on digitalisation and multilateralism as a catch-all solution for mitigating economic, social and environmental impacts. These solutions largely overlook systemic inequalities that are the root cause of these issues. While the report recognized that recovery from the pandemic is asymmetric, the solutions they have proposed can further contribute to the ‘K-shaped recovery’  of the region. With these solutions in place, recovery in the region is hardly sustainable and resilient.
Digitalisation as a solution leaves people behind. Lockdowns and social distancing measures brought about by the pandemic has led to the increasingly important role of digitalisation to provide various services and goods. While digitalisation can provide alternatives, it leaves no option for people who lack access to the technology and connection required from it. In this regard, digital divide serves as a catalyst that exacerbates inequalities in the region.
Countries that do not have the technological capabilities to digitalise their services and economy are welcoming multinational corporations to handle this process on their behalf. Even worse, data corporations are being encouraged to increase their projects in the region. This has given corporations control over massive amounts of data and information, putting the privacy of the people at risk.
Data should be used for the public good, to address specific issues and challenges by a certain sector of society. While there are gaps in the collection, monitoring and analysis of data by national governments, this should not be left in the hands of multinational corporations. National governments’ attempts in data collection and monitoring will be further improved by partnering with civil society. Olga Djanaeva of Public Association Women’s Organization (ALGA) asserts, “citizen-led data collection and reporting should be recognized and encouraged, to enable a transparent review of programs’ gaps and challenges.”
Furthermore, the increase in data collection and monitoring should not contribute to an increase in surveillance, which contributes to the curtailment of rights and to the shrinking of civic spaces in the region. Human rights violations have been abound in the region during the pandemic, with governments utilizing digital spaces to squash dissent. These violations are targeted towards human rights activists, environmental defenders and the civil society.
Digitalisation for economic recovery remains beneficial to corporations that are focused on maximizing profit, in the expense of a country’s resources and people. Trade digitalisation affords numerous opportunities for multinational corporations, but minimal to micro, small and medium enterprises. Furthermore, trade digitalisation involves rapid production of technology, which requires an abundance of raw materials, leading to the exploitation of resources from communities that are already vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The increase in trade digitalisation has led to the corporate capture of resources, contributing to the worsening climate crisis.
Exclusive regional cooperation. Another solution put forth by the report was the strengthening of regional cooperation. Multilateralism and partnerships remain important to the achievement of the sustainable development goals, but some partners have not been holding up their end of the deal. Donors have not been meeting the 0.7% of GNI target, while there were constant financial flows from developing countries to these countries. Developing countries are also subjected to debt distress, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating their situation.
Commitments by donors to help achieve SDGs by 2030 are not being met, with the developing countries suffering the most. In order to accelerate progress on the SDGs, public-private partnerships are being pursued by donors, national governments, international finance institutions and multilateral institutions to finance development projects. In implementing these projects, however, CSO evidence suggests that the private sector has a track record of exploiting the resources and labor of developing countries for their own profit. Communities are rarely consulted on these projects, which are also reversing their own attempts to contribute to sustainable development. Corporate capture of development does not prioritize the welfare of the people, but rather the profit-making activities of corporations.
To further the interests of these multinational corporations, North-South trade agreements have been made, like the Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Regional cooperation in the form of trade agreements have also led to the loss of jobs and damage to the environment. Wanun Permpibul of Climate Watch Thailand asserts that recovery entails the “delivery of a just and equitable transition away from a consumption-based, exploitative and extractive economy.”
Furthermore, the solution of regional cooperation has disregarded the role of civil society in development. While CSOs were able to attend and given spaces to voice out their concerns, the APFSD hardly integrated these into the policy recommendations and reports. The forum continued to talk about inclusive multilateralism for development, but it heavily ignored the civil society and their efforts.
Inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery for Asia-Pacific. This year’s APFSD is a repeat of last year’s forum, with the region facing the same challenges, with these institutions proposing the same solutions and seeing no development. Digitalisation and regional cooperation have proven to be insufficient solutions to the growing inequalities and worsening conditions of the people in the region.
In ensuring a sustainable and resilient recovery for all, the 2030 Agenda must “focus on analysing the root causes and tackling the systemic barriers to achieve sustainable development,” according to Tsai Hwang of the Thinking Classroom Foundation. Until multilateral institutions recognize and address these inequalities through a rights-based, people-centered approach, the ‘K-shaped recovery’ of the region will prevail and people will continue to be left behind.
In this regard, the Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific forwards these recommendations to ensure a rights-based, people-centered recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying impacts in the region:
- Achieve the 0.7% of GNI for ODA.
- Address the needs of the least developed, low income, fragile and conflict-affected countries – DAC donors’ 0.2% of GNI must be allocated for LDCs.
- Establish a rights-based framework – development programs must be designed and measured against development effectiveness principles and human rights standards.
- Mainstream gender equality and women’s empowerment.
- Address other identity-based inequalities.
- Reverse the shrinking and closing space for CSOs as development actors.
- Implement clear policies for ODA to improve its quality as a development resource.
- Deploy ODA to support private sector initiatives that can be directly related to building the capacities of development countries’ private sector, whose actions should demonstrably improve the situations of people living in poverty.
- Reject militarization and securitization of aid.
- Respond to the acute growing challenges from climate change.
 ‘K-shaped recovery’ is used to describe unequal development, wherein some groups or countries recover much faster than others. For the economy, a ‘K-shaped recovery’ entails that some parts of the economy may recover extremely well, while others contract dramatically. (definition from Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leaving No Country Behind)