Vitas Tenement, a government housing building, stands with a new residential condominium building seen in the background, in Tondo, Manila. Photo by: REUTERS / Erik De Castro

More than 70 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.” Asia and the Pacific have changed dramatically since, but despite the impressive progress in reducing extreme poverty in our region, disparities prevail.

Gandhi’s words evoke the pledge to leave no one behind that underpins the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. This pledge is particularly resonant as our region grapples with the challenge of ensuring inclusion, promoting empowerment, and achieving equality. A joint report from our three organizations launched at the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development focuses on this theme, and the changes necessary to put the poorest and most vulnerable first.  

Income inequality has increased in many countries, particularly in some of Asia’s populous and fast-growing economies. Our 400 million people living in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per day, but also the fastest growing number of ultra-wealthy individuals. Fundamental rights and access to justice are being denied. The ability to have one’s views heard, to shape policy, and to access essential services differs widely. And existing social norms inhibit the immense potential of women and girls to drive sustainable development.

Development gains

A joint report launched at the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development is helping us translate aspirations for equality into concrete policy actions. Consider the following.

Asia and the Pacific region is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Communities living in poverty and disadvantaged groups are disproportionately affected by its impacts on livelihoods, agriculture, infrastructure, and natural resources. In the most disaster-prone region in the world, the intensity of disasters is growing.

In response, we must ensure that rights, norms, and institutions are central to the design of climate actions — making them more effective and speeding up their delivery. For example, strengthening infrastructure governance and attention to the rights of communities affected by projects is known to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy technologies.

Civil society plays a critical role in shaping policies and services that respond to the needs of the most vulnerable — and many governments are renewing their commitments to open data, accountability, and transparency that enable civic engagement. The Open Government Partnership is a promising model. It enables governments and civil society from participating countries to agree on national action plans that specifically include civic participation in decision-making.

A major barrier to women’s empowerment in our region is widespread gender-based violence. For too many women, everyday life is not safe. In addition to causing grievous physical and mental harm, this has severe economic consequences. Ensuring that a response to this social challenge is built into women’s livelihood programs can make a major difference. This has been achieved in programs in Bangladesh, where women’s livelihood training has been designed to highlight women’s financial contributions to households, reinforce their financial independence, and raise awareness of the negative consequences of gender-based violence.

Lastly, we must rise to the enduring challenge of financing sustainable development in a way that reinforces inclusion, empowerment, and equality. Fiscal policy and taxation systems need to be reformed. Developing countries in the region have some of the lowest tax revenues in the world

More effective taxation systems would increase the tax take, and better governance would increase people’s willingness to contribute. Public expenditure could then be made more progressive, the proceeds of growth shared more widely, and inequalities reduced. Countries are beginning to modernize their tax administration systems to make them more efficient and transparent. This must remain a priority.

Picking up the pace

These are just a few examples of initiatives across Asia and the Pacific. Additional and accelerated efforts are needed by all to strengthen climate action, gender equality, civic engagement, and domestic resource mobilization to eradicate poverty once and for all.

Equal and inclusive societies are better placed to bring the world to the life-changing “zeros” set out in the SDGs, including zero poverty, hunger, preventable child deaths, AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, discrimination against women and girls, and human trafficking.

Now is the time to act.

About the authors

  • Armida alisjahbana devex

    Armida Alisjahbana

    Armida S. Alisjahbana has served as the Indonesian minister of national development planning since 2009. Before heading the agency known as BAPPENAS, Armida was an economics professor and vice dean for academic affairs at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, Indonesia. Alisjahbana has worked as a researcher and consultant with the United Nations, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and European Commission, among other groups.
  • Susantono

    Bambang Susantono

    As vice-president for knowledge management and sustainable development at the Asian Development Bank since 2015, Bambang Susantono provides strategic leadership to ADB's knowledge and research agenda. Prior to this, he was the acting minister and vice-minister of transportation, and deputy minister for infrastructure and regional development at the Office of Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs in Indonesia.
  • Haoliang%2520xu%2520director%2520of%2520undp%2520in%2520asia%2520and%2520the%2520pacific

    Haoliang Xu

    Appointed by the U.N. Secretary-General in 2013, Haoliang Xu leads UNDP’s work in Asia and the Pacific. Previously, Haoliang was deputy director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Prior to this, he held senior U.N. and UNDP positions in Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Timor-Leste, Iran and in New York. Haoliang’s expertise has been featured in the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, Channel News Asia, CNBC and others. He has delivered policy speeches at Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and other universities.