Shamshad Akhtar, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

One of the biggest issues coming out of the Asian Development Bank’s 50th annual meeting is how it can position itself to meet the growing, changing demands of growing middle-income Asia.

When the ADB was founded in 1966, there was a dire need for financing among its member countries to elevate their economy. Per capita income in the region was low. Countries such as South Korea were considered poorer than most in sub-Saharan Africa.

That has completely changed over the decades. Today, Asia Pacific is charging ahead, with the majority of Asian countries now falling under the lower middle income and upper middle income categories. South Korea is now considered high-income, and a donor in itself.

Yet there remain huge inequalities in the region, and civil society has been vocal about the dangers in society when countries exert much of their efforts in attaining economic growth alone.

These have introduced questions to institutions in the region, including the ADB, on the role they should be playing in this mixed development landscape.

The ADB is already on the right track when it comes to infrastructure, one of the areas where Shamshad Akhtar, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, thinks MDBs, including the ADB, could assert a bigger role.

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“I think infrastructure has to be an overwhelming priority, but again, how do you promote resilient and climate friendly infrastructure, which is sustainable, going forward is an important one,” Akhtar told Devex during the event.

But there are other areas such as contributing to fixing the global governance architecture, and helping promote sustainable development in countries’ national priorities where the ADB as an MDB can play an important role as well.

“I think MDBs, irrespective of the noise in the West or in various quarters about the discontent with globalization can play a very important role to promote multilateralism by just promoting multilateralism to the policy advice they give,” she said.

It is critical that MDBs also try to support the implementation of the new Sustainable Development Goals, which includes reducing inequality within and among countries, and the promotion of domestic resource mobilization, by integrating it in their country partnership strategies. This may be happening to an extent, but more thematically or sector specific than holistically, Akhtar said.

Given the limited resources available however, MDBs should think through what would be “attractive” for them to focus on, the UNESCAP leadership suggested. Instead of doing everything, MDBs should develop their expertise in certain areas to get better results, although Akhtar is aware it won’t be easy.

“How do you prioritize at the MDB level is a skill of negotiations with the board, and also based on the needs of the countries and the expertise that an institution has,” she said. Most of the time, MDBs are torn between pressures from donors and clients, which may not always be aligned.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.