To weather shocks in Asia-Pacific, strengthen these 4 resilience capacities, says UNDP region chief

Haoliang Xu, UNDP regional director for Asia and the Pacific. Photo by: Paulo Filgueiras / U.N.

BANGKOK — Bangladesh is currently celebrating its entrance into a stipulation period to graduate from “least developed country,” a designation reserved for nations highly vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks. Bangladesh, the largest LDC with a population of more than 160 million people, aims to reach developing country status by 2024.

Along the way, the government will continue to grapple with the effects of climate change and rapid urbanization, and seek to improve skills development programs to cash in on their demographic dividend. Bangladesh is far from the only country in the region trying to balance growth with economic and environmental obstacles — monsoon floods in South Asia, ongoing economic urbanization in Mongolia, and Japan’s rapidly ageing population are just a few examples.

Guarding against these shocks while moving toward sustainable development will require in-country commitment to resilience, but there is also room for capacity building boosts from the international community, Haoliang Xu, United Nations assistant secretary-general and regional director for Asia and the Pacific at the U.N. Development Programme, told Devex at the Fifth Asia-Pacific Sustainable Development Forum.

There are five mega-trends, according to Xu, that characterize the challenge to sustainable development in the region: The shifting of economic power toward Asia, considering the region accounts for 40 percent of the global gross domestic product; the impact of climate change; an increase in inequality; the impact of technology and the Fourth Industrial Revolution; and rapidly ageing societies.  

A report, launched on Wednesday in Bangkok, encourages strengthening resilience against these shocks by considering interconnecting anticipatory, absorptive, adaptive, and transformative capacities.

“I think many countries have combinations of this … they are not exclusive of each other and not necessarily sequential,” Xu said of the actions that describe reducing the impact of shock through planning, coping, and responding to long-term risks, and taking deliberate steps to change the systems that create them.

Xu pointed to a 1999 cyclone in India’s Odisha state that took more than 10,000 lives: “A couple years ago a similar event killed 42 people,” he said. “That is because the systematic changes the state government has introduced, including early warning, evacuation, and early awareness. You could say it’s adaptive because it adapts to change, but it’s also transformative because it really transforms the system to deal with these shocks.”

Bangladesh will need to invest in its research and development and institutional capacity in the years to come to avoid the middle-income trap, according to Xu. But the flood-prone country also already proves an example of transformation, having introduced mobile phone technology to reach 100 million people with an early warning system to facilitate evacuation ahead of a disaster. The system can also alert millions of people to floods two days in advance, providing enough time for those at risk to relocate and bring their assets with them.

“That is what India did and what Philippines did as well,” Xu said. “Now Bangladesh is adopting it, but using a technology approach to aid that process.”

Still, a comprehensive resilience approach is very often stilted by lack of resources, considering developing countries are prioritizing multiple needs, and often strapped by a low tax-to-GDP ratio that limits available resources.

“As the international community, we should work together to assist these countries with traditional overseas development assistance to LDCs or graduating countries, but also work together to leverage global funds that can be used to help them,” Xu said.

In Bhutan, also in the process of graduating from LDC status, UNDP worked with the government to access the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility Trust Fund, a mechanism for addressing issues like biological diversity, climate change, and land degradation. In the case of Bhutan, the assistance aided in addressing glacial lake outburst floods, when small bodies of water at high altitude accumulate excess water due to melting glaciers until the banks break and wreak havoc downstream.

“This is a good example of working in partnership to leverage international funding to assist LDCs to deal with these major risks,” Xu said. “I think we really have to recognize that what we can do alone is extremely limited but what we can do together with an innovative mindset, that can be significant.”

About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.