Helen Clark: Speech at Opening of UNDP Regional Bureau for Asia-Pacific Meeting on UNDP’s role in supporting implementation of the new global agendas in the Asia-Pacific

Oct 18, 2015

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
9.15am, Sunday,

It is my pleasure to welcome you all to the Regional Management Meeting of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia-Pacific (RBAP).

Let me begin by expressing my deep appreciation to the Government of Malaysia for hosting this meeting. UNDP and its predecessor organisations have enjoyed a strong partnership with Malaysia since the early days of its independence. We began working with the government to improve public services and lift living standards through training and building capacities. Malaysia has moved a long way from its birth in 1957 to the upper middle income status it enjoys today.

Malaysia is one of many well-recognised development success stories in the Asia-Pacific region. The emerging economies of this region have become major engines of global growth. China’s economy is now the largest economy in the world in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), accounting for more than sixteen per cent of the world’s total GDP. In PPP terms, India has also become the third largest economy.

A key challenge always is to translate growth into poverty reduction. On this score, the Asia-Pacific has come a long way:

•    Between 1990 and 2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty in the region has dropped from more than 1.5 billion to an estimated 314 million this year, according to the latest World Bank figures.

•    Just fifteen years ago, fifteen out of 36 developing countries in the Asia-Pacific were low income countries. Today only four are in that category. The movement of close to 700 million people out of poverty in China in the last thirty-plus years has been a tremendous achievement, and one in which there is great international interest. Other countries are also close to eradicating extreme poverty, such as Sri Lanka and Vietnam. A number, like Thailand, are providing universal health coverage.

•    The region has made great strides on education. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of pupils not enrolled in primary school fell from 74 million to 21 million. It is now vital that these unenrolled children are reached by the education system. Many have been successful in achieving gender parity in education including Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, and Bhutan at primary and secondary levels, and Malaysia has reached gender parity right through to the tertiary level.  

Nevertheless, a number of important development challenges persist. Human Development Index values in most countries in the Asia-Pacific were still below the global average in 2013, underscoring that while the region may have achieved an 'economic miracle', it has yet to achieve fully a 'human development miracle'. 

•    While many countries in the Asia-Pacific made tremendous progress on the MDGs, significant inequalities persist, and in some places have grown wider. People living in rural and remote areas and members of many minority groups continue to be left behind. Women still have less access than do men to paid employment and political representation.

•    A majority of the countries in the Asia-Pacific have growing youth populations. They present the potential for a big demographic dividend – but only if there is investment in youth to harness that potential. The converse is also true – alienated and angry youth cannot make the positive contribution societies need. 

•    Populations in some countries, like China and Thailand, however, are rapidly aging. This brings a new set of challenges in establishing adequate pension and elder care cover, and lifting productivity from a proportionately smaller working age population.

•    Environmental degradation, including damage to the climate ecosystem, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and air, water and soil pollution are all big challenges in the region.  Climate change alone is a present and growing threat, posing high costs of adaptation for the most vulnerable countries. The cost of adverse weather-related events is spiralling.

Indeed the Asia-Pacific is the region most prone to natural disasters in the world. Almost every country here has been affected by a disaster in recent years, including Malaysia which experienced its worst floods in decades at the end of last year. Tropical Cyclone Pam ripped through the Pacific in March, claiming lives and causing serious damage particularly in Vanuatu, but also inflicting damage on Tuvalu. Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 was ranked as one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded anywhere.

The good news is that the major development-related agendas being launched this year are all highly relevant to the challenges which the countries of the Asia-Pacific face - and to the work of UNDP.

•    The Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan in March has updated the Hyogo Framework of 2005. While Hyogo guided major improvements in early warning systems and disaster response, there is a long way to go in many countries on effective risk management. UNDP went to Sendai with a simple message: If development isn’t risk informed, it isn’t sustainable development. In our new 5:10:50 programme – five themes, ten years, fifty countries – our emphasis will be on supporting risk-informed development.

•    The Third International Conference on Financing for Development hosted by Ethiopia in July produced a new and realistic framework on financing for development – the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. It reminds us that most resourcing for development is mobilised by countries themselves – through growing economies and the collection of tax revenue, and through the attraction of loans and investment. Growing the capacities for mobilising those resources is also a UNDP function – our emphasis on inclusive growth which broadens the base of and participation in economies, and our work on capable, effective, and transparent institutions, the rule of law, and conducive policy environments are highly relevant to getting adequate financing for development.

•    On climate change, COP21 will be held in Paris at the end of the year, and a new global agreement is due to be reached. UNDP has played a significant role in supporting countries to prepare their climate action commitments for the conference, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), as we have in many other processes related to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, over many years, and through practical support for adaptation and mitigation. Supporting climate action can be expected to be a growing part of our work for the foreseeable future.

The overarching development framework though is expressed in Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals – these add up to a bold, ambitious, and transformational agenda. The agenda is universal, and it is about ends and means. Its human development goals are complemented by goals promoting inclusive growth, creating decent jobs, investing in essential infrastructure, including energy and information communication technologies (ICTs), and promoting that fundamental precondition for sustainable development - peaceful and inclusive societies. Agenda 2030 is clear: “there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development”.

For an upper middle-income country like Malaysia, many of the MDG targets represented no serious challenge. But the new agenda requires every country on earth to lift its game. Environmental degradation is affecting the prospects of people everywhere. Growing inequalities are straining social cohesion in many countries. Lack of inclusive, effective and accountable institutions in others is creating tensions and conflicts. All these challenges are covered in Agenda 2030 and its goals. Tackling these challenges is central to the mandate of UNDP.

Indeed, our current strategic plan makes us very relevant to a great many of the Sustainable Development Goals and targets. We will place particular focus on Goal 1 on poverty eradication, Goal 10 on reducing inequality, and Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, but our mandate will also enable us to contribute to progress in a number of other areas.

Sustainable development requires governments to take a “whole of government” approach to decision-making across the economic, social, and environmental spheres. Similarly, the UN Development Group must take a whole-of-system approach to supporting countries with SDG implementation.

The approach adopted by UNDG is called ‘MAPS’, which stands for mainstreaming, acceleration, and policy support.

Mainstreaming refers to the support we can give governments as they incorporate the agenda in their national and local strategies, plans, and budgets, and strengthen their data systems.

On acceleration, we can help identify the obstacles and bottlenecks in the way of making progress on goals and targets, and to identify actions which could speed up progress on multiple targets at the same time. In this, we will draw on many successful examples from the use of a specific MDG acceleration tool in more than fifty countries in recent years.

On policy support, we can provide co-ordinated and demand-driven advice and technical assistance across many Goals, drawing on the great depth and breadth of knowledge and programme experience gained across the UN over many decades.

Across the three components of MAPS, we will seek to build and facilitate partnerships, improve data, and deepen accountability.

•    UNDP will also support national SDG reporting, as it did for the MDGs. Together with our partners in the UN development system, we are currently preparing guidelines for national SDG reports.

•    We will support global and local advocacy around the SDGs, and promote broad engagement in implementation and in monitoring progress. The UN Millennium Campaign will evolve into a dynamic new campaign, and support promotion of the SDGs at country level and globally.

While Official Development Assistance will continue to be important for low income countries in this region and elsewhere, the expectation is that it will form only a tiny part of the overall financing for the SDGs and national development goals.

In 2013, ODA stood at nearly $28 billion in Asia-Pacific. In comparison, remittance inflows are projected to reach $245 billion this year. According to UNCTAD, developing countries in Asia saw FDI inflows grow to historically high levels, reaching nearly half a trillion dollars in 2014, further consolidating the region’s position as the largest recipient in the world. New lending possibilities will open up through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China is also leading emerging economies with major commitments to SDG achievement, as announced by President Xi Jinping in New York last month.


UNDP’s Strategic Plan for 2014-2017 and the structural transformation we have been undergoing is designed to help us to be the very best we possibly can be in supporting programme countries to achieve national and global development goals.

These are not easy times for many development agencies. A number of traditional funders are cutting their development assistance budgets, and more and more of those budgets are being diverted to meet the humanitarian needs of catastrophic and protracted emergencies. It is hard to recall a time when so many crises were creating needs on such a scale.

But the need for UNDP’s work is as great as ever – arguably greater than ever before both in those countries needing to recover from crisis and disaster and in those wanting to accelerate their emergence. So we must be proactive, responsive, and entrepreneurial in meeting their needs, and in raising the funding and adapting our business models to ensure that we can do so. Many of you are leading Country Offices to do just that, and I appreciate that you, like senior managers at the global level are prepared to take the difficult decisions which are making our organization fit for purpose in a challenging environment.

Under Haoliang’s leadership, and with the commitment of all our leaders at country level and in the regional service centre, I am confident that the Regional Bureau for Asia-Pacific and its Country Offices will continue to be regarded as indispensable partners in Asia’s emergence. I hope that this regional management meeting will succeed in bringing everyone up to speed with developments on the global and regional agendas and within UNDP and the broader development system, so that you can each return to your duty stations well equipped to lead relevant and responsive programming for Asia’s sustainable development.

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