Building back better

Danial Norjidi

A new report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has highlighted that broadening social protection, investing in a sustained recovery, keeping goods and information flowing, and protecting environmental health will be key to emerging stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a press release, the theme study for the 77th session of the Commission, Beyond the pandemic: Building back better from crises in Asia and the Pacific, shows that throughout the region, countries have suffered abrupt economic contractions, interruptions to trade, broken supply chains, and the complete collapse of international tourism – leading to widespread job losses and increases in poverty. With no country spared from the effects of COVID-19, the region’s structural weaknesses are more visible now than ever before.

“The report identifies fault lines in the region’s societies and economies that the virus was quick to expose,” said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana. “Not just the stark inequalities and the fragility of our health and social protection systems, but also weaknesses in internet coverage and digital capacity, and the limitations in some trade and transport links that seized up just when they were needed most”.

“We hope its information and analysis will assist countries across Asia and the Pacific as they look beyond the pandemic and set a steady course towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” she added.

According to the study, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered unprecedented and globally synchronised health, social and economic crises which threaten to roll back hard-won development gains. It analyses the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic in the region, takes stock of actions so far, and offers recommendations for building back better – bolstering resilience to future wide-scale crises and setting the region back on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

It proposes four critical interconnected areas: broadening social protection, investing in a sustained recovery, keeping goods and information flowing, and mending a broken relationship with nature. “If countries in Asia and the Pacific can combine concerted national action with coordinated regional cooperation, they – and the world – can emerge from the pandemic more prosperous, sustainable, resilient and unified.”

The report highlighted that governments across the region have responded to the unprecedented situation created by the COVID-19 outbreak and worked hard to curb the fallout. It also noted that most have concentrated on short-term measures. It added, however, that if economies are to recover faster and in more inclusive way they must also aim for long-term sustainability – restoring ecosystems, reducing poverty and building resilience throughout the region.

To enable member states ESCAP to build back better, the study proposes a five-point policy agenda.

The first point is to enhance regional cooperation, where the report explained, “Establish or mobilise existing sectoral mechanisms to help governments recover from this pandemic and plan for future crises – while dealing with climate change and taking into account population ageing, and technological innovation and new forms of work.”

A second point is to build universal social protection along the life course. “Embed social protection in national development agendas and allocate the necessary resources. As a basis for leaving no one behind, governments should use a mix of contributory and non-contributory benefit schemes. They will also need to expand social protection to embrace informal workers and ensure that women and vulnerable population groups are sufficiently covered.”

Investing in sustained recovery is the third point. “Investing in a sustained socio-economic recovery aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals will require additional financial resources. To support long-term, resilient, inclusive and sustainable development, countries can reorient spending away from non-developmental areas, consider tax reforms to mitigate inequalities and support the climate agenda, and explore innovative financing instruments. They can also advocate for further debt relief measures and accelerate efforts to combat tax evasion through regional and international cooperation.”

Fourth is to promote trade facilitation, digitalisation, and harmonisation, and fully embed social and environmental concerns into global supply chains.

As the report elaborated, “Resist protectionist actions and forge regional solidarity to arrive at proportionate trade responses; mobilise regional transport cooperation instruments for emergency use of cross-border freight; decarbonise production and shift to more sustainable and lower-carbon, multimodal freight transport; increase support for trade facilitation, trade digitalisation and the development of paperless and contactless trade; accelerate investment in digitalisation and broadband connectivity; improve the efficiency and sustainability of trade and transport procedures through regionally coordinated investments in hard and soft infrastructure.”

The fifth and final point in the proposed policy agenda is the safeguard environmental health, where the study states, “Adopt a regional agenda for planetary health, bringing in all relevant actors to implement the institutional, structural economic, and behavioural changes needed to better manage human and environmental health.”

The press release added that the ESCAP is scheduled to meet from April 26-29, 2021 and is expected to adopt a resolution based on the report findings to strengthen regional resilience and cooperation and build back better.