On the road to fairer societies in Asia and the Pacific region

Four focus areas on center stage

A recent panel discussion at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok set out to identify policy interventions that can drive transformational change and support the Asia–Pacific (APAC) region in achieving the SDGs. The panel convened experts from UN ESCAP, UNICEF, the ILO, and UNU-WIDER to discuss accelerating progress on decent work and fairer societies.

UNU-WIDER and UNESCAP event on 26 September
ESCAP Photo/Caio Perim

The discussion in Bangkok was prompted by a presentation of UNU-WIDER’s recent report on peacebuilding, fairer societies, and decent work. During the event, policy actions to accelerate progress towards the SDGs in four distinct areas were explored.

Inclusive growth and social protection 

In the APAC region, a staggering 66%  of the workforce—1.3 billion people—are informally employed, with large numbers trapped in lower-tier informal work. These jobs offer limited opportunities to climb the job ladder and efforts to formalize them are often disappointing. 

Realistically, as UNU-WIDER Director Kunal Sen highlighted, informal workers are better supported by removing stigmas around informal work and improving productivity levels in informal enterprises. Interventions that focus on training and credit support, for example, help informal workers to develop skills and build their businesses. These interventions do not require substantial financial investment and can improve their livelihoods even without gains from formalization. 

However, improving workers’ transition rates to formal employment remains crucial, as informal workers lack protections and remain vulnerable. This is where social protection systems can improve. Ken Shawa of the ILO argued that examples of more inclusive programmes  can be found around the world and emphasized that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Programmes should be expanded and extended, using good practice policies available from across the region and in Latin America. This is one of many areas where South-South and intraregional  learning are essential. 

Debt-financing and tax revenue for development

Focus on revenues, be efficient about spending, manage your debt

As development finance remains constrained and aid budgets shrink, the need to increase domestic revenues and seek low-cost, high-reward, interventions is more important than ever. Hamza Ali Malik argued that without trust in government and a social contract, long term tax revenues falter and fiscal space narrows. In a time where countries depend on domestic revenues, it is essential to create buy-in, build trust, and show that taxes support communities. 
Debt-financing is also a critical part of any solution, though public debt is often perceived negatively. What we need to understand is how debt can be sustainable and used for beneficial investments in national development. Hamza Malik’s three principles for enhancing domestic finances are, ‘Focus on revenues, be efficient about spending, manage your debt’. Spend smart, tax fairly

Kunal Sen addressed an elephant in the room, noting that it’s politically difficult to tax the rich. Low and middle-income countries, in particular, need more direct taxes. The shift from indirect to direct taxes is crucial for economic development, but taxing the wealthy is a big challenge. In the APAC region, where inequality is growing within countries, strong political will is needed to address this challenge.

Investing in the next generation of decent work

Development, by its nature, is forward-looking, focusing on a brighter future and ensuring a better world for the next generation. 

Mitsue Uemura (UNICEF) stressed the need to consider not only current workers but also those who will inherit this labour market. When we talk about upskilling workers, for example, we need to also think about how children obtain the right skills for decent jobs in the future. 

with nearly half of the region’s school-aged children experiencing ‘learning poverty’

This presents a challenge given the significant variations in education systems across the APAC region. School enrollment, by itself, is not enough, with nearly half of the region’s school-aged children experiencing ‘learning poverty’. They’re not receiving the education they deserve. 

Mitsue, with UNICEF, encourage more acceptance of alternative learning pathways. When formal education systems fail to provide the education needed, other options for children to participate are important. Alternative or informal learning programmes can be especially important in developing ICT skills critical for future success.   UNICEF’s research shows that when young children receive a quality education, the benefits extend to their families and communities. 

UNU-WIDER and UNESCAP event on 26 September
ESCAP Photo/Caio Perim
Green jobs and future-focused industry 

The ‘developer’s dilemma’  revolves around capping rising inequality during economic growth while minimizing contributions to climate change. Economic growth commonly comes from manufacturing, an energy-intensive activity with a high cost for the environment.

Kunal Sen emphasized, ‘We can’t afford to promote growth and then separately address climate change. Green jobs and renewable energy need to be part of economic growth strategies’. 

Going forward, economic development is changing for other reasons. The conventional route of moving workers from agriculture to manufacturing may have run its course. Services are the new manufacturing, according to UNU-WIDER research . However, many services jobs are informal and low productivity. In national development plans, policymakers should make a conscious effort to support job generation in formal, high-productivity, exportable services, such as ICT services, business consulting, and legal support, while also paying attention to the environmental impacts of these industries. 

In summary, the discussion advocated for accelerated progress in enhancing fiscal capacity, boosting domestic revenues, establishing comprehensive social protection schemes, promoting formal job-creation, and increasing investments in education and training programmes for all age groups. The panel of policy experts, proposed cost-effective interventions, both large and small, which, if implemented correctly, can accelerate progress on the SDGs in the region and contribute to promoting fairer societies and decent work for all. 

Dr. Srinivas Tata is the Director of the Social Development Division of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP)

Ruby Richardson is Communications Team Lead at UNU-WIDER with a focus on mobilizing knowledge related to the achievement of SDG8: Decent work and economic growth.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.