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Poverty reduction and development in Asia
Tuesday, 31 May 2011 06:44

East Asia’s economic growth performance these past decades has been stunning.  This has produced a dramatic reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty (under $1.25 a day).  But progress has not been even across countries, with China streaking out ahead of the rest.  And when you look at other indicators of development, progress has been less impressive. 


In short, economic growth is necessary for economic development, but it is not sufficient by itself.


East Asia’s economic growth leader these past few decades has been China with per capita GDP growth of 7.8% in the 1980s, 8.4% in the 1990s and 8.9% in the period 2000-2007.  Other countries to perform well are: Viet Nam (2.2%, 5.3% and 6.2%), India (3.4%, 3.5% and 5.5%), Korea (6.1%, 5.0% and 4.5%).  Countries with more moderate performance are: Thailand (5.4%, 3.8% and 4.2%), Malaysia (3.0%, 4.3% and 3.5%), Indonesia (4.2%, 3.0% and 3.7%) and the Philippines (-0.5%, 0.6% and 3.1%). 


Thanks to this exceptional economic growth, the Asia-Pacific region is well on track to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day.  In fact, between 1990 and 2008, countries in Asia and the Pacific reduced the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day from 1.5 million to 947 million, even though the region’s population increased by some 800 million over this period. 


But if you exclude China from this calculation, only “slow” progress has been achieved.  Indeed, China has already achieved this goal, as have Malaysia, Thailand, and Viet Nam.  Both India and the Philippines have only made slow progress.


Another important MDG is combating hunger, especially for children.  Again, China, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam have already achieved the goal of halving between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of underweight children.  But India, Indonesia and the Philippines have only made slow progress. 


Let’s now move on to the MDGs of universal education and gender equality in education.  While China again does well, countries like India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have a more mixed performance.  The Philippines has already achieved the gender equality goals, but is moving backwards for achieving universal education.    


Reducing infant mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015 is an area where Asia’s rapidly developing countries do much less well.  Viet Nam has already achieved this goal, while Malaysia is on track.  But only slow progress is being achieved in China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.  For most of these countries, maternal health conditions are only achieving mediocre progress.


Most regrettably, the fight against HIV/AIDS is going backwards in a long list of countries like Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Viet Nam.  Progress is however being made in China, India and Thailand.


In the area of the environment, deforestation is a major problem in a vast array of countries like Korea, Mongolia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Timor-Leste.  China, India and Viet Nam are all making progress on this score.  CO2 emissions are on the rise most everywhere. 


In short, East Asia’s progress towards achieving the MDGs is mixed.  The number of people living in absolute poverty has been dramatically reduced, and progress has been made for reducing gender disparities at school, and for halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water.  But the region has been slow in reducing the extent of hunger, in ensuring that girls and boys reach the last grade of primary education, in reducing child mortality, in improving maternal health provision and in providing basic sanitation.  Moreover, the region’s 14 least developed countries have made slow or no progress on most indicators. 


Perhaps the greatest development drama of all is Asia’s missing girls.  Close to 100 million women in Asia are estimated to be ‘missing’ because of discriminatory treatment in access to health and nutrition, pure neglect, or pure neglect – or because they were not allowed to be born in the first place!  The region’s highest girl to boy under-five mortality rations are found in China (1.41), India (1.10), and Pakistan (1.08).


The overall message is clear.  While economic growth is necessary for economic development, it is not sufficient.  Government has a very important role to play in improving health, education and access to social services, in reducing hunger and building food security, in reducing persistent gender gaps, in promoting financial inclusion and strengthening basic infrastructure – particularly better road transport, water supplies, sanitation, electricity, information technology, telecommunications and urban low-income housing. 


But to achieve this, good governance is necessary – a great challenge in a region riddled with corruption!



Paths to 2015: MDG Priorities in Asia and the Pacific.  UNESCAP, ADB, UNDP 






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