Author: Patrick Fuller

‘COVID-19 and multiple disasters threaten development gains in Asia-Pacific’

Source(s): United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - Regional Office for Asia and Pacific United Nations Development Programme - Asia-Pacific Regional Centre
Photo Credit: Danilo Victoriano/World Bank

For countries in Asia-Pacific graduating from least-developed category, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new dimension to their risk levels, worsening the impacts of multiple crises, exacerbating inequalities and threatening to roll-back progress against achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At the 2021 Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) where the progress on the sustainable development agenda of Asia Pacific Nations is under review, UNDRR and UNDP brought together a panel of experts to discuss the resilient recovery of graduating countries in Asia-Pacific, through a multi-dimensional risk lens.

Graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) status represents an important milestone in a country’s development progress and earlier this year the UN’s Committee for Development Policy (CDP) recommended Bangladesh, Lao PDR and Nepal for graduation. But challenges remain for these countries as they prepare for graduation while managing their response and recovery from the pandemic.

’The graduation process requires resilience in addition to vision and persistence, as well as the unwavering support from development partners. Risk is systemic across sectors and borders and is the result of many economic, social, environmental and political dimensions’, stressed Mr. Marco Toscano-Rivalta, UNDRR Asia-Pacific Chief, who moderated the roundtable discussion.

In his keynote speech, Mr. Roland Mollerus, Chief of the CDP Secretariat, said that despite the significant negative impacts of the pandemic, most of the countries will remain eligible for graduation but will require special support and global action, to overcome fiscal constraints and some of the persistent challenges they face, including the climate and disaster-related vulnerabilities and socio-economic impacts associated with disaster risks, the worsening impacts of climate change and the threat of future pandemics.

‘First, vaccines against COIVID-19 must be seen as global public good’, said Mr. Mollerus. ‘Keeping LDC’s at the end of the queue violates the principle of ‘Reaching-the-furthest-behind-first’. Global production needs to be ramped up urgently and public health systems in LDCs need to be strengthened.’

Mr. Mollerus went on to stress that recovery from the pandemic must be accompanied by renewed efforts for sustainable and inclusive transformation of LDC economies where countries should focus efforts on building productive capacity in various areas including health education and investment in digital infrastructure, climate change adaptation and resilience-building. 

Lao PDR has been successful in implementing health protocols that have contained the spread of COVID-19. But despite health services remaining relatively unaffected, the pandemic’s wider socio-economic impacts have been significant, with the World Bank estimating that the country’s economy might contract by 1.8 percent, the slowest growth rate since 1990.

Lao PDR is also highly vulnerable to climate change and disasters. Over the past five years the incidence of natural hazards including fire, storms and drought has resulted in widespread damage to infrastructure, loss of livelihoods, displacement and disease outbreaks. National losses range between 3.3 and 4.1 percent of GDP.

Mr. Oula Somchanhmavong, Deputy Director General, department of planning in the Ministry of Planning and Investment, explained how climate change projections are helping to mitigate the potential adverse effects of extreme weather conditions, with the Government integrating DRR considerations into the national development plan alongside COVID-19 recovery efforts and poverty reduction targets. The Government is committing higher public spending and is mobilizing funds to support businesses and households affected by the pandemic including cash transfers to the most vulnerable households and migrant workers.

‘Private businesses and communities are adapting to new business models such as working from home, to accommodate social distancing. ICT can also create ‘mobile government’ that is able to perform its normal functions of monitoring and tracking COVID-19 infections,’ said Mr. Somchanhmavong.

Vanuatu graduated from LDC status in December 2020. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, the country was struck by a Category 5 tropical storm on top of a series of urban disasters. Despite border closures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, the government was able to draw on national and local capacity to respond to the ongoing multiple disasters. Under its national development plan, food production had been prioritised to maintain food security and a level of self-reliance. Farmers in the north and south of the country who were preparing for an agricultural festival at the time the cyclone struck, helped to avert a humanitarian crisis by diverting their produce to the islands impacted by the cyclone.

Graduating from LDC status also requires developing inclusive social protection policies in development, disaster risk reduction and humanitarian action that ensure no one is left behind. This requires an understanding of how disasters and climate change impact people differently based on their access to resources, information, power and influence.

In Vanuatu, marginalized groups such as women with disabilities and ethnic communities living in remote areas haven’t benefited from development gains to the same extent as the wider community. Ms. Nelly Caleb heads the Vanuatu Disability Promotion & Advocacy Association (VDPA) and represented the Pacific Disability Forum at the event. She said that the needs of vulnerable groups must be further integrated into national development and financing plans.

‘Disasters increase rates of disability due to trauma, illness, separation from family, the breakdown of health services and the lack of physical rehabilitation. Women and girls with disabilities who live in poverty face triple discrimination - being a female, having a disability and being among the poorest of the poor.’

Like many other countries in Asia-Pacific, Bangladesh’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has come on top of its response to consecutive disasters in 2020, including two major cyclones and floods that affected 18 million people. The country is one of the most vulnerable in the region but it also has one of the most effective disaster risk management systems that relies upon an approach that cuts across government departments at national and local level, coupled with support and collaboration with international partners, NGOs and civil society.

Bangladesh’s future development plan is aiming to make the economy pandemic resistant, and includes innovation in the digital space, investments in ecosystems resilience and a three-fold increase in investment in the country’s health system. While the country, like many in Asia-Pacific, heavily depends on the informal economy that faces multiple risks given limited access to formal assistance, this sector also offers opportunities for resilient recovery.

‘One of Bangladesh’s strengths lies in the informal sector’, explains Mr. Khursid Alam, UNDP’s Assistant Resident Representative in Bangladesh.  ‘60-70 percent of the population is employed in informal sector where different supply chains can be repurposed to help manage COVID-19.

A country cannot graduate from LDC status unless it is truly resilient. Development plans must be aligned with a whole of society approach based on collaborative governance and universal social protection. Economic development plans, investments and public policies, plans and programs should be informed by risks to prevent and contribute to mitigate them. It’s not just a question of looking for funds, it’s about looking for financing solutions. Resilient Investment and more decent jobs makes a country more resilient.

Concluding the event, Mr. Toscano-Rivalta noted that the exchanges highlighted the strategic and practical relevance of disaster risk reduction before and after graduation. Managing disaster risk is essential to safeguard the process, inject prevention, and protect hard-fought development gains. It is necessary that Smooth Transition Strategies integrate disaster risk reduction and be aligned to the national and local disaster risk reduction strategies adopted as per Target E of the Sendai Framework. Global and regional cooperation are pivotal in supporting LDCs in the graduation process, and DRR financing needs to be increased and part of broader financing considerations and decisions related to graduation.

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