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DEVELOPMENT-ASIA: Beating Poverty No Utopian Dream - AsDB Chief

By Rosario Liquicia

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, May 6 (IPS) - Though mired in poverty, the Asia-Pacific has the resources and the road map to pull out of the problem, and swift, concrete action is needed to do this, the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) said on Saturday.
Opening the 33rd annual meeting of the bank, AsDB president Tadao Chino said eradicating poverty is no utopian dream and vowed that the Manila- based bank would be be at the forefront of efforts to achieve this.

''If the world is to halve poverty by 2015, Asia and the Pacific must be the spearhead,'' declared Chino at the opening of the May 6-8 meeting.

He said the region has the ''road map, the resources and the will'' to translate into action the vision of a region free of poverty.

While Asia-Pacific hosts economic powerhouses like Japan and Taiwan, it is also home to two-thirds of the world's poor.

The bank's renewed focus on poverty reduction comes at at time when the region's concerns turn to resuming growth after a debilitating financial crisis three years ago.

Recovery has turned out to be more robust than expected, the AsDB said, with the five most affected economies staging an impressive turnaround by growing at an average 6.4 percent in 1999 after a 7.7 percent decline the year before.

Thailand, where the financial turmoil began and spread across the region, has largely shaken off the effects of the crisis, and is recovery firmly, although gradually, Thai finance officials say.

Growth in GDP (gross domestic product) has risen quarter after quarter in 1999 to reach 6.6 percent in the last quarter last year, on the back of a steadily growing manufacturing sector. Its macroeconomic environment has also stabilised.

Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, in his keynote address at the AsDB meeting, called the 1997 crisis a ''wake-up call'' for countries and has brought home the realisation that what is needed is not high growth but quality growth that helps reduce disparities among sectors in the society.

He said his governmnet will continue to pursue structural reforms to ensure that economic recovery takes hold. Indeed, many Thai activists say that while the country's macreconomic figures are much better, the crisis' effects on the poor and marginalised remain.

The AsDB, as well as other multilateral lending agencies, has acknowledged that recovery in the region has indeed been swift. But the bank warned that this recovery must not blur the lessons of the past three years.

''Asia must not revert to business as usual, taking the crisis as simply a short-term aberration,'' Chino said.

He pointed out the need for continued structural reforms to ensure that the region's growth momentum is maintained and will be sustainable in the long-term.

But unlike past experience where growth was achieved at any cost, the AsDB chief says countries should aim for pro-poor sustainable growth, that creates opportunities and lifts people out of poverty.

''Growth must be inclusive because it is important not only to reduce poverty levels, but also to maintain social stability and cohesion,'' Chino said, adding that growth should go in tandem with social development.

Saying that ''growth is necessary but not sufficient for poverty reduction,'' he said the poor cannot share the benefits of economic development if they had no access to basic education, or if they continue to be discriminated against.

Despite significant progress, the Asia-Pacific region continues to be afflicted by unacceptable levels of deprivation, illiteracy, child malnutrition, gender disparity and environmental degradation, the AsDB admits.

It says nearly 30 percent of Asians have no access to safe drinking water, while about 70 per cent have no access to sanitation. Almost 50 percent of adults in South Asia are illiterate.

Social development, therefore, is indispensable to prevent people, especially the most vulnerable including women and children and the elderly, from falling back into poverty, which the bank president says is as important as pulling them out of poverty.

''The Asian crisis has shown how quickly poverty can recapture those who had only recently escaped it,'' Chino said.

In order to come up with effective and workable solutions to cut poverty incidence, the AsDB says it is conducting country-specific poverty analysis in consultation with the government, stakeholders and other aid agencies.

This analysis will provide a basis for discussions at a high- level forum for each country that will lead eventually to partnership agreements for poverty reduction with each developing member country. Such agreements have been signed with Bangladesh and Mongolia, two of the most needy countries in the region.

The bank said it will consult not only with its member governments but civil society as well. ''We will listen before we talk, we will ask before we prescribe,'' Chino said.

The bank will also strengthen its support for private sector development and refocus its priorities so that more investments go into education, health and other basic services.

''We are refocusing our interventions in this area to target the poor more directly, to promote skills formation and to establish social safety nets,'' Chino emphasised.

But he said the key to all these efforts is the continued operation of the Asian Development Fund (ADF), the bank's concessional lending window and main weapon against poverty. The bank is seeking seeking donor appoval for the further replenishment of the fund, the current amount which is to end in December.

Another initiative to support the Bank's poverty reduction efforts, is the proposed Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction that wil shortly be considered by the Board of Directors, Chino said. He said he hoped this would lead to similar contributions from other donors. (IPS/END/ap-dv/ral/js/00)

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