UNESCAP's 78th Session (2022)

Release Date

Hybrid: In-person in Bangkok, Thailand, and online, from 23-27 May 2022

The theme was “A common agenda to advance sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific”.

The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is commemorating its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2022. Guided by the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations in which the peoples of the United Nations resolved to combine their efforts to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, the United Nations is a common endeavour to achieve a better world.

As the regional arm of the United Nations in Asia and the Pacific, ESCAP membership comprises 62 members and associate members, compared to just 10 when it was founded. Its evolution is embedded in the development of the region. Since its establishment in 1947, countries in the Asia-Pacific region have witnessed extraordinary progress. When ESCAP was established, the countries of the region had mainly agrarian economies and they were suffering from the ravages of the Second World War. Today, Asia and the Pacific stands out globally for the richness of its cultures, the durability of its systems of philosophy and the diversity of its forms of governance – and as the home to some of the largest and most dynamic economies on Earth. The Asia-Pacific region has emerged as a pacesetter of global economic growth that has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

But these achievements are now threatened by three overlapping crises that have exposed the fault lines in a richer but riskier world. The first and most immediate is the coronavirus disease(COVID-19) pandemic, which has cost many lives, brought economies to a standstill and pushed an estimated 85 million people back into extreme poverty, measured at $1.90 per day. Second, rapid economic growth has had devastating environmental consequences, by exhausting natural resources, generating dangerous levels of pollution and contributing to climate change. An existential threat from climate change looms large. Third, natural disasters recur with increasing frequency and intensity, causing countless damages.

Furthermore, in the past month, the crisis in Ukraine has evolved rapidly with wide-ranging global impacts. In Asia and the Pacific, higher inflation is expected to disproportionately affect the purchasing power and food security of the poor. Poverty and deep inequalities will thus once again compound impacts. Slowdown in economic activities is expected to disrupt trade, supply chains and remittances from migrant workers. Shipment of containers through northern Eurasian land transport corridors will be disrupted. If the crisis is protracted and energy prices remain high, interest in the further development of alternative corridors may grow. The mix of energy sources is also likely to change, with some countries opting for cheaper fossil fuels while others will be incentivized to accelerate their transition to renewable sources. Nevertheless, it is too early to make accurate and specific projections of the impacts and the above assessment is preliminary.

Government and business collaboration is a critical enabler of skills formation. Because digital transformation is more about people than technology, the development of user-friendly platforms and applications that diverse groups of people can easily understand and use can enhance equitable Internet access. Furthermore, universal digital identification that makes all people digitally identifiable can improve access to a wider range of government and non-governmental services, enhance transparency and help to identify those most likely to be left behind.

Clearly, more challenges nowadays are interconnected, generating systemic crises of increasing complexity and uncertainty. The impacts on health, employment and education affect the most vulnerable people disproportionately, leading to a vicious downward cycle. However, this is not inevitable. People who are disadvantaged will try to catch up through their own efforts, but they need to be supported by public policies. Furthermore, systemic crises know no boundaries, which underlines the importance of countries working together around a common agenda designed to leave no one behind and build cross-border resilience along a shared path to sustainable development.

A common agenda for sustainable development
The recommendations for a common agenda to advance sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific are inspired by the declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations which states that there is no other global organization with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact of the United Nations, that gives hope to so many people for a better world and can deliver the future envisioned in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

This necessarily involves political will and leadership through reinvigorated multilateralism based on values of trust and solidarity. In the aftermath of the ravages of the Second World War, from which only a few countries in the region emerged as independent nation States, the countries in the Asia-Pacific region, albeit to varying degrees, have advanced together in dealing with crises while gradually building up systemic resilience.

Within the framework of the report of the Secretary-General entitled “Our Common Agenda”, which is a global vision for accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, the common agenda proposed in the following paragraphs is focused on advancing sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region. The principles of this common agenda are guided by the need to be prepared, leave no one behind, protect the planet, place women and girls at the centre, listen to and work with youth, improve digital cooperation, boost partnerships and ensure sustainable financing.

A richer but riskier world
No one knows which extreme event will come next. Governments therefore need to be prepared through strategic foresight that encompasses national and local systemic risk management, supported by regional frameworks and backed by computational innovations that integrate digital and geospatial big data analytics with behavioural science insights. For example, through its Regional Space Applications Programme for Sustainable Development, ESCAP could facilitate a coalition of space-faring countries that would provide high resolution satellite imagery and big Earth data analytical tools for consistent natural disaster risk monitoring and reduction, with a focus on countries with special needs.

Asia and the Pacific and the rest of the world are now looking for ways to improve the production, distribution and administration of vaccine supplies. This should include exchanging scientific knowledge and data, establishing production capacity in developing countries as well as sharing part of the investment risk. There is also scope for South-South and triangular cooperation by facilitating cross-border mobilization of medical supplies, vaccines and vaccine intermediates, and procurement of vaccines could be pooled. Harmonized regulations and trade policies should also prevent imports of substandard and falsified vaccines.

The road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be challenging and gradual. One of the first measures should be to simplify and digitalize trade procedures. Full digital facilitation could cut average trade costs in Asia and the Pacific by more than 13 per cent. To move forward, Governments in the region could take advantage of the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-border Paperless Trade in Asia and the Pacific.

There are also opportunities to expand sustainable cross-border e-commerce. At present, digital trade has mostly been managed through domestic regulations and various regional agreements. Instead, there should be greater cooperation among countries, as well as between international organizations and the private sector.

Trade must be climate smart. Increasingly, as companies headquartered outside the region adopt green strategies, the competitiveness of the global value chain sourced in the Asia-Pacific region is likely to be affected. In-depth sector-specific assessments are needed to better quantify the impacts, opportunities and corporate and government response strategies that can capture this potential. Furthermore, while there has been little global progress on reducing tariffs on environmental goods, some gaps have been filled by regional measures. To enhance effectiveness, climate-related provisions should specify more precise, measurable and binding commitments, and these agreements should have credible mechanisms of enforcement.

Trade digitalization, including electronic cargo tracking with automatic customs systems, can help to reduce the impact of trade on the environment. At the same time, countries in the region need to address the negative externalities generated by freight transport, including carbon dioxide emissions.

Trade is deeply linked with FDI, and it will be an especially important resource in the pandemic recovery as public financing will be tight. Since 2018, the Asia-Pacific region has been the largest source of global FDI flows, and for the first time in 2020 the region was both the largest source and the largest recipient of global FDI flows. However, while overall FDI flows to the Asia-Pacific region are expected to register small, positive growth in 2022, they are likely to remain below pre-crisis levels in the medium term.
Having reached its seventy-fifth anniversary, ESCAP has served the region as the most inclusive intergovernmental platform with an ambitious vision and broad, open-ended programme of work. As an impartial and credible convener, ESCAP has developed and implemented a number of regional cooperation agreements and frameworks focused in particular on enhancing transport as well as trade integration. While these upstream normative interventions have provided valuable guidance for the implementation of more coordinated downstream operational interventions aligned with standards and good practices promoted by the United Nations, future cooperation frameworks will need to put the peoples of the region at the core.

With people at the centre, there is further scope to strengthen the role of ESCAP as a marketplace for knowledge, ideas and projects. In particular, ESCAP should engage the enthusiasm of a younger generation on climate change issues and environmental, social and corporate governance. Across all sectors, ESCAP must invest more in improving data collection, analysis and dissemination, and raising the visibility of vulnerable groups in statistical data, as well as in developing strategic foresight to manage systemic risk and in behavioural sciences that deepen understanding of policies that incentivize all individuals and private sector companies towards protecting people and the planet.