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Paris, Wednesday, November 10, 1999

An Outline to Reduce the Continuing Poverty Throughout Asia

By Tadao Chino International Herald Tribune
MANILA - The world's 6 billionth baby was born the other day. At the same time, the number of extremely poor people in the world, those who subsist on $1 or less a day, has topped 1.3 billion. Taken together, these are scary figures. They underscore a problem that is growing daily.

Almost 70 percent of the world's poor live in Asia, where an extra billion people are expected to be added to the population within the next generation. Clearly, the battle against world poverty has to be won in Asia. It can be won only if concerted efforts are made to reduce poverty.

Such extensive poverty is unacceptable in Asia, a region that experienced unprecedented economic growth before the 1997 financial crisis.

The good news is that Asia had made substantial gains in the fight against poverty. Less than 30 years ago, more than half the region was poor, average life expectancy was 48 years, and only 40 percent of the adult population was literate. Today the proportion of poor people has fallen to one-third, life expectancy has risen to 65 years and 70 percent of adults are literate.

While the total population has jumped from 1.8 billion to 3 billion, the number of poor people has fallen from more than 1 billion to 900 million.

The bad news is that poverty still persists widely in Asia. Experience clearly indicates that significant poverty reduction is possible only with rapid and sustainable economic growth. But growth alone does not guarantee that all people in society will benefit.

To promote development, we must support growth in a way that maximizes its contribution to reducing poverty. We have to achieve pro-poor growth. We have to reach those who are disenfranchised for cultural or social reasons - people without skills or physical assets. They include the very young and the aged. Most are women. Many are from ethnic minorities.

It is now widely accepted that poverty is more than a matter of income deficiency. It also involves access to essential services and opportunities to which everyone is entitled - basic education, primary health care, nutrition, clean water and sanitation - as well as intangibles such as having a say and participating in decisions which affect the life of the poor.

Learning from what has worked in the past, and from what has not, the Asian Development Bank believes that the fight against poverty in the region calls for a comprehensive strategy. The bank has prepared a poverty reduction strategy which its board of directors approved this Tuesday. The key elements are:

Pro-poor, sustainable economic growth. This means growth that is labor-absorbing, and is accompanied by policies and programs that facilitate employment and income generation for the poor, particularly women and other traditionally excluded groups. Also, a conducive environment for the private sector and promotion of micro-finance and ''workfare'' schemes.

Social development. This is required to enable the poor to make full use of the opportunities offered by growth. Without basic education, primary health care and other essential services, the poor and their children have little hope of improving their lives or participating fully in society. Women suffer disproportionately from the burden of poverty and a major effort will be needed to enhance their lives. The correlation between large family size and self-perpetuating poverty is strong. Hence, universal education for girls and reproductive health services are crucial if people are to escape the poverty trap.

Good governance. Effective delivery of facilities and services presupposes improved accountability of the public sector agencies concerned, for example, a health ministry and its hospitals and primary health centers. For the poor to have access to those facilities and services, they will need greater voice and participation in local government bodies or in civil society organizations. Eliminating corruption is also necessary, especially at the local level. It is the poor who suffer the most at the hands of corrupt officials.

The primary responsibility for reducing poverty rests on countries themselves. But the magnitude of the task is such that every stakeholder must participate. Governments must take charge and articulate credible national strategies for poverty reduction.

Governments must involve all others concerned - civil society, business, the donor community and the poor themselves - and ensure that the views of each are taken into account. Only by making such policy-making more participatory, transparent and accountable can success be ensured.

Extreme poverty has been a fact of life in Asia for a long time, but it is not immutable. Public policy and action can eliminate it. The experience of the region thus far gives rise to confidence unthinkable even a decade ago: that absolute poverty can be eradicated.

The writer, president of the Asian Development Bank, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.