Category Archives: Op-Eds

Social Protection is Key to Tackle Asia-Pacific’s Inequality Trap

Op-ed by Shamshad Akhtar

Rising inequality threatens to derail, from the start, successful implementation of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the Asia-Pacific region. Stronger, more equitable social protection will be critical in overcoming these challenges.

New research by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) indicates that inequality, related to both outcomes and opportunities, is on the rise in the countries of Asia and the Pacific – and where it has not risen it has remained unacceptably high. This is having an adverse impact on sustainable development.

Growing disparities in income and wealth, as well as unequal opportunities, reinforce each other, creating an “inequality trap” that disproportionately affects women and the most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, youth, persons with disabilities, migrants and older persons.

This stands in sharp contrast to both the shared growth that defined the rise of the ‘Asian Tigers’ in the 1960s, and more recent trends in other parts of the developing world, in particular Latin America, where income inequality has been decreasing over in recent decades.

Over the past 20 years, the rich in Asia and the Pacific have grown richer, at the expense of the poor. Inequalities in regional opportunities also abound, with nearly 80 per cent of the population lacking access to affordable health care, and as many as 18 million children out of school. Access to these basic social services are considerably lower among low-income groups and rural communities.

In the context of the 2030 Agenda, inequality casts deep shadows on all three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental.

Economically, inequality threatens regional dynamism, is destructive to the sustainability of growth, and makes it more difficult to reduce poverty through growth. Had Asia-Pacific inequality not increased, an additional almost 200 million people would have been lifted out of poverty in the three largest countries in the region over the last two decades.

Inequality undermines social cohesion and solidarity. A growing divide between the rich and the poor is often a factor in rising levels of crime and social unrest, undermining trust and weakening bonds of solidarity. In extreme cases, especially where inequality manifests along ethnic lines, it can lead to polarization, radicalization and even failure of the State.

Environmental sustainability is also hampered by inequalities, which create resentments and disincentives and, in turn, generate pervasive free-riding and overuse of resources, with unsustainable environmental outcomes. For instance, evidence from India and Nepal suggests that inequalities in local rural communities actually intensify deforestation.

This is why tackling inequality must be central to the sustainable development agenda. Perfect equality of wealth and income is not attainable but, when it comes to inequalities of opportunity, such as access to health and education, Asia-Pacific governments should not settle for less than a perfectly “level playing field.”

It is encouraging to see that, in addition to traditional cash transfers, Asia-Pacific countries are introducing innovative measures to reduce inequalities, such as health equity funds, impact investing in education, universal health coverage and expanding access to old-age pensions.

Building on this momentum, countries could also develop sets of complementary policies to tackle inequality in all its forms:

First, national taxation systems could be strengthened. There is ample room to expanding the tax base and strengthen compliance frameworks across the region. This is an effective way of broadening fiscal space to finance redistributive mechanisms, while building solidarity across socioeconomic groups and generations.

Second, productive and decent work should be even more strongly promoted. Forward-looking macroeconomic policies, coupled with active labour market programmes and policies that encourage diversification, including industrial upgrading and productivity growth are critical. Such approaches will ensure that economic growth generates more and better employment for people working in vulnerable conditions, while avoiding a “race to the bottom” triggered by unfettered international competition.

Third, social protection should be enhanced to ensure that everyone has access to quality essential services. Transformative social protection policies need to be anchored in national legislation and aim beyond providing short-term safety nets, to lift people out of poverty and vulnerability. Complementing their redistributive role, well-designed and implemented cash transfers are an important vehicle of inclusive, pro-poor growth. Good practices from around the region illustrate that comprehensive social protection systems are feasible and affordable but necessitate political will. Strengthening the evidence base on inequalities and social protection will also further facilitate the development and implementation of effective policies and programmes. Innovative financing schemes, especially in partnership with the private sector, will be essential in this regard.

These three policy measures benefit all, from individuals and communities, to public institutions and private actors. They constitute a shared responsibility to inspire new partnerships and creative approaches, as we move to implement the 2030 Agenda.

Asia-Pacific inequality cannot be ignored. To do so jeopardizes the future we want of a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable Asia-Pacific region.

Download ESCAP’s new publication: “Time for Equality: The Role of Social Protection in Reducing Inequalities in Asia and the Pacific” at

Dr. Shamshad Akhtar is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. She has also been the UN’s Sherpa for the G20 and served as Governor of the Central Bank of Pakistan and Vice-President of the MENA Region of the World Bank.


An Agenda for Humanity

Op-ed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

More people desperately need humanitarian assistance than at any time since the founding of the United Nations.  More warring parties are brazenly violating international humanitarian law.  More resources than ever are needed to meet sharply escalating humanitarian needs.  Yet we face the largest-ever funding shortfalls.

For these reasons and more, I am convening the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, on 23 and 24 May in Istanbul.  I am urging global leaders, international organizations and others to commit to deliver more and better for those in greatest need.  There is no time to lose.

Climate change is affecting lives and livelihoods across our fragile planet.  Brutal and seemingly intractable conflicts, violent extremism, transnational crime and growing inequality are devastating the lives of millions of men, women and children and are destabilizing entire regions.  More people have been forced to flee their homes than at any time since the Second World War.

Around the world, more than 125 million people need humanitarian assistance.  If they were all in one country, it would be the eleventh largest nation on Earth, and one of the fastest growing.

Today’s complex challenges cross borders.  No single country or organization can address them alone.  We need to restore trust in the ability of our national, regional and international institutions to confront these challenges.

A sense of shared humanity must shape our politics and drive financial decisions.  In advance of the Summit, I have set out an Agenda for Humanity as a framework for action, change and mutual accountability.  It has five core responsibilities.

First, leaders must intensify efforts to find political solutions to prevent and end conflict.  The enormous human and economic cost makes conflict the biggest obstacle to human development.  We must move from managing crises to preventing them.

Second, countries must uphold the norms that safeguard humanity.   This means complying with international humanitarian and human rights law, and stopping the bombing and shelling of civilian targets and areas.  It also means committing to national and international justice and ending impunity.

Third, we must leave no one behind – and we must reach those who are furthest behind, first.  This means transforming the lives of the most vulnerable, including those living in conflict and in chronic poverty, and those living with the risk of natural hazards and rising sea levels..  We must reduce forced displacement, provide more regular and lawful opportunities for migration, empower women and girls and ensure quality education for all.  We cannot meet the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by world leaders last September, if we do not reach these people.

The fourth core responsibility is to move from delivering aid to ending need.  We need to close the humanitarian-development divide for good.  We must also anticipate crises, not wait for them to happen.  We must strengthen local leadership and capacity, reduce vulnerability, and increase the resilience of people and communities, who will always be the first and last responders in crises.

Fifth, we must find smart and innovative ways of mobilizing funds.  This will require diversifying and expanding the resource base and using a wider variety of financing tools.  I have proposed a new international financing platform with the World Bank to identify mechanisms to finance our response to protracted crises.

The Agenda for Humanity provides key actions and strategic shifts which the world requires to reduce humanitarian needs and contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  I urge world leaders to come to the World Humanitarian Summit committed to promote sustainable human progress and a life of dignity and security for all.

Mr. Ban’s report, “One Humanity: Shared Responsibility,” was published on 9 February 2016.

Uniting to Prevent Violent Extremism

Op-Ed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Violent extremism is a direct assault on the United Nations Charter and a grave threat to international peace and security.

Terrorist groups such as Daesh, Boko Haram and others have brazenly kidnapped young girls, systematically denied women’s rights, destroyed cultural institutions, warped the peaceful values of religions, and brutally murdered thousands of innocents around the world.

These groups have become a magnet for foreign terrorist fighters, who are easy prey to simplistic appeals and siren songs.

The threat of violent extremism is not limited to any one religion, nationality or ethnic group.  Today, the vast majority of victims worldwide are Muslims.

Addressing this challenge requires a unified response, and compels us to act in a way that solves – rather than multiplies — the problem.

Many years of experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.

Let us never forget:  Terrorist groups are not just seeking to unleash violent action, but to provoke a harsh reaction.

We need cool heads and common sense.  We must never be ruled by fear – or provoked by those who strive to exploit it.

Countering violent extremism should not be counter-productive.

This month, I presented to the United Nations General Assembly a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which takes a practical and comprehensive approach to address the drivers of this menace.  It focuses on violent extremism which can be conducive to terrorism.

The Plan puts forward more than 70 recommendations for concerted action at the global, regional and national levels, based on five inter-related points:

Number one, we must put prevention first

The international community has every right to defend against this threat using lawful means, but we must pay particular attention to addressing the causes of violent extremism if this problem is to be resolved in the long run.

There is no single pathway to violent extremism.  But we know that extremism flourishes when human rights are violated,  political space is shrunk, aspirations for inclusion are ignored, and too many people – especially young people – lack prospects and meaning in their lives.

As we see in Syria and Libya and elsewhere, violent extremists make unresolved and prolonged conflicts even more intractable.

We also know the critical elements for success:  Good governance.  The rule of law.  Political participation.  Quality education and decent jobs.  Full respect for human rights.

We need to make a special effort to reach out to young people and recognize their potential as peacebuilders.  The protection and empowerment of women must also be central to our response.

Second, principled leadership and effective institutions

Poisonous ideologies do not emerge from thin air.  Oppression, corruption and injustice are greenhouses for resentment.  Extremists are adept at cultivating alienation.

That is why I have been urging leaders to work harder to build inclusive institutions that are truly accountable to people.  I will continue to call on leaders to listen carefully to the grievances of their people and then act to address them.

Third, preventing extremism and promoting human rights go hand-in-hand

All too often, national counter-terrorism strategies have lacked basic elements of due process and respect for the rule of law.

Sweeping definitions of terrorism or violent extremism are often used to criminalize the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organizations and human rights defenders.  Governments should not use these types of sweeping definitions as a pretext to attack or silence one’s critics.

Once again, violent extremists deliberately seek to incite such over-reactions.  We must not fall into the trap.

Fourth, an all-out approach

The Plan proposes an “all of Government” approach.

We must break down the silos between the peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian actors at the national, regional and global levels—including at the United Nations.

The Plan also recognizes that there are no “one size fits all” solutions.  We must also engage all of society – religious leaders, women leaders, youth groups leaders in the arts, music and sports, as well as the media and private sector.

Fifth, UN engagement

I intend to strengthen a UN system-wide approach to supporting Member States’ efforts to address the drivers of violent extremism.

Above all, the Plan is an urgent call to unity and action that seeks to address this scourge in all its complexity.

Together, let us pledge to forge a new global partnership to prevent violent extremism.


The transformation to a more sustainable and just world begins now

OP-ED by Mogens Lykketoft, President of the United Nations General Assembly

Deadly conflicts, horrific terrorist attacks and a worsening global humanitarian crisis have dominated 2015. Yet this year also saw a number of major international breakthroughs, most recently with the Climate Agreement in Paris, writes Mogens Lykketoft, President of the UN General Assembly.  But for these agreements to bring us closer to a more peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world, 2016 must be all about action and implementation.

Ask anyone for their abiding memory of 2015 and they will most likely recall a negative one.

Some will recall the horrifying stories of death and destruction caused by conflicts around the world, most notably in Syria where over 250,000 people have lost their lives and almost 11 million people have been displaced. Others will recall a sense of grief, fear and anger after violent extremists attacked, tortured, kidnapped and executed innocent civilians around the world. Others still might recall a simple but disturbing fact they heard in passing – that 2015 was the hottest year on record or that over 15,000 children continue to die annually, mostly from preventable diseases.

Yet, despite all of this, 2015 was also a year of progress and breakthroughs.

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What I Expect From the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris

An Op-ed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

For the nearly nine years that I have been Secretary-General, I have travelled the world to the front-lines of climate change, and I have spoken repeatedly with world leaders, business people and citizens about the need for an urgent global response

Why do I care so much about this issue?

First, like any grandfather, I want my grandchildren to enjoy the beauty and bounty of a healthy planet.  And like any human being, it grieves me to see that floods, droughts and fires are getting worse, that island nations will disappear and uncounted species will become extinct.

As His Holiness Pope Francis and other faith leaders have reminded us, we have a moral responsibility to act in solidarity with the poor and most vulnerable who have done least to cause climate change and will suffer first and worst from its effects.

Second, as the head of the United Nations, I have prioritized climate change because no country can meet this challenge alone.  Climate change carries no passport; emissions released anywhere contribute to the problem everywhere.  It is a threat to lives and livelihoods everywhere.  Economic stability and the security of nations are under threat.  Only through the United Nations can we respond collectively to this quintessentially global issue.

The negotiation process has been slow and cumbersome.  But we are seeing results.  In response to the UN’s call, more than 166 countries, which collectively account for more than 90 per cent of emissions, have now submitted national climate plans with targets.  If successfully implemented, these national plans bend the emissions curve down to a projected global temperature rise of approximately 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

This is significant progress.  But it is still not enough.  The challenge now is to move much further and faster to reduce global emissions so we can keep global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius.  At the same time, we must support countries to adapt to the inevitable consequences that are already upon us.

The sooner we act, the greater the benefits for all: increased stability and security; stronger, more sustainable economic growth; enhanced resilience to shocks; cleaner air and water; improved health.

We will not get there overnight.  The climate change conference in Paris is not the end point.  It must mark the floor, not the ceiling of our ambition.  It must be the turning point towards a low-emission, climate-resilient future.

Around the world, momentum is building.  Cities, businesses and investors, faith leaders and citizens are acting to reduce emissions and build resilience.  The responsibility now rests with Governments to conclude a meaningful, binding agreement in Paris that provides clear rules of the road for strengthening global ambition.  For this, negotiators need clear guidance from the top.

I believe this is forthcoming.  The leaders of the G20, who met earlier this month in Antalya, Turkey, showed strong commitment to climate action.  And more than 120 Heads of State and Government have confirmed their participation in Paris, despite heightened security concerns in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

I see four essential elements for Paris to be a success: durability, flexibility, solidarity and credibility.

First, durability.  Paris must provide a long-term vision consistent with a below 2 degrees trajectory, and send a clear signal to markets that the low-carbon transformation of the global economy is inevitable, beneficial and already under way.

Second, the agreement must provide flexibility so it does not need to be continually renegotiated.  It must be able to accommodate changes in the global economy and strike a balance between the leadership role of developed countries and the increasing responsibilities of developing countries.

Third, the agreement must demonstrate solidarity, including through financing and technology transfer for developing countries.  Developed countries must keep their pledge to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 for adaptation and mitigation alike.

Fourth, an agreement must demonstrate credibility in responding to rapidly escalating climate impacts.  It must include regular five year cycles for governments to assess and strengthen their national climate plans in line with what science demands.  Paris must also include transparent and robust mechanisms for measuring, monitoring and reporting progress.

The UN stands fully ready to support countries in implementing such an agreement.

A meaningful climate agreement in Paris will build a better today – and tomorrow.  It will help us end poverty.  Clean our air and protect our oceans.  Improve public health.  Create new jobs and catalyze green innovations.  It will accelerate progress towards all of the Sustainable Development Goals.  That is why I care so deeply about climate change.

My message to world leaders is clear: success in Paris depends on you.  Now is the time for common sense, compromise and consensus.  It is time to look beyond national horizons and to put the common interest first.  The people of the world – and generations to come – count on you to have the vision and courage to seize this historic moment.

Op-Ed: United Nations World Day against Trafficking in Persons (30 July 2015)

By Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Conflict, terrorism, economic turmoil, natural calamities, disease: we are living in an era of unprecedented crises and troubles, as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned.

Record numbers of people are fleeing war and persecution, and the international community is grappling with acute migration challenges in the Mediterranean, the Balkans, in the Andaman Sea, Latin America and Africa.

For human traffickers, these hardships represent business opportunities.

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Op-Ed: An Action Agenda for Our People and Our Planet

By Mr. Nikhil Seth *

2015 marks the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations. It is also the year when countries will come together to adopt the next generation of goals for our people and their only home – planet Earth. 2015 will also see the hosting of a Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa and the Climate Conference in Paris. It will be a historic inflexion point for the global approach to development.

This new agenda will stage the transition from the Millennium Development Goals—the MDGs—to the next generation of Sustainable Development Goals, with a new time horizon of the year 2030. The new sustainable development goals will build on the MDGs which covered poverty, gender equality, health, education and environmental sustainability, but in a way which is deeper, more integrated and policy relevant. They also include nine more goals to cover the broader scope of the sustainable development agenda which include more economic issues, such as growth, employment, infrastructure and inequality; environmental concerns that include water, energy, terrestrial and marine ecosystems; and most importantly a goal with targets promising more peaceful, better governed and inclusive societies.

The earlier MDGs succeeded in focusing political will and international development resources on a number of priority objectives which include, in addition to sharply reducing poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary school enrolment with gender parity, checking the HIV/AIDS pandemic, promoting gender equality and substantially reducing preventable deaths from malaria, diarrheal diseases and complications of childbirth.

For the past two years, an unprecedented engagement has helped define what should succeed the MDGs in 2016. The Member States of the United Nations have elaborated on a new goal and target framework that builds on the work of the MDGs, but one which calls for a fundamental rethink in all economies and societies.

In shaping this future agenda, Governments have been joined by the voices of millions around the world including women, children, youth, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, business and industry, workers and trade unions, farmers, local authorities, the scientific and technological community and civil society. There could be no better process to give meaning to the involvement of ‘we the people’–as set out in the UN Charter–in determining their own destiny.

Halving extreme poverty in the past fifteen years has been an extraordinary accomplishment by any standard. Yet, there are still many millions of poor and vulnerable people left behind in the world and development must include them. Hence, the ambition of the sustainable development goals is to end extreme poverty and hunger, while leaving no-one behind.

The new goals will take us into the second quarter of the 21st century. During the next 15 years, more countries will graduate from being least developed countries, and middle-income and upper-income countries will continue to grow and to provide productive and decent employment to their populations.

As more and more of the world’s population joins the global middle class, demands on the environment and our natural resource base will also continue to grow. Already we are consuming each year one and a half times the Earth’s annual capacity to regenerate itself. We are drawing down precious natural capital just to live the way we are. Climate change already poses a serious threat that, if left unchecked, risks undermining the livelihoods of the poorest and worsening food insecurity in some of the most populated regions of the globe.

If all the Earth’s inhabitants are to be able to enjoy a decent standard of living, the wealthy will need to shift to much more sustainable patterns of consumption, and producers everywhere will need to shift to more sustainable patterns of production. Thus, the future agenda and goals are universal, calling for action on the part of everyone everywhere, beginning in the developed world, to shrink their environmental footprints, to create a ‘safe operating space’ for all countries to prosper. The planetary limits cannot be transgressed and our climate system, our oceans, land and atmosphere must be preserved, regenerated and made safe. We hope that a significant and meaningful outcome in Paris in December will strengthen global efforts in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Many worry about the price tag of the transition to the bold new goals. But this agenda is not about aid and concessional flows to developing countries alone. It is more about the fundamental transformations in all societies and economies. Resources have to be raised and spent primarily in countries themselves. All the important economic actors–governments, the business sector, banking and insurance, financial institutions and intermediaries, the trading system–have to be part of the accelerated impetus for sustainability. The financing for development conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015 will be an important landmark on the way to financing the implementation of the new sustainable development goals.

Let us make sure that we do not let our people and our planet down. History has given us this chance; let us not fritter it away.

* Mr. Nikhil Seth is Director in the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, DESA, New York.

The time for courage and vision for Middle East peace is now

By Jeffrey Feltman

The search for peace in the Middle East is, once again, at a crossroads.  Negotiations on the two-State solution have stalled.  The region, meanwhile, is threatened by violent confrontation and extremism, potentially throwing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into greater turmoil.  This difficult landscape for negotiation makes it even more important to continue international efforts to help bring about a settlement, especially as we know the enormous human costs of missed opportunities and past failed peace initiatives.

In such difficult times, leadership and vision are essential. A new Israeli Government has now been formed. The Secretary-General stands ready to work with all in order to encourage a return to negotiations, on the basis of an agreed framework. He has also strongly urged the incoming Government not only to reaffirm Israel’s commitment to the two-State solution, but also to take credible steps to foster an environment conducive to a return to meaningful negotiations. This should, first and foremost, including a freeze of settlement activity. Recent settlement announcements by Israeli authorities are, therefore, alarming. Settlements are illegal under international law and send the wrong signal to the Palestinians and the international community about Israel’s intentions. Continued security cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli authorities remains a cornerstone of a peaceful resolution.

On the Palestinian side, unity is essential for the viability of any peace agreement. The United Nations has consistently supported efforts towards Palestinian unity within the framework of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s commitments, which include the recognition of the right of the State of Israel to exist and the renunciation of terrorism and violence. The forming of the Palestinian Government of National Consensus in June of last year, opened the way for unity at long last. This was an important first step in what is likely to be a long and complicated process. Almost one year later, the consensus Government has yet to assume full responsibility in Gaza, including at border crossings. Both sides, while calling for elections, have been unwilling to take the political risks necessary to make progress on the difficult issues at hand.

The severity of extreme poverty and continuous conflict has placed a massive toll on the people of Gaza. Enormous financial challenges and the slow pace of reconstruction in Gaza exacerbate an already fragile security situation. Unemployment is massive, estimated by the World Bank at 43 per cent, and at 60 per cent among Gaza’s youth. Public sector employees remain unpaid. The virtual closure of the border crossings stifles trade and suffocates its people. Such realities feed frustration and tension in a vicious cycle that undermines the path to peace.

While the UN continues to play a key role in assisting people in need – including through UNRWA, for example, which provides assistance and protection in very difficult circumstances for some 5 million registered Palestine refugees – what is needed is a lasting solution to this long-standing conflict.

In order to achieve this long-desired goal, both sides must make difficult choices – to refuse to be swayed by extremist elements on either side, to embrace cooperation rather than conflict, to realize that lasting peace depends on agreeing viable arrangements for coexistence that will allow for the full development of the peoples within the two states.

We must turn back from the cycle of violence and confrontation before it’s too late. We at the United Nations believe there is still time for both sides to show the commitment and courage necessary to chart a viable course towards a better future. That time is now.

Jeffrey Feltman is United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs